- Invisible Romans by Robert C. Knapp
Robert Knapp’s lucid and timely new book became available just as the Occupy Wall Street Movement popularized the chant, “We are the 99 percent!” Knapp estimates that the ancient elites constituted only [End Page 437] one half of 1 percent of the Roman Empire’s population. The task he has set for himself is to evoke the world, and the mentality, of everyone else. Doing the history of “ordinary people” and “invisibles,” as Knapp calls them, is difficult because the mainstream literary works that dominate the historical record (and modern education) were largely written by and for the elite. One has to scratch well below the surface to tell the comprehensive story of the Roman 99 percent, and it may well surprise readers of this journal that there has not been a full but accessible, English-language book of this sort until now. The past several decades have seen a proliferation of scholarly work on non-elites in the Roman world, but none matching Knapp’s ambitious scope—that is, to explain the life experiences and thought-world of all non-elites, throughout the entire Roman Empire during the first three centuries c.e., using neglected sources, which he makes understandable to a general readership.
Knapp, who recently retired from the Classics Department of UC Berkeley, does all this remarkably well. Knapp’s previous books and specialized articles on Roman Spain, its inscriptions, and Latin pedagogy constitute a respectable scholarly output, but not the sort of career one might think would precede the publication of this broad, well-executed social history. Knapp is a specialist in epigraphy (the editing and interpretation of texts inscribed on durable materials), a somewhat neglected art in American universities. Standing at the interface of textual analysis and archaeology, epigraphy is actually an excellent background for a social historian trying to make sense of the full range of humanity, from the dedications of grand monuments to the humblest gravestones, not to mention fascinating oddities such as inscribed slave collars and curse tablets. Knapp’s strength in epigraphy shines through in this book, but what is particularly impressive is the sheer variety of sources he weaves together into cogent analyses. The pages of Invisible Romans are swimming with salient quotations from Christian literature, graffiti from Pompeii, Egyptian papyri, and the genres of history, biography, law, medicine, magic, astrology, and dream interpretation. “Specialists won’t learn anything new” is a commonplace complaint in reviews like these, and indeed, experts will be familiar with most of Knapp’s arguments. But the overall execution of his theme and his integration of scattered, often obscure sources merit the attention of specialists and nonspecialists alike. The only criticism one might levy at his source base is that the book offers limited archaeological context, and in terms of written sources, Aramaic Jewish literature is not well represented, nor is apocryphal Christian literature, though these sources are admittedly hard to integrate. [End Page 438]
After a very brief introduction, Knapp organizes his material into individual chapters on non-elite men (including small landowners, merchants, workers), women, the poor, slaves, freedmen, soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, and outlaws. (Knapp omits those operating at the far fringes of Roman society, such as unconquered frontier tribes, and there is no systematic treatment of immigrants or religious minorities.) While the book works as a whole, not all of these chapters fit equally well. Despite their ambivalent social standing, gladiators can hardly be considered “invisible” or “ordinary” by any measure. His chapter on outlaws judiciously uses early modern comparative evidence in concert with ancient sources, but he is far too trusting of the bandit and pirate scenes that swarm the picaresque ancient novels (especially Apuleius’s Golden Ass). On banditry Knapp cites the excellent work of Werner Riess and Brent Shaw (misnamed “Brent Shawn” on p. 335), but he seems not to have taken to heart their clear demonstrations that ancient descriptions of bandits—even in sober historical sources—absolutely cannot be taken at face value. This actually raises an underlying methodological...