There are hundreds of books in different languages about daily life in ancient Rome. Some are serious academic research, some more lighter popular pieces, some general presentations about the subject and some very deep into one detail of daily life. So there is plenty of room to choose from and it’s impossible to review all of them in one review. Therefore in this review we take a look into five books about ancient Roman daily life which all are very general presentations about the subject and easy to read for anyone. That doesn’t mean that they would be unserious for more academic reader either, quite the opposite.
First some thoughts about what we mean when we say daily life. The academic research on daily life has always been a rather unappreciated field of knowledge. That has especially been so during the old school of historical research, which placed heavy emphasis on chronology and sometimes even great men -approach in explaining and representing history. This has however been changed in the academic world in the recent decades and more cultural historical approach has been adopted. This means that focus has been attached also into experiences and history of other demographic groups. The history of daily life is very much this history, even while we of course can also concentrate into daily life of Roman nobility etc.
Daily life is still a problematic term because when we make an abstraction of daily life of group of certain size of population we at the same time drift away from daily life of any given individual – from the realm of fact into realm of abstraction, not to say imagination. This is serious methodological concern for academic historian, but also should be taken seriously by non-academic readership of the subject, because this concern is present in all serious presentations about the subject in some way. It doesn’t render literature about the subject invalid or unreliable, but it is a built-in feature one has to acknowledge in order to be able to understand the limits of the contents of any such literary work.
One part of the abstraction is to narrow down or widen up the selection of the socio-economic group whose daily life we are investigating, another part is to make geographical and chronological limitations. A daily life of a Sicilian farm slave was very different from noble born man in city of Rome, even while they would be of same age and from same period. It is obvious that no single literary work can capture all aspects, groups and divisions of Roman society of any given period.
Of course we also need to understand different needs of the reading public of today. For example a re-enactor is looking for very different information about Roman religion than academic historian and Roman religion practitioner is still looking for different information than either of them. One book cannot serve all readers equally.
With all these limitations in mind let’s take a look into few books about history of Roman daily living. This selection is aimed mostly for people in search of solid base to build upon with further and more specialised reading, a good starting point in their journey to understand the daily life in 2000+ years ago. Even if one has already some knowledge about the subject, I think these books will give some new perspectives and practical information into subject.
Jérôme Carcopino: La vie Quotidienne à Rome à l’Apogée de l’Empire
This is probably the most widely read work on the subject and is available also on numerous translations. In English it is available as Daily Life in Ancient Rome: The People and the City at the Height of the Empire. It is also one of the most debated of the works both in academic and other circles and was published for first time as early as 1939, so it’s far from including the most recent research on ancient Rome.
However Carcopino was fully aware of the methodological problem of abstraction and refers into it in his forewords, where he explains his approach. He choose to build his work around central themes of external (material) environment, social structure and moral milieu and Roman daily rhythm. This division has also been adopted in many other works on the subject after Carcopino’s book, and the reason is obvious: it is easy to read and logical approach.
Even while many details in Carcopino’s work are debated, even contested, the fullness of his approach and literary skills make the book still an excellent choice as starting point upon which one can build. Highly recommended for anyone seeking a first encounter with the subject.
Lesley Adkins and Roy A. Adkins: Handbook to life in ancient Rome
A very different kind of method than Carcopino used is adopted in the Handbook. The authors wanted to use widely both historical as well as archaeological information as basis of their thematic approach into Roman daily life. The book is divided into nine thematic chapters each with numerous subchapters, for example under Towns and Countryside one finds subchapters like Town Planning as well as Building Techniques.
The Handbook is clearly meant more as reference work than smooth literary presentation about the subject. As such it’s at its best when one needs information on certain topic, e.g. what kind of writing materials Romans used. Each topic is presented with very clear and easy to understand language alongside numerous drawings, and when one is needing a quick reference, the book is really helpful. It also contains good number of recommendations for further reading, when one wants to go deeper on any given subject.
For more academic reader the Handbook is not very satisfying. Even while Handbook itself is not very old, first published in 1994, the information with any given topic can be quite outdated and based on earlier research. Also the nature of the book being to provide general and concise reference means that there is no room for conflicting evidence nor dialogue with primary sources.
