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Roman Life in Pliny’s Time!

By (February 4, 2016) No Comment

rome in pliny's timeOur book today takes us back once again to Ancient Rome, this time to the 1st century world of Pliny the Younger. It’s Maurice Pellison’s Roman Life in Pliny’s Time, in an 1897 English-language translation by Maud Wilkinson, with an Introduction by University of Chicago professor Frank Justus Miller, who’s pulling out all the rhetorical stops in order to entice the reader:

In a study of the national structure, it is difficult to realize that the state was built of men, and that these men had all the ordinary human interests that absorb so large a part of life in the present day. The ensuing chapters will assist in this realization as they describe the every-day life of the people. Such a study as the following chapters contain will be of value not only as it increases the reader’s store of fact, but chiefly as it leads to a clearer comprehension of the fact that all history is the history of men, and that the life of the state is the composite of the lives of all its citizens.

Still here? Good! Because once our stalwart academic has lured you in with heady promises that the book will be “of value,” you get Pellison’s lively account of life under the Antonines, a blessed period in human society during which, as Tacitus said, a man could think what he wanted and write what he thought. The Roman Empire reached its greatest extent under Trajan, and social life in Rome and the cities and towns of that empire flourished. As a result, Pliny and his friends among the wealthy no longer had to fear being preyed upon by the royal family and its jumped-up thugs; it could get on with its proper business of enjoying itself.

Following the standard structure we’ve seen before, Pellison takes his readers into that day-to-day life. We see the details of life for men and women of the leisure class, we’re shown their fashions, and we’re given a tour of both their country-house getaways and their city homes. Those homes were conceived along different lines than most modern Western homes, with their front doors, doorbells, and big picture windows. This would have faintly horrified the Romans of Pliny’s day, whose houses tended to front the street with a fortress-like facade that hid the private life of the place entirely from view – an arrangement Pellison seems to like, in a way that makes me think he was often interrupted at his work:

The world enters freely into our houses, and when it does not enter, we try at least to view it through our wide-open windows. An ancient house, instead of looking toward the street, looked away from it. In short, the comparison between an ancient and a modern house is sufficient to show us that although family life among us may occupy more hours of a man’s life, it is less retired and less intimate than it was among the ancients.

As is the custom with books like this, Pellison follows his average well-off man of Pliny’s happy years out into the city, into the temples, the public baths, the crush of the markets, and of course the famous frenzy of the sporting world, where we find, to our relief, that the Hawkeyes are still and forever playing at Kinnick:

But the circus offered a more interesting sight than the spectacle, and that was the spectators. One must have been present at a bull-fight in Spain, he must have seen a whole population, as if out of their senses, now stamp with enthusiasm, now howl in anger, now applaud with all their might the bull-fighter, now fling at him a marvelous variety of insults; he must have seen the women throw their bouquets and even their jewels at the daring or skillful champion, cheer him and waft kisses to him, or hurl upon the coward or the clown the most unexpected weapons – he must have been witness of this delirium, which is so contagious, if he would form any idea of the conduct of the Romans at these games of the hippodrome.

The best part of Roman Life in Pliny’s Time, fittingly enough, are the chapters almost entirely lucy reads about pliny's romedevoted not to some idealized Roman example but to Pliny himself, with copious details drawn from his hugely engaging letters, details about every aspect of life. It’s those bits of Pellison’s book that most come alive, and when you’re done reading them, you’ll feel a distinct yearning to go and read the letters of Pliny in their entirety. I heartily endorse that yearning! He might have been a tedious apple-polisher, but he wrote some of the most interesting and entertaining letters to survive from the ancient world. In fact, a truly wonderful edition of those letters could be made by simply pouring them wholesale into the structure of Pellison’s book, while retaining all the charming illustrations. Somebody should get right on that.

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Roman Life in Pliny’s Time!

By (February 4, 2016) No Comment