The goal of this book is an ambitious one: to bring to light the lives and living conditions of those great masses of people who occupied the lower classes in the Roman Empire, and were for that reason almost completely disregarded by the elite authors of the sources that have survived the ages. For a book of this breadth and detail, Knapp provides a remarkably brief introduction, in which he discusses the problem of finding reliable sources and explains his approach of dividing this neglected population into various groups, each of which he examines separately. He acknowledges the chief problem inherent in an undertaking of this type—that is, to cull from the array of extant historical sources those bits of information about the vast majority of Romans that their authors had no real interest in conveying. It is a problem to which Knapp returns often in the course of his study, and it will be primarily by his success or failure in justifying his choice of sources and in judiciously employing them that the work will be judged.
Knapp begins by enumerating the aspirations, concerns, and attitudes of the "ordinary" Roman, i.e. “every free person below the elite and above the poor day-laborer or peasant," and providing a synopsis what we can determine to be their attitudes concerning such aspects of life as slavery, the crafts and trades, marriage, and divorce. In separate chapters, Knapp looks at ordinary men and women of the Empire, the challenges each group faced, and their sometimes extraordinary methods of coping with an often hostile world. There were two basic ways by which men attempted to maintain control over their lives in an uncertain, often inimical world: either by the casting of spells or the uttering of incantations to ward off evil or to even the score with enemies, all such methods stemming from a widespread belief in the efficacy of magic; or by appeal to more orthodox religious practices, where advantages were gained by prayer or sacrifices, dream interpretations, astrological charts, or through the offices of priests and diviners. The list of worries and threats that led them to avail themselves of these coping mechanisms is long: death, the vagaries of fortune, the ineluctable force of fate, debt, failure in business, harassment from civic officials, marital and sexual relations, the abuse of authority, the threat of legal troubles, theft, and physical assault. Yet life was not all misery, and, like their elite counterparts, ordinary Romans would have had active social lives at such public venues as the gladiatorial games, the baths, civic associations, and local assemblies, meetings with passersby on the streets, taverns, and even executions.
The social and economic roles of women in the Empire provide a fascinatingly paradoxical picture. As Knapp’s focus is on ordinary Roman women, we might expect to find an intensification of the universal belief in their inferiority due to highly misogynistic attitudes from which the more prosperous would have been free because of their education and upbringing. Indeed, women had no legal status, could not vote, and had no chance to advance to higher levels of education. Yet Knapp concludes from evidence provided by epitaphs and papyrological material that women of the lower social and economic ranks had remarkable resiliency in this male-dominated world. There is evidence that many were regarded with sincere affection by their male partners and often availed themselves of opportunities to engage a much wider world beyond the home, often to the point of traveling well beyond the city for personal and practical reasons. Such opportunities were afforded them, of course, only if they met their fundamental duties as women and wives to maintain most aspects of the home, to birth and raise children, and to handle themselves with decency and decorum outside the household. Still, the common view of the sterile Roman marriage, that it was an entirely arranged event for the sake of the security of the estate and of the need to produce heirs, is often contradicted by the sources. And that element of Roman marriage laws that required the husband to return his wife’s dowry on the occasion of their divorce gave women some degree of power over their husbands. Women were expected to enjoy sex (within limits), and could work at a number of professions, sometimes at executive positions, as long as they were under the supervision of guardians.
Those living under extreme poverty form the next group examined by Knapp. Direct references in sources to the poor populace are scarce, as one would expect, and so Knapp resorts to consulting proverbs, fables, religious documents, and even jokes in the belief—which he defends in some detail—that these materials can provide a glimpse into the ‘mind world’ of such people. He begins his discussion with a bracing demographic estimate: 65 percent of the population, both slave and free together, lived on the economic fringes of the Empire, eking out a subsistence living. Knapp studies the development of the core values of the poor, those qualities and actions that were felt to be necessary for survival under such bleak conditions. He lists two opposing "pulls" that evolve from the formulation of such values. One is the pull of forming relationships of family and friends as insurance in times of hardship; the other is the pull of strife as the unavoidable accompaniment of the failures that attend poverty.
