- The Roman Empire: Economy, Society and Culture by Peter Garnsey, Richard Saller
The first edition of this book was published in 1987 and quickly established itself as an indispensable guide to the economic and sociocultural history of Rome under the Principate. Almost thirty years later—mirabile dictu!—no one is likely to gainsay the appearance of an updated version. The main text, clinically lucid, has not been altered, but to accommodate the vast quantity of relevant scholarship from the intervening years Garnsey and Saller have supplied a series of addenda and expanded their bibliography. There are also two new chapters: an introduction to the political and institutional foundations of the Principate—the first edition gave no chronological direction, a serious issue for students coming to the subject for the first time—and a survey, written by Martin Goodman, of opposition to and unrest within the empire which valuably offsets the emphasis otherwise placed on imperial peace and the relatively restrained form of imperial autocracy. Altogether, the innovative qualities of the original, its thematic approach and annaliste methodology, remain admirable, while the supplementary material ensures that this book will long retain its prominence.
Many of its findings still communicate their first freshness. The attention given to contemporary perceptions of Rome’s empire as a sophisticated Mediterranean rim surrounded by an unsophisticated periphery, the firm characterization of imperial government as small-scale, the tripartite model of elite landownership, and the demonstration of Roman women’s remarkable legal independence in marriage are just a few examples. Likewise, its honesty of exposition continues to impress, as in the statements that virtually nothing is known about how emperors formulated policy, that reliable demographic information from antiquity is nonexistent, and that Romans’ understanding of economic concepts and behavior was extremely limited. This, however, may provoke ironic reflection. The attribution of specific objectives to individual emperors found, for instance, in imperial biographies of the sort recommended for further reading becomes inherently suspect when a distinction has to be drawn between what an emperor did and how the decision to do it was made; and the absence of suitable primary materials has not prevented a recent flood of research, in no way receding, on the interrelated subjects of demography and economy which is marked by reliance on highly speculative propositions. Here, in this respect, the commendably frank statement, “We know little in detail about the economy of the Roman world,” opens a typically abstract discussion of the possibilities of economic functionality and integration in which human subjects play a notably minimal role.
The two longest addenda follow the chapters on religion and culture. They are the work of eminent specialists. This is a response both to the volume of new research and to the chapters’ relatively limited coverage. Richard Gordon offers [End Page 263] a wide-ranging and learned survey of current trends in religious history, but I suspect that undergraduate readers will find much of it impenetrable and that advanced readers may not always enjoy its polemical tone. In contrast, Jaś Elsner and Greg Woolf provide an accessible and well-balanced review of developments in cultural history, incorporating items such as festivals, dining habits, gender roles, housing types and decorations, spectacles, architectural monuments, and much more, as elements of “a series of different kinds of cultural play between universal and local identities, broad identities and minority ones—play through which the empire found more of a unity than in any pretended cultural homogeneity.” They show also how visual evidence has assumed a key role in Roman historical research in the last generation.
In their new preface, Garnsey and Saller indicate that limits to updating had to be drawn, but they are confident that the addenda will take readers further afield and permit views alternative to their own to be seen. One topic on which more is ideally needed is Roman education. The rigidly conceptualized “system” the authors describe was available...