Friday, October 13, 2017


Lucy Grig (ed.), Popular Culture in the Ancient World. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017. Pp. x, 369. ISBN 9781107074897. $99.99.

Reviewed by James F.D. Frakes, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (

Version at BMCR home site

[The Table of Contents is listed below.]

Pulling mainly from a July 2012 conference at the University of Edinburgh, editor (and contributor) Lucy Grig has here assembled an introduction and thirteen ssays that take a variety of approaches to ancient "popular culture." The essays are divided into four sections, each based on a chronological, cultural and/or political framework: Classical Greece; the city of Rome; the larger Roman world; and Late Antiquity. Grig's concise and impressive introduction sets out the goals and limits of the project—not claiming to provide full coverage of the topic, but working instead to bring the separate studies into a centered and engaged conversation. The book is mainly successful at doing this—and it is interesting that, despite its roots in the cultural analyses of notables such as Althusser, Bakhtin, Bourdieu, de Certeau, Gramsci, Scott, and (above all) Peter Burke, much of the direct work on the topic dates recently. Grig names the classicist Holt Parker as perhaps the most important thinker on "popular culture"—his 2011 definition is one of the volume's main touchstones—but also cites the work of Nicholas Horsfall, Leslie Kurke, Sara Forsdyke, and Jerry Toner (also a contributor). One of Grig's goals is to minimize negative interpretations of the evidence (which tend to frame the non-elite as unthinking, uncritical, or merely incapable of moving or producing culture) in favor of "thick description," which understands the "popular" as networks embedded in larger cultural configurations. The essays that follow have been collegially written with these goals in mind, and Grig deserves praise for producing a volume that, despite its disparate subjects, reads as a considered whole.

All but two essays (those in the first section) deal with the Roman world, leading a reader to wonder whether it may have been better (despite their good quality) to leave out the Greek subjects entirely. Each deals only with Classical Athens, exploring respectively the operations of civic institutions and of Aristophanic performance there, and so cannot suggest the richness of popular culture(s) in the entirety of the pre-Roman Greek world. Situated as it is within this volume, Mirko Canevaro's essay sets up a common theme explored in later chapters—that elite evidence about the operations of government/culture can be read in ways that reveal the depth and substance of non-elite civic participation. On the other hand, despite its interesting topic, James Robson's essay—focused so fixedly on the text of Aristophanes' plays and eschewing analysis of the spatial and experiential realities of the theater—seems never to find its feet in this grouping.

The volume gains steam in the following section, with subjects specific to the city and population of Rome. The first of these, part of a forthcoming work by Rosillo Lopez, explores how elite nicknames under the Republic attests to an independent popular culture, in that some of them derive from (generally favorable) public opinion. Cyril Courrier turns to the fabric of the city itself in order to assess the locations and distribution of non-elite spaces in Rome (and Ostia). He asserts that the urban population of Rome may have been a "dominated population," but that they conceived of themselves as "masters of the world" and their collective actions mainly resulted from organizations that knowingly (and often effectively) acted in their own interests. The contribution by Tom Hawkins on the use of invective in the twilight of Republican Rome also provides a strong sense of the physical spaces of the city. He offers what is perhaps the volume's smoothest handling of theory to reconstruct social experience, paying particular attention to evidence for the crowd's angry voice creating something like indirect democracy. Rounding out the section on Rome, Alexandre Vincent offers a fascinating exploration of the ways in which music (especially loud music produced for rituals and processions) was politicized. Readers interested in reconstructing social experience will likely find stimulating his descriptions of "walls of sound" and "capillary diffusion," physical phenomena with important effects on civic life.

The next essays form the most "grab-bag" of the sections, the awkward title of which suggests the larger Roman world (perhaps provincial contexts). Instead the authors explore, in order, the non-located idea of "non-elite intellectual life," the embedding of divination in daily life, and the test-case of Roman Egypt for a recognizing a "children's culture." The last of these, by April Pudsey, is the strangest, perhaps, in the entire volume (nothing negative intended). As on so many other subjects, the minutiae preserved in Egyptian papyri allow for much discussion, and on a subject here that the author admits derives first from a premise rather than directly from the evidence—that children create a culture of their own. If the premise holds, we can follow Pudsey into a culture that was already subaltern and voiceless in the record. Even if it does not hold, how wonderful to read the words of a homesick boy missing his pet pigeons or think about children's dolls as stimulating the imagination. The evidence for lifelong bonds between slave and free children who grew up in the same households, even without an attempt to find a culture among them, will surely prompt readers to explore Pudsey's other publications. Victoria Jenning's essay, on the other hand, does not fully come together. She examines "pop literature" (specifically, late in the essay, two of Aesop's tales), but also takes up cooking, gardening, and the cost of birds (among other things) to reconstruct how divination ritual was part of everyday life. Perhaps locating the evidence more specifically in time and place would have helped provide focus?

Jerry Toner's essay, the first one in this section, might have served as an of introduction to the entire volume, foregrounding (as it does) so clearly and so persuasively the ways that popular culture becomes visible to us and also the ways that popular culture required intellect and promoted local status. Four constraints, Toner warns, are commonly enmeshed in modern thinking about intellectual activity: 1) that intellect is most evident in literary products, 2) that intellectual output requires long periods of reflection, 3) that properly intellectual products require resources such as libraries and theaters, and 4) that intellectual subjects must be "serious." Remove these constraints and other stimulating mind-worlds open up—Toner lists story-telling, folk medicine, art making, magic, divination, folklore and proverbial culture, pantomime, and gambling. He chooses in this essay to do preliminary work only on the latter three, revealing refined opinions among the non-elite on humor, body movement, and chance, respectively.

