Our image of the Roman world is shaped by the writings of Roman statesmen and upper class intellectuals. Yet most of the material evidence we have from Roman times—art, architecture, and household artifacts from Pompeii and elsewhere—belonged to, and was made for, artisans, merchants, and professionals. Roman culture as we have seen it with our own eyes, Emanuel Mayer boldly argues, turns out to be distinctly middle class and requires a radically new framework of analysis.
Starting in the first century bce, ancient communities, largely shaped by farmers living within city walls, were transformed into vibrant urban centers where wealth could be quickly acquired through commercial success. From 100 bce to 250 ce, the archaeological record details the growth of a cosmopolitan empire and a prosperous new class rising along with it. Not as keen as statesmen and intellectuals to show off their status and refinement, members of this new middle class found novel ways to create pleasure and meaning. In the décor of their houses and tombs, Mayer finds evidence that middle-class Romans took pride in their work and commemorated familial love and affection in ways that departed from the tastes and practices of social elites.
[A] remarkable volume… Mayer provides an indispensable and well-argued refutation of the conventional top-down readings of Roman art.
This is a splendid book written in an engaging style. Mayer illuminates the distinctive social identity and cultural tastes of the the Roman middle classes through a perceptive study of art and literature. His readings of texts and images are subtle and persuasive. Highly recommended for all those interested in Roman art and Roman social history.
Moving beyond crude stereotypes of a Roman society riven between a gilded 1 percent and a downtrodden 99 percent, Mayer breaks new ground by marshaling a wide range of archaeological evidence to reconstruct the forgotten world of the comfortable middling households who left their mark on the urban landscapes of the ancient Mediterranean.
Mayer has written a bold and striking book that sets the houses and tombs of the Roman middle class under the Empire against a carefully researched backdrop of the contemporary urban economy. He pulls together the art, archaeology, and social history of a new monument-buying class into an elegant and highly readable narrative.
- 312 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Harvard University Press
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