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Sun, 1 Nov 2009 14:35:11 -0600
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Roman Social History: A Sourcebook. By TIM G. PARKIN and ARTHUR J. POMEROY. 
Routledge Sourcebooks for the Ancient World. London and New York: 
Routledge, 2007. Pp. xvii + 388. Paper, $37.95. ISBN 

Order this text for $34.28 from Amazon.com using this link and benefit 
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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Forum Online 2009.11.01

This book gathers together an interesting, diverse and suggestive selection 
of Greek and Latin sources regarding Roman social history, mainly intended 
for the undergraduate student. The period in question comprises the best 
part of the Principate, i.e. the 1st and 2nd centuries AD. The wide 
selection of very different texts ranges from literary sources and legal 
texts to papyri and inscriptions, in addition to outlines by the authors 
concerning regions of Rome and their buildings (p. 51), census data (p. 64) 
and age-rounding (p. 66). [[1]] The authors in their introduction highlight 
that in the attitude towards the ancient word of recent scholarship, there 
is “no monolithic ‘Roman’ society.” Coherent with this tendency, 
they include subjects in a way neglected by traditional sourcebooks: 
peasantry, freedmen or slaves. As a conceptual framework, the authors have 
chosen the already classic handbook by P. Garnsey and R. Saller, The Roman 
Empire: Economy, Society and Culture (London, 1987), which explains Roman 
society by insisting on all these aspects and taking account of “power 
structures” (p. 2). [[2]] The sources included are structured around nine 
topics: social classes (3–42), demography (43–71), family and household 
(72–135), education (136–53), slavery (154–204), poverty (205–43), 
the economy (244–91), the legal system and courts (292–327), and 
leisure and games (328–56). Each chapter has a brief but sufficient 
introduction, and each entry a short informative note.

The first chapter is entitled “Social Classes,” and in the introduction 
the authors use terminology of this type (“The Roman world shows both 
untrammelled capitalism and remarkable state intervention in the 
economy…”). The authors’ use of these terms is, of course, merely 
pedagogical use of these terms. But it might have been useful to outline 
the difference between the technical value of modern terms such as 
“social class” or “capitalism” and their meaning in the Roman world 
to help students to be accurate with these concepts. [[3]] The main subject 
in this chapter is the hierarchical structure of Roman society, ranging 
from the superior ordines, probably less than 0.1 per cent of the 
population (senators and equestrians and their provincial equivalents, i.e. 
“town councillors or even tribal chiefs”) to the common people. The 
starting point of the political framework, the so-called “mixed 
constitution” is rightly exemplified not through Polybius, as typically, 
but through a contemporary text, Cicero Rep. 1.43, 67. The part played by 
the emperor in the new regime is characterized via Pliny the Younger (not 
only the epistles, but especially the panegyric) and some carefully chosen 
inscriptions, such as ILS 8781 (“an oath of allegiance to the emperor”) 
and ILS 8794 (“Nero’s benefaction to the Greeks”). The new 
configuration of the senatorial status is profusely explained, as well as 
the equestrian order (regulation on the wearing of rings…) and the 
decurions (Tab. Her. 89–97). As for the lower orders, the examples are 
extracted from Patristic sources or inscriptions. In my view, the text by 
Artemidorus (Oneir. 1.35)—presumably selected by Pomeroy [[4]]—on the 
significance of the dream of losing one’s head is extremely telling, as 
the prediction is adapted to the status of the dreamer, and the image of 
the capitis deminutio is clearly implied.

“Demography,” the next chapter, is mainly based on Parkin’s work on 
the subject, the main conclusions of which are clearly stated in the 
Introduction (pp. 43–6). [[5]] Extremely varied material is used to 
exemplify the author’s conclusions, including the Res gestae divi 
Augusti, data excerpted from the Egyptian census, literary sources about 
plagues, disease and natural disasters, fragments of patristic sources and 

“Family and household” is the title of the next chapter. This is a key 
matter in Roman society, since the familia also involved a status issue. 
Marriage and patria potestas are rightly explained within this framework. 
Among the documents included are some related to the family in Egypt, 
including epitaphs (to examine family patterns outside the aristocratic 
sphere we know through literary sources) and census papyri. A glossary of 
key legal terms is provided at the beginning of this chapter. This glossary 
is extremely useful, but can also be confusing. For example, paterfamilias 
is rightly defined as “the male head of the familia” with reference to 
the ius vitae necisque, but the definition does not point to the fact that 
a sui iuris boy could also be considered such in the sense that he had the 
three statuses, libertatis, civitatis and familiae. When the authors tackle 
the legal definition of marriage, they include among its requirements the 
dowry, but rightly underline that it was not mandatory.

“Slavery,” the fifth chapter, deals with a economic and social reality 
without which the ancient world is difficult to understand. The sources 
employed range from the slave as a way to display wealth to more 
picturesque stories such as the slave used as a talking book (Sen. Epist. 
27 5–8). The authors also tackle imperial slaves and freedmen (the 
“Familia Caesaris”), along with less fortunate farming workers 
(Columella 1.16). Some examples of manumission as recorded in inscriptions 
or papyri are offered (e.g. AE 1995 665; PSI IX 1040). AE 1971 88 offers 
significant evidence of slaves’ living conditions, since it involves a 
service for the punishment of slaves. Some less common epigraphic materials 
such as slave collars (ILS 9454, 9455…) are also quoted. The Senatus 
consultum Silanianum is exemplified—perhaps too profusely—through a 
quotation of D. 29.5. Juristic texts are also quoted in reference to the 
rules of manumission (Gai I 9–54), some aspects of the operae and the 
rights of a slave to use his peculium (cf. D. 33.8.19; D. 40.1.4–5), and 
the actio quanti minoris and the actio redhibitoria (D. 11.3; D. 21.1), 
both related to defects to be declared in the sale of slaves.