The final section groups four authors interested in Late Antiquity. Perhaps because this is the editor's area of interest, these essays are very integrated and clearly instantiate the stated goals of the volume. Lucy Grig's essay on Kalends festivals is an admirably clear inquiry into a beloved celebration—disparate forms of evidence (such as military calendars, Augustine's sermons, and medieval manuscripts with images of stag dancers) come together to provide a coherent look at a form of popular culture that persisted for centuries. Nicola Denzey Lewis examines the varied ways that people decorated family spaces in the catacombs of Rome, moving beyond explanations that odd items are "apotropaic" (which they may nevertheless be) to tease out how social opinions on, for example, the magical effectiveness of Egyptian motifs or the exoticism of Kushan phalerae are evidenced in the tiny paraphernalia unearthed in and around the graves. Denzey Lewis refuses to call practices Christian or Non-Christian, a dichotomy that cannot explain the cultural operations that produced these meaningful and fascinating cemeteries. The final two essays, by Jaclyn Maxwell and Julio Cesar Magalhaes de Oliveira, both read "elite" sources (mainly, the surviving public speeches of clergymen) as storehouses of evidence for popular culture. Maxwell substantiates that those who heard such sermons were participating actively in theological thinking—the specific examples cited here are discussions of the trinity and how martyr tales required pre-existing knowledge of scripture. Magalhaes de Oliveira charts how sermon-givers tried to control popular opinion with their speeches, which thus inevitably are seen to react to a popular culture that moved in part independently of the church.

This volume is a rewarding read, but in one way it disappointed this reviewer—there is no serious attention given here to visual culture. Lucy Grig is completely aware of this circumstance, pointing to it in the closing pages of her introduction, citing relevant art historical bibliography, and avowing that visual and material culture cannot be ignored in any rounded account of ancient popular culture. Her answer is that the volume would need to be "wholly different" if it were do this job properly. She then points out the ways in which authors do touch on the visual material (for example, the catacomb imagery discussed by Denzey Lewis). Later, in her own essay, Grig makes productive use of visual culture, probably more so than any other author here, and so I accept her decisions. But I cannot resist pointing out that in a largely illiterate world visuals had powerful social effects and that art historical methodologies have much to offer here. For example, reference to the volume on ancient spectacle by Bettina Bergmann and Christine Kondoleon could frequently have enriched the discussion—I think particularly of how Barbara Kellum's essay in that volume "The Spectacle of the Street" could have supported both Rosilio-Lopes and Courrier's analyses.1 Or, in support of the several discussions of popular religion here, a reference to the ongoing debates by Mithraists (Roger Beck, Manfred Clauss, etc) might have foregrounded the role of imagery in pinning down "popular theology" or of "embedding ritual in daily life."2 As the reconstruction of ancient popular cultures moves on in coming decades—a line of inquiry in which this volume is destined to hold a key space—I will hope that other collaborative voices join to produce that "wholly different book" described in Grig's introduction.

To sum up, this volume is well produced (as expected from Cambridge University Press), with no typo serious enough to disrupt understanding and with images (so few of them!) sufficient for the task (even if a reader will always prefer color). Lucy Grig is a confident editor, unafraid to allow her contributors to take their readers into unusual lines of inquiry, even as she forges a coherent whole from their work. The end result is a rich exploration that delineates many of the cultures that may have operated within and upon ancient social groups.

Table of Contents

Introduction—Lucy Grig
Part I: Classical Greece
"The Popular Culture of the Athenian Institutions: 'Authorized' Popular Culture and 'Unauthorized' Elite Culture in Classical Athens" by Mirko Canevaro
'Humouring the Masses: The Theater Audience and the Highs and Lows of Aristophanic Comedy" by James Robson

Part II: Rome
"Popular Public Opinion in a Nutshell: Nicknames and Non-Elite Political Culture in the Late Republic" by Cristina Rosillo-Lopez
"Plebeian Culture in the City of Rome, from the Late Republic to the Early Empire" by Cyril Courrier
"Pollio's Paradox: Popular Invective and the Transition to Empire" by Tom Hawkins
"The Music of Power and the Power of Music: Studying Popular Auditory Culture in Ancient Rome" by Alexandre Vincent

Part III: The Roman Empire: Greece, Rome and Beyond
"The Intellectual Life of the Roman Non-Elite" by Jerry Toner
"Divination and Popular Culture" by Victoria Jennings
"Children's Cultures in Roman Egypt" by April Pudsey

Part IV: Late Antiquity
"Interpreting the Kalends of January: A Case Study for Late Antique Popular Culture" by Lucy Grig
"Popular Christianity and Lived Religion in Late Antique Rome: Seeing Magic in the Catacombs" by Nicola Denzey Lewis
"Popular Theology in Late Antiquity" by Jaclyn Maxwell
"Communication and Plebeian Sociability in Late Antiquity: The View from North Africa in the Age of Augustine" by Julio Cesar Magalhaes de Oliveira


1.   Bergmann, B. and C. Kondoleon (eds.), The Art of Ancient Spectacle. Yale University Press, 2000. (Kellum's contribution pp. 283-99).
2.   Beck, R. Roger Beck on Mithras: collected works with new essays. Ashgate, 2004, and M. Clauss, The Roman Cult of Mithras: the god and his mysteries. Routledge, 2000.

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