The former is realized as necessary for survival, and there were social mechanisms to ensure that the rules of cooperation were enforced. In all of this, Knapp points out, the poor were keenly aware that poverty and want were their lot in life, and he finds evidence of an ethos according to which the wealthy and privileged are not begrudged their advantages both economically and politically, as long as they wielded their power fairly. Upsetting the status quo was not normally considered to be an option, and the notions of justice to which the poor subscribed reflected their realization of the reality of the lack of balance in power and wealth in the empire under which they labored.
We should expect from a study of this sort special attention to be paid to the plight of slaves, and Knapp does not disappoint. He characterizes his treatment of slaves as an attempt to enter the slave’s "mind world" by ignoring the standard views of slavery framed by our standard sources that represent the attitudes of the elite. He again avails himself of a variety sources, here employing astrological works, dream interpretations, fables, and, beyond literature, epitaphs, and papyri. What he finds is that, since slavery was omnipresent, there was no felt need to justify it; rather, what we find is interest on the part of slaves either to accommodate it as a defining condition of life, or to escape or avoid it. Treatment of slaves varied depending on circumstances. Abuse—often sexual—was common, and there was little to no recourse to justice in existing laws. To alleviate their condition, slaves formed communities forged by common experiences. Such a response to bleak circumstances forms a kind of theme in this book. Resistance could take a number of forms apart from the full-scale revolts that were much feared by the ruling classes. This is not to say that slaves would not mistreat one other; this was especially a problem when slaves were charged with overseeing their fellow slaves. And we should not overlook the often complex relationships between masters and their slaves, which could be favorable for some. Masters naturally valued those slaves who exhibited the desired characteristics of efficiency of labor, obedience, and faithfulness. Slaves could even conduct business transactions under limited conditions. And for some, freedom in the form of manumission was obtainable.
The status of freedmen receives separate treatment. By this term, Knapp means specifically those who had been freed by masters who were Roman citizens. Freedom came through manumission, whether formal or informal. It was a true transformation from the slave’s status from a nonperson to an individual with an identity, whose master then took on the role of a patron. Abuse at this level was still common, ranging from threats of revocation to forced indebtedness to former masters. Still, the freedmen’s lot was a considerable improvement on their former life. The benefits of manumission were generally twofold: freedom and the opportunity to earn and keep money of one’s own. With these benefits came other improvements. No social restrictions were placed on freedmen, so that they lived just as did free persons; they were at this point able to marry; any women with whom they had been co-habitating and any children that issued from such relationships were also declared free; many were able to open businesses over which they had full control; they could engage in the full range of religious life. There were certain legal restrictions, but these do not seem to have caused much difficulty.
The social status of Roman soldiers was decidedly mixed. Enrollment was limited to young, freeborn citizens, mostly between ages of seventeen and twenty-four years old. The life of the soldier could be arduous, although many would have found this preferable to life on the farm or as a common laborer. Death in battle was always a real threat, but the long days and months spent in camp between conflicts brought their own disadvantages. And the Roman leadership went to great lengths to acculturate their enlistees. Efforts were made to turn soldiers’ religious allegiance from normal cultic activity to allegiance to the Emperor, the pantheon of Roman gods, and Rome itself. Most controversially, there was instituted a prohibition against marriage and the procreation of children. The purpose of these proscriptions was to guarantee that, as military tenures or conscription grew much longer over time, the army would replace the soldier’s natural family as the source of his allegiance. Yet these rules were relaxed over time, so much so that soldiers often openly took wives and produced offspring, and military men were allowed to take legal wives upon discharge. All in all, however, soldiering was a desirable profession offering stable employment and special privileges recognized by law, enough to eat, stable living conditions, and, despite the fact that service to the Emperor and Rome was long, the promise of a degree of prosperity for retired veterans. As representatives of imperial authority, they wielded considerable power among the populace, which, according to a number of sources, they often abused, thus generating both fear and repulsion through their sometimes arrogant behavior toward civilians.
