Book Review: Invisible Romans


by Robert Knapp

Cambridge, Ma.: Harvard University Press, 2011. Pp. iv, 372. Illus., diagr., append., biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0674061993

Invisible Romans takes a look at the “non-elites” of the Roman Empire, the “little people” who are at best mentioned in passing by the ancient authors upon whom so much of our knowledge of the culture relies, and are thus largely “invisible”.

In his introduction, Prof. Knapp (Emeritus, UC) writes that he wishes to “uncover and understand what life was like for the great mass of people” from the late First Century BC through the early Fourth.  These people constituted the overwhelming majority of the populace, the ones who did the work and the fighting, to the greater glory of the tiny ruling class.  Knapp devotes each of his nine chapters to a different class, one each on the “ordinary” men of the middle classes, women, the poor, the slaves, freedmen, prostitutes, and, of particular interest for our readers, soldiers, gladiators, and those “Beyond the Law”, bandits and pirates.  Naturally, some of these chapters overlap, women, of course, could be free or slave or freed, slaves could become freedmen, retired soldiers could climb to the middle class, and so forth.  The discussion of soldiers is notable for looking at the troops from their recruitment, through their training, largely with the legions, their years of service, and on to retirement and beyond, as some – an unknown proportion – seem to have done quite well in business.  The look at bandits and pirates reflects a growing sense that these plagues – or trades – were always present, even at the height of Empire, even in Italy itself. 

Invisible Romans is an interesting, informative read for both the scholar of Roman history and the curious layman.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi, Review Editor   

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