“Poverty” is dealt with in detail in the sixth chapter, where the way 
the Roman society was stratified is highlighted, starting with the text 
Artemidorus Oneir. 2.9, in which dreams are differently interpreted for the 
rich and poor. The title “poor” embraced many different people: pauper 
was not exactly the same as egenus, as the epigrams of Martial show. 
Christian authors interpreted the interrelation between rich and poor in a 
very different way, with many sociological novelties. The authors rightly 
point out that—despite the official rhetoric—the alimentary foundations 
by the Antonines are far from a charitable work, in the sense that they 
were open—at least primarily—to the poor but also and especially served 
the privileged orders of society. “A Roman Robin Hood” is an entry on 
Bulla, the chief of a robber band under the Severans, according to Dio 

The chapter “Economy” is concerned mainly with agriculture, but also 
with mining and trade. In reference to the latter, the authors quote the 
polemic between Finley (significantly conservative in his interpretation) 
and the historians who evaluate trade as an indicator of substantial 
economic growth. [[6]] In a pedagogical context, this controversy—which 
provides a framework to comment on the sources included in this 
chapter—might easily have received more stress. It is important to avoid 
simplistic equations between Rome and nowadays, especially in matters such 
as coinage and manufactured and traded goods, but on the other hand it is 
obvious that these realities were important in some areas. In any case, the 
relatively advanced aspects of the Roman economy existed side by side with 
subsistence farming, and it is not always easy to identify economic 
rationalism (maximization of income, benefit analysis…) in the ancient 

“The Legal System and Courts” offers interesting insights into law and 
its social repercussions, but the chapter lacks some consistency, since no 
outline of the legal system is included. The average undergraduate reader 
is likely to need a complete explanation of how Roman procedures worked; 
what the relevant sources of law were at that moment; what the role of 
local practice was; and what part the emperor and his chancery played in 
the unification and creation of law. On the other hand, the social impact 
of law is perfectly expressed, for example in the case of wills. As 
Champlin has shown, [[7]] their function was not limited to patrimonial 
matters, but also offers access to social realities by e.g. mentioning the 
emperor as patron (8.14) or even praising and blaming the other (8.15). 
Papyri are quoted to illustrate trials and official complaints. SEG XVII 
755 is a significant inscription that reproduces a mandatum by Domitian on 
the privileges of the cities. Some literary (Ap. Met. IX. 12; Luc. Tox. 29) 
and legal (C. Th. IX. 3; C. I. IX. 5. 1) sources exemplify the state of 

“Leisure and Games” closes the compilation. The chapter is mainly 
focused on gladiatorial games and the authors use profuse literary 
(Juvenal, Martial, Suetonius, Seneca, Tertullian…) and epigraphic sources 
(graffiti pompeiani about entertainments) to complete the panorama offered 
by archaeological evidence.

To sum up, Parkin and Pomeroy have succeeded admirably in their task of 
providing an introductory resource for students and the general reader, 
based on a rich spectrum of sources acceptably translated and focused on 
different topics, all of them significant to the comprehensive study of 
Roman social history.

University of Valencia 
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[[1]] Three outlines with commentaries are added as Appendix A (“Life 
Expectancy” 354–6), Appendix B (“The Roman Status Hierarchy”) and 
Appendix C (“Greek and Roman Weights, Measures, and Coinage”). 
Demography is one of Parkin’s areas of expertise, and the outline of 
Appendix A is mainly based on his Demography and Roman Society (Baltimore 
and London, 1992).

[[2]] “It is our belief that Roman society is best explained in terms of 
its power structure.”

[[3]] “Capitalism” in this context presumably means only the existence 
of trade and an oriented exchange market. In the context of the Roman 
world, the use of this term is common (apart from the Marxists) in the Max 
Weber tradition, although he eventually became more critical to it; see 
e.g. J.R. Love, Antiquity and Capitalism (London and New York, 1991).

[[4]] J. Pomeroy, “Status Anxiety in the Greco-Roman Word,” Ancient 
Society 22 (1991) 51–74.

[[5]] For a slightly different point of view regarding the utility of the 
available data, see R.S. Bagnall and B.W. Frier, The Demography of Roman 
Egypt2 (Cambridge, MA, 2006).

[[6]] For a good outline of the so-called “Finley-Jones model” and the 
controversy with Rostovtzeff, see K. Greene, Archaeology of the Roman 
Economy (London, 1986) 14–18; P. Garnsey and R. Saller, The Roman Empire: 
Economy, Society and Culture (London, 1987) 46–51; J.R. Love, Antiquity 
and Capitalism (London and New York, 1991). As A. Carandini states in his 
study on one of the most advanced estates of the Roman upper-class farms, 
we are dealing with a “bi-sectoral economy,” with a monetary sector 
(products for the major markets) and a natural sector (polyculture); see A. 
Carandini, “Columella’s Vineyard and the Rationality of the Roman 
Economy,” Opus 2 (1983) 177–204.

[[7]] Cf. E. Champlin, Final Judgments (Berkeley, 1991).

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