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Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire

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Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire
Edited by Janet Huskinson. (London and New York: Routledge, 2000. Pp. xv, 378. Illustrations, Maps.) ISBN 0-415-21284-7.

Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - April 1, 2000

In the past, many historians tended to interpreted history solely from their own cultural perspective. Modern ideas such as gender and ethnicity seldom found their way into acceptable historical methodologies. Compounding this problem was the fact that, traditionally, most historians were male. Consequently, an overwhelming proportion of the historical narratives that exist today are focused on the male experience. As well, this narrow focus tended to take into consideration only those males who were members of the elite or upon the ‘big players' - armies, emperors, and empires. They seldom considered the roles played by women, slaves, and children. Marginal players were cast in collective roles such as barbarians or colonist. How they interacted with the greater society and how their roles changed over time was often ignored. While such a male centric methodology may well explain how we, as a modern people, view ancient Rome, it does not explain how the Roman's viewed themselves.

The twelve essays in Experiencing Rome: Culture, Identity and Power in the Roman Empire make great strides in correcting the injustices done to those who were not members of the elite, and for those whom history has far too often remained silent. Throughout this text, the authors show how the Ancient Romans viewed themselves, by, when possible, letting the Romans speak for themselves - through their literary works, artistic endeavors, and the plethora of inscriptions that they left behind on almost every public building. They also illustrate how various factors shaped the cultural identity of the diffuse peoples that inhabited the Roman empire and how cultural traits migrated from one group to another. The authors of these essays are all classical scholars who bring to their writings a detailed knowledge of the Roman world.

Each essay discusses a single issue, and each addresses how the given topic illustrates culture, identity, and power in the Roman Empire - as viewed by the Roman's themselves. Throughout, they have taken great care to put aside their own biases and to try and look at the issues from the perspective of those being studied. They do this by approaching their subjects on a multidisciplinary level, using a combination of literary, historical, anthropological, archaeological, economic and religious research, in addition to a vast array of primary sources ranging from mosaic tiles to burial inscriptions. These essays attempt to address the issues from a number of avenues including gender, social status, nationalism, and how these roles changed over time. This serves to offer the reader a well rounded and balanced discourse on the subjects.

The topics covered in this book include an explanation of how culture, identity, and power is studied and interpreted. In addition, a detailed analysis is offered, showing how gender and status were acquired and viewed by the Romans. Other topics covered included, urbanism, elite culture, the economy, religion, the language of dissent, concepts of peace, and a thought provoking discourse on the Jews and Jewish communities in the Roman empire.

The most important point lesson contained in this book, and it is stressed repeatedly, is, don't look at the past with modern eyes. Every student of history should have this lesson engraved upon their heart. You must try to look at the past as if you were living in that time frame. Don't bring modern judgments and mores to your study. For example, the concept of gender did not exist in ancient Rome, at least not how we now understand it. The Romans saw physiological differences between the sexes, but status was based more upon the amount of power that a person wielded. For the Romans, being a female may have limited your ability to wield power, but it did not prevent you from doing so. These concepts may be hard to understand, but without fully grasping the differences between how the ancients viewed themselves, and how we view ourselves, all our assumptions and interpretations of the past can be skewed well past any sense of what the Roman reality was.

We will never know how successful the authors are in giving us the Roman viewpoint. A vast store of information has crumbled to dust over the years, and, unfortunately many groups never had their story fully told, even in their own day. Furthermore, no matter how hard a historian tries to distant himself from modern biases, their analysis of the subject matter is always tainted by their ingrained beliefs. In addition, it may be impossible to ever fully grasp certain concepts which are alien to our mind set. We can believe that we understand how they thought, but we can never truly be sure that we are correct. One thing that we can be sure of is that the authors succeeded in presenting the reader with an in-depth introduction to the various components that made up the Roman ideals of society, culture, and identity.

This book was originally conceived and written to be used in conjunction with the Open University classical studies course, Culture, Identity, and Power in the Roman Empire. This is an upper level honors course and the book is on a comparable level. Although written as a textbook, these essays are eminently readable. The text does assume some basic familiarity with Roman history, but is readily accessible to the lay reader. They may, however, wish to read this book with a general text on Roman history close at hand, to fill in any gaps in their knowledge.

The book is richly illustrated and has an extensive bibliography at the end of each essay, for those wishing to pursue the covered topic in more detail. The book also provides a list of important dates for the relevant periods in Greek and Roman history. An important enhancement to the text is the inclusion of maps that pinpoint the locations mentioned in the essays.

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