Thursday, 29 October 2009

New reader review: Popular Culture in Ancient Rome

We published two reader reviews in September, for the first time. Here is the first of our latest selection of October reviews, a review of Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome.

by Meghan Burton,

Roman history often focuses on the elite, the movers and shakers of the Roman world. However, they represented in reality only a small proportion of the population. Rather than adding to the imbalance, in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner chooses to focus on the non-elites of the Roman world, both free men and slaves, and to examine how they may have felt and reacted to events through their own popular culture. He includes chapters exploring such unusual topics as the public mental health, their ability to solve problems, and their reaction to sensory stimuli. He considers the relations of the non-elite, and their reactions not only to the elite, but also to each other and to the circumstances that they may have encountered on a daily basis.

Jerry Toner's book is carefully constructed to appeal to both academics and non-academics. He provides great detail, theory, and many examples and endnotes, as well as humour and modern-day references in order to appeal also to those who may be less familiar with Roman history. For example, he combines the two in his chapter on popular resistance:

‘It is important to realize that resistance does not always have to be of the
heroic 'I'm Spartacus' kind. There is a sliding scale of resistance, ranging
from the occasional drama of open rebellion to the oblique and passive
opposition of everyday life.’

Similarly, in his chapter on mental health, Toner first includes a relevant and interesting example, literary records of the first Christian monk evaluated by a modern psychiatrist. He then provides a modern-day evaluation of what constitutes mental illness, and finally delves into the historical detail of non-elite Romans and their own mental health. Although these first sections may be of less interest to the professional, for the casual reader, they provide essential background information and an opportunity to understand a foreign culture through contemporary life.

The author later flips mentally instable and rude behaviour on its head to help explain non-elite Roman subversion, for example, and even writes about how Christianity in its early stages served as a peaceful point of rebellion to challenge the norms of Roman society. Acting differently - which is often all it takes to be considered insane - non-elites could take some control. Without his initial exploration of mental illness, this would not make much sense, and, more importantly, would not shed the essential light it does on how very different
Roman society was from modern society. Overall, Toner's style enables the reader to fully understand and learn throughout his intriguing book.

It is in demonstrating how vastly different, and yet eerily similar, Roman popular culture was to our own that Toner shines. In somewhat broad and impersonal terms, he highlights how incredibly difficult Roman life was by considering incomes, food shortages, and life expectancies; but the data is thereafter humanised though the inclusion of excerpts about familiar and heart-wrenching subjects such as mother's grief over losing her very young children. Throughout his history, Toner states the cold, hard facts neatly juxtaposed with these familiar examples to enable his readers to truly picture popular Roman society. He achieves his stated goal and then goes a little bit further to provide an informative and engaging history that should appeal to all readers with any interest in imperial Rome.

Meghan Burton is studying for an MA in Medieval Studies at the University of York.
Here is the link to her blog

A new selection of books in now available for reader reviews. For further information, visit the
History Today Books Blog.

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