Knapp turns next to prostitution, which, he notes, was treated as any other public service—that is, as a commodity provided by women as well as men to fulfill a need. They plied their trade in several different venues, such as brothels, inns, private dwellings, baths, and various public spaces. Some prostitutes entered their professions willingly, while others did not; some prospered while others suffered profound indignities and were vulnerable to serious physical injury. Knapp focuses on ordinary prostitutes, who practiced their craft openly, free from risk of prosecution. Such artisans offered no threat to upper-class Romans and their families, nor was there any moral umbrage taken at their mode of living, or concern about their practice of abortion and infanticide. Authorities might extort payment in bribes, and prostitutes were subject to taxation, but otherwise they were left alone—except by their pimps.
The chapter on gladiators is one of the more fascinating and revealing in the book. Their numbers, which included women, were drawn from two groups: those forced to join, such as criminals condemned to death in the arena and slaves, and volunteers, who signed contracts, sometimes with bonuses, through which they forfeited some of their legal rights. They thus subjected themselves to grave risks and were often targets for derision, yet the lure of the arena and the prospect of prizes and glory were seductive to many. Successful contestants could expect relatively long careers under the watchful eyes of their managers and promoters. They trained and fought as parts of familiae, organized living and training arrangements, so that their conditions resembled those of the military.
Knapp includes a chapter on outlaws, whom he distinguishes from other fringe groups by defining them as those who live “in contact with but outside society’s laws.” They share the same cultural ideology with other "inlaws" but work against the interests of their society while at the same time being able to cooperate with authorities when it was in the interest of both to do so. They did not seek change, nor did they actively resist the governmental structure that they exploited. Their goals were more limited and specific. There were no concerted attempts to eliminate them; actions taken against them were usually local, and the punishments meted out were usually swift and severe. There is evidence as well of outlaw communities governed by principles of egalitarianism, whose social order Knapp compares to that of "sea outlaws" of the "golden age of piracy" in the early eighteenth century, as depicted in Marcus Rediker’s Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.
Knapp very helpfully devotes a final section to an extended analysis of the various sources available to him. He here emphasizes his central point that the literature that emanated from authors who belonged to the elite classes, while important for providing a balanced picture of the lives of the invisible Romans, is to be consulted with great caution due to its pronounced bias toward the concerns and general ethos of the upper classes. Even legal documents are not free of such prejudice. All of this enhances the importance of other sources, such as fables, proverbs, papyrology, epigraphy, and other non-elite literature such as the New Testament. Another resource, comparative material that originated in eras other than that of ancient Rome, can be subject to suspicion and disregard, but Knapp finds it quite useful and informative if consulted with discretion. The book ends with an annotated list of contemporary sources for further reading.
It should be repeated that, in the end, the degree of success of Knapp’s undertaking, as he himself amply acknowledges, is to be judged by the degree of our conviction in his justification for the use of his varied sources. To what degree of accuracy, for example, do inscriptions and ancient novels depict the actual conditions of life for ordinary Romans? How reliable are the Egyptian sources upon which he admits that he relies heavily, even if they are apparently corroborated by parallels in other "local" material? Throughout the book, Knapp reminds his readers that his project is not to formulate a social or economic history of the lower classes of the Roman Empire but rather to attempt to get through to what he calls the "mind world" of the "invisible" people whom he studies. This is a difficult task, one fraught with methodological dangers and inherent shortcomings, but also one well worth the risk. In the end, it is a fascinating chronicle, leaving us with a much better understanding of, and to some extent respect for, the invisible Romans.
Invisible Romans. By Robert Knapp. Harvard University Press, 2011.