A full Roman assemblage

The World of Rome
July 25, 1997

When one considers that the Roman sections of The Cambridge Ancient History cover several volumes - and, strictly speaking, only political and military history - any attempt to produce a single-volume account of Roman culture appears either foolishly optimistic or simply misguided. Further, because of the limitations of such an undertaking, such a work is more often criticised for what is left out than for what is included.

The World of Rome, however, is intended to be a "background book" for a Latin language course and an introduction to Roman society and culture. When many universities offer courses in classical civilisation without a knowledge of the ancient languages, it is surely welcome. The editors have divided Roman culture into three broad areas: ideology, history and administration; society and economy; and the Roman mind.

Within these categories are chapters covering the republic, the emperors, the magistrates, governing Rome, life, production and consumption, the family, the Roman mind, literature, art and architecture. There is an epilogue on the legacy of Rome up to the present day. The text is in numbered paragraphs, with frequent cross-references. Appendices cover the emperors, classical writers, and cross-references to the text of Reading Latin; indices cover general, topographical, personal names and passages cited from classical texts, and there are references to the paragraphs mentioned above. Finally, six maps cover Europe and the city of Rome, identifying the provinces and principal cities as well as places mentioned in the text. A wealth of illustrations, albeit in black and white, permeate the text.

The aim is to produce a very broad intellectual framework for the understanding of the Roman world. Of necessity, some areas are treated with a rather broad brush, notably history and literature. The book opens with St Paul's appeal to Rome, which very neatly raises the question of what was meant by "Roman". The story of St Paul illustrates the book's approach. The text from the Acts of the Apostles is used to particularise the issues raised and to elucidate a meaningful conclusion - in this respect, in true scholarly fashion, keeping close to sources, basing conclusions on the evidence and providing a good exemplar for any would-be classical student.

The chief value of a book of this kind is its provision of the background information which is normally taken for granted in classical studies, for example, the Roman constitution. Not by any stretch of the imagination could a discussion of the various assemblies of the Roman people, their composition, their purpose and their role in the governance of Rome be described as riveting. However, some knowledge of these assemblies is essential, especially to understand the nature of the late Republic. Their treatment here is clear and concise and enlivened with references to the ancient authors; thus the discussion of the comitia ce vvnturiata is rounded off with a passage from Cicero which serves also to show how landed wealth was the basis of political power and influence in Rome, indeed that Rome was very much a class-based society.

Again, in a discussion of the relationship between the gods and the Roman state, the well-known attempt of M. Calpurnius Bibulus to scan the heavens for divine approval in an attempt to thwart Caesar's legislative programme is cited to illustrate that relationship as well as show how ruthless the Romans could be in manipulating the system.

Two more areas deserve mention. The treatment of the family incidentally serves to show the differences between the Roman view of the family and our own. The legalities of Roman family law are laid out with extensive reference to ancient legal sources and examples of the law in practice. Such particularisation helps provide a better understanding of what can be a very dry and tedious subject and is typical of the book.

Further, the judicious use of illustrations can be seen in the chapter on art and architecture, where an historical overview of Roman architecture is amplified by well-chosen illustrations.

Books entitled "An introduction to. . ." can so easily fail, if only because of the wealth of material to be covered. As an introduction to the Roman world, this volume succeeds and should be essential reading.

Philip Warnock is librarian, Times Supplements.

The World of Rome: An Introduction to Roman Culture

Editor - Peter Jones and Keith Sidwell
ISBN - 0 521 28421 4
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00 and £15.95
Pages - 399

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