The Handbook can be recommended for those who need an easy reference book, but not for any academic research. Still it contains valuable further reading references and is recommended for anyone new to the subject.
Florence Dupont: La Vie quotidienne du citoyen romain sous la République
As the title suggest, the book is in the tradition of Carcopino, and concentrates the daily life during the republican period. First published in 1989 Dupont’s work is able to draw on much more recent sources than Carcopino’s and is more modern in its approach to history. Available also at least in English under the title Daily Life in Ancient Rome, the book is a great source of information for those who want to understand the difference between the Roman life during the republican centuries compared to those under the emperors.
The book is divided into four main themes: The city and its people, Places and lives, Time and action and The Roman body. Under these very general themes Dupont discusses several topics like slavery, Roman calendar and Roman relationship with their bodies. As the topics are wide none of them is given especially full discussion and many details are matter of interpretation. This is the weakness of Dupont’s work and limits its usefulness in practical matters for example for re-enactors.
But it’s also the strength of the book: deep understanding and literary skills surpassing even Carcopino himself, Dupont is able to lead the reader deep into Roman culture behind the myriad of mundane details. The book is especially worthy for developing understanding for Roman culture, values and perspective towards daily life and its surroundings.
Dupont’s work is not very handy as reference book for quick checking of facts and its lack for secondary sources is frustrating at times, but this is more than compensated by references into primary sources and the depth of vision Dupont provides. For any reader wanting to better understand sometimes very alien culture of ancient Rome, the book is indispensable starting point and help. The book will also probably offer for academic reader an enjoyable journey into Roman culture, whether one agrees or disagrees any given fact and its interpretation. And of course for anyone wanting to understand the republican era of Rome, the book is very valuable.
Paul Veyne: Histoire de la vie privée, vol. I
Originally published at 1987 and also available on numerous translations, e.g. in English as A History of Private Life From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, this is a classic not to be by-passed by anyone who is serious about the subject. Deep cultural and historical interpretation, discourse with secondary and primary sources and the sheer strength of the text itself dealing with whole human life in Roman cultural context are impressive to say the least. The history of private life is more academically accepted point of view than history of daily life, but is the same in essence.
The book is divided into five chronological chapters each with numerous subchapters on various topics e.g. Marriage. Each chapter has its own author and differ in their point of view as well as period of time.
The book can be compared to that of Dupont’s for its approach with the distinction that where Dupont’s work is at that ambiguous no-mans land between full academic research and popular general presentation about the subject, the History of Private Life is firmly an academic work and of academic standard. As such it might not be very useful as quick reference book, but it’s at its best as eye-opening journey into Roman culture and an impressive research on topic of daily life (or private life, as academic world prefers to call it).
The book gives its most to those who are already swimming at the deeper end of the pool of the Roman history and culture, but there is never too early time to read it for first time. Most readers will end up reading this wonderful book many times over and will each time find new ideas and perspectives to the subject. Highly recommended, especially for those who have already read their Carcopino.
Marja-Leena Hänninen and Maijastina Kahlos: Roomalaista arkea ja juhlaa
And as the last, but not anyhow the least, let me introduce you a recently (2004) published book by Finnish authors, sadly available only on Finnish. While obvious reason to do so is to promote the work of my co-patriots, there is also another very good reason: the book is actually one of the best about the subject that exist in any language.
Limited into few aspects of daily life: Roman lifespan, Roman culinary culture, Roman clothing, Roman city, Roman hygiene, Roman work and leisure and Roman festivities and entertainment, the book is very up-to-date and of high academic quality, and in the same time very useful e.g. for re-enactors and living history enthusiasts!
This little marvel of book is highly recommended for both those with academic interest as well as for those new to the subject. It contains articles from various authors and is equipped with most wonderful bibliography with comments about recent secondary sources on the matter. One can only hope that it will be some day translated into other languages as well.
Now that I have given my thoughts about some books about Roman daily life, I’d be happy to hear your thoughts about them. Which ones are your favourites? Perhaps you would like to recommend some other books on the subject? Different books for different readership? Please feel free to share your thoughts below or write to me privately!
L. Licinius Lucullus
Consul Res Publica Romana