In their fathers’ power

Jasper Griffin

  • A History of Private Life. Vol. I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium edited by Paul Veyne
    Harvard, 670 pp, £24.95, May 1987, ISBN 0 674 39975 7
  • The Roman World edited by John Wacher
    Routledge, 2 pp, £100.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 7100 9975 4
  • The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture edited by Peter Garnsey and Richard Saller
    Duckworth, 231 pp, £24.00, March 1987, ISBN 0 7156 2145 9
  • Sexual Life in Ancient Egypt by Lisa Manniche
    KPI, 127 pp, £15.00, June 1987, ISBN 0 7103 0202 9

Three substantial books on the world of ancient Rome, each in a different idiom. A critic of G.K. Chesterton said that he had a style in which it was impossible to tell the truth; in what style, indeed, can truth be told? Perhaps that aim is altogether too high, and the question should be ‘What style does not condemn us to tell lies?’ To put it in a friendlier way, which sort of sentence do you enjoy reading? There is the Gallic style: ‘The genealogy of ancient education was as follows: from culture to the will to culture, from there to the school, and from the school to the scholastic exercise as an end in itself.’ And: ‘It does not follow that law actually governed daily life in Rome. Legalism merely introduced into the chaos of Roman affairs an additional complication, not to say a weapon: chicanery.’ And: ‘Smiles are rare in ancient art. Tranquillity was bought at the price of tension and renunciation – hallmarks of the ancient world as much as of the world of the samurai or of Queen Victoria.’ And: ‘The puritanism of the upper class did not rest on sexuality: it rested on sexuality as a possible source of moral contagion. For sexual indulgence could erode, through the effeminacy that could result from excessive sexual pleasure with partners of either sex, the unchallenged superiority of the well-born.’

Those epigrammatic generalisations, from the pens of Paul Veyne and Peter Brown, are fairly typical of the History of Private Life at its best: a book which makes the reader think, teasing and encouraging with spicy details, long views, a capacity for the unexpected insight. Now for something completely different: ‘The goose is a northern bird which however had reached Italy by the early fourth century BC and was being reared in Egypt under the Ptolemies. The Romans preferred the white variety, but the German goose is described by Pliny. Specialists often have difficulty in distinguishing between the bones of wild and domesticated birds.’ And: ‘The expansion of the glass industry is particularly well documented, but it is probable that the process by which it and the fine pottery industries grew, namely by the movement of workmen closer to the new markets created by the initial success of their products, was the normal one by which such industries developed in the Roman world.’ And even, on the pay of Roman soldiers: ‘At this date there were ten sextantal asses to the denarius, which would leave the infantryman with three and a third asses a day. A daily rate should be one easily reckoned and this is a most unlikely number. The alternative is to adopt the suggestion that two obols represented two libral asses, i.e. two sestertii (the denarius then being the equivalent of four sestertii or ten sextantal asses).’ So speak the contributors to The Roman World. The third example, in its opacity, is an extreme, but the tone of the whole work is factual, informative, on the whole eminently British in its abstinence from generality. ‘To generalise is to be an idiot,’ said Blake, most sublimely insular of geniuses.

A third idiom goes more like this: ‘Finley’s critique of the ancient sources is not to be mistaken for blanket condemnation, while his models are by definition simplified and capable of refinement and emendation, largely by reference to the primary evidence. But the contrasts between existing methodologies are as striking, and the fragility of much conventional historiography is as genuine, as he has indicated.’ Or: ‘A computer simulation incorporating the Roman demographic variables suggests that the average difference in age between father and child was about forty years.’ Or: ‘The personal exchange relationships described above effectively mitigated cross-order conflict and tension, the importance of which has often been exaggerated.’ Or, to allow myself a slightly malicious selection: ‘At Claudiopolis Pliny had to exact entry-fees from some newly admitted city councillors so that a massive bath-project could get off the ground.’ The Roman Empire by Garnsey and Saller, from which these samples are drawn, is explicitly hostile to ‘the patient collection of stray items of evidence from diverse sources’ and the ‘mere antiquarian listing of discrete data’, but where Veyne and Brown take off from the details towards suggestive and brilliant but personal generalisations, Garnsey and Saller aim at a more rigorous and self-conscious method, and so at general views which shall be objective and command the respect of the reader with some sociological sophistication. The difference in style is remarkable, and it accompanies and in part dictates the content.

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