Saturday, 28 May 2011

Read in 2011 - 11: Daily Life in Ancient Rome

I can't believe how long it took me to finish this book! Already in this post two months ago I had started on it, and only today I turned the last page and, with a satisfied sigh, slid the book back into the deep burgundy-coloured cardboard box it came in.
Don't get me wrong - "Da
ily Life in Ancient Rome" by Jérôme Carcopino is by no means boring or lengthy. But it is non-fiction, and while sometimes I do indeed read non-fiction in the same way I read fiction, some other times I read them parallel to fiction and in much smaller portions. When it comes to fiction, I never parallel-read; I don't know how some people do it who say they tend to read four or five or even more novels at the same time.
But when I started on this book, not only was I reading some stories from Lindsey Davis' "Falco" series (whodunnits set in Imperial Rome, very well written, with lots of humour and thoroughly researched), but I had also only recently made the acquaintance of a new member to my pub quiz team. Gary is heavily into all things Rome, and his knowledge on the subject is vast, which is one reason why conversation with him is so interesting. History has always been a sort of minor hobby of mine, and so talking to him had inspired me to read up on the subject.

In perfect timing, earlier this year I had received several crates and boxes full of books from a friend who was getting rid of them (see here for another find in that treasure trove), and decided to keep this book at least until I'd read it.

Originally, it was published in 1939. The edition I have here is from 2004, edited by Henry T. Rowell and introduced as well as supplemented with a very good list for further reading by Keith Hopkins. And it is Mr. Hopkins' words that summarize this book so well that I am making an exception, citing directly from his introduction:

Most Roman history is about emperors and aristocrats, about wars and politics. Little attention is usually paid to ordinary folk, leading ordinary lives. Jérôme Carcopino's exciting book is both confirmation and refutation of this broad generalisation.
He had been for several years Director of the French School of Archaeology at Rome. He knew the city like the back of his hand. Add to this his intimate knowledge of a wide range of Roman writings. His book is a delicious blend of insights gathered from the letters of Pliny and the satires of Petronius, Juvenal and Martial (though with much of the latter's raunchy humour omitted - even the French in 1939 did not have a modern tolerance of Roman vulgarity).

But what makes the book so readable is the liveliness of his unaffected style, with its occasional heady flourishes of French rhetoric (skilfully caught in the beautiful translation by E. O. Lorimer).

The grandeur that was Imperial Rome disguises the violence and the dirt which lay underneath. It is that endemic violence and ubiquitous filth wich Carcopino so tellingly reveals. He strikingly depicts the juxtaposition of wealth and squalor, and their interplay. In a city of a million people, the rich minority lived in splendour, but not in isolation.
Modern museums' wonderful stock of statues, portraying muscled youths in polished marble, veils a more sordid and troubled reality.

The author describes the bustling streets, crowded slums, ceaseless flow of immigrants, endemic cruelty of slavery and much more. Carcopino was clearly convinced that Roman morality declined in a pool of self-indulgent luxury, vice and indolence. For him, Roman sexual morality (especially of women) degenerated into licence, and there was an epidemic of divorce (what would poor Carcopino have thought of divorce rates today?). But once we realize that the court poets and historians were describing and caricaturing high society, it becomes as unreasonable to generalise from them as it would be to take today's world of film-stars or fashion models as typical of broad sections of suburban society.
Reading this book accompanied my lunch breaks for two months now, and it has been good company indeed. I've learnt a lot from it, some facts I found quite surprising, others I had a vague knowledge about beforehand and was now able to replenish it with more detail. Yes, it definitely is worth keeping!


  1. I just found your blog from your comment on Letters from a Hill Farm. I see you are in Ludwigsburg. In '73 and '74 my husband and I lived in Stuttgart while he was a mitarbeiter at the institute fur Raum and Luftfarht at the university there. We went several times to the Castle, especially so I could see the porcelain factory there which I found delightful and amazingly interesting. I just bought a book about it: Dazzling Rococo: Ludwigsburg Porcelain from the Jansen Collection (Text in German)
    Reinhard Jansen

    The German title is Glanz des Rokoko. Excellent.

    We also make those elderflower fritters you wrote about yesterday. The first time was when we were living in Budapest for a year, on a research exchange. My daughter (8 years old then) and I collected the blossoms and made them, although your batter recipe sounds even more interesting. Now I have elder in my garden in north east Ohio and we make them, and also some years the cordial.

    I am very happy to have found your blog.

  2. Hello Kristi, thank you so much for stopping by and leaving such a kind comment! Yes, Ludwigsburg's castle and the porcelain manufacture are still there. There is now a new porcelain shop/showroom which I am sure you would like, so let me know if you ever intend coming back for a holiday :-)

    A friend of mine makes elder wine; I can't remember whether he uses the flowers or the berries. My mum has not tried that yet, I think.

    Now I'm off to check out your blog!

  3. This sounds so interesting! I think ordinary people are the most fascinating to read about, especially when they live in extraordianry places and times.
    Really enjoyed your last post too,

  4. Thank you, Julie!
    Yes, the ordinary people bit is, I think, we we all enjoy blogging so much - and by this I mean not only writing our own blogs, but reading those of others, who lead their ordinary lives and tell us about what's going on, and for some of the readers, it may be rather exotic because their lives are so different and lead in very different places from ours, while at the core we all have the same ordinary wants and needs.

  5. There is elderflower cordial (short term) and elderflower champagne (long term) and elderberry wine, from the berries. My grandmother also made elderberry jam.

    I've been thinking of a blog post somewhat related to your comments about why we like to read the posts of "ordinary people".

  6. Kristi, I am following you on Wordpress now, so I hope I am not going to miss your blog entry when you post it.
    Before Easter, when I went to England to see the family, my sister-in-law had an elderflower soft drink, like a lemonade; it was very refreshing, not too sweet, and went well with our dinner.