Friday, 5 April 2013

Review: In Search of the Romans

Following on from yesterday's post, here is the first review of In Search of the Romans. I'm posting this on behalf of Guy de la Bédoyère who is currently off on professional adventures in Australia.

In Search of the Romans, by James Renshaw (Bristol Classical Press, London 2012)

The stated purpose of this handy-sized and solid-looking book is to provide a ‘strong and broad foundation’ for students starting out on Classical Civilization courses. It is undoubtedly true that Classical Civilization is not well-served by bespoke textbooks. This is becoming more and more obvious at a time when examination boards are increasingly commissioning textbooks for their mainstream courses, such as History and English Literature, with dedicated content directly linked to their specifications. Classical Civilization, at school level, is unlikely to be taken other than by small numbers of students if it is offered at all, making bespoke textbooks unviable. Recommended reading lists produced by examination boards therefore tend to resort to existing publications that all too often means patchy and inadequate coverage, which is especially challenging for non-specialist teachers.

So any effort to produce a background work is to be welcomed though given the range of options usually offered with Classical Civilization courses it is a tall order to provide a jack-of-all-trades even if the focus is restricted, as in this case, to the Roman world. There is no clear indication in this book of whether it is aimed at GCSE, GCE or degree level and the implication is that it ought to be of use to a wide range of courses. In that respect the book clearly has a very general remit, which may be ideal for some readers, though this does not help a potential reader (or teacher) identify easily whether or not the book is ideal for his or her course in terms of specific content. It might have been useful therefore to have given an indication of which courses the book is explicitly useful for, but I can appreciate that this carries the risk of built-in obsolescence. However, the impression I gained is that the author has, for example, taken little or no notice of A-level courses (see comments on Herculaneum below).

The text is divided into four thematic chapters: history, religion, society, and entertainment, together with a fifth and sixth chapter on Pompeii and Herculaneum respectively. Several appendices tackles variously Rome the city, Roman politics, money, clothing and ‘time’ (here meaning calendars). Review boxes scattered through the book provide students with questions to answer which ought to aid their reading and digestion of the text. The text is well broken-up with headings, an essential feature for today’s student who seems increasingly dependent on everything being neatly packaged. The focus on Pompeii and Herculaneum is obviously important since these form the epicenter of any course focused on the Roman world.

The book undoubtedly looks as if it ought to be useful as a kind of general background textbook but an essential ingredient is the apparatus of referencing, bibliography and index. In all these respects the book is a little wanting and I felt this was a real pity since this undoubtedly reduces its utility if its ambition is to serve courses beyond GCSE.

There is a very short (one page) index, of minimal value from which for example the frequently cited sources are omitted, and also many of the topics in the book, though conversely ‘drama’ merits a listing along with six sub-listings in page order rather than alphabetical order. Five classifications start with ‘Roman’. A reader seeking information, for example, on a haruspex has to flick through the chapter on religion to find it on p. 99. Further comments on the index follow below.

There is no Bibliography or suggested further reading which seems strange in a book aimed at students. I appreciate that a GCSE student is unlikely to want to wander much further but it is a pity he or she is not encouraged to look beyond the book; A-level and university students should definitely be encouraged to read further. It is also worth bearing in mind that Classical Civilization courses are quite often delivered in a school context by non-specialists who would doubtless welcome more guidance on where the evidence has originated or where to dig further, even if this book is an answer to some of their prayers in other respects.

The text is mostly competent and well-written, but there are occasional infelicities when it comes to detail. On p. 41 Augustus is started to have had ‘ensured he was always elected a tribune of the people’. In fact Augustus held the power of a tribune but was not elected to the actual post; this power was renewed annually but it was a means by which he avoided the legal obstruction to a patrician holding the actual post and, as Barbara Levick puts it, ‘the collegiality inherent in the consulship and other offices’ (2010, 84). While one does not want to carp about minor points, this is a technicality of enormous significance and it is a pity a mistake has been made which is  amplified on p. 364 where we are told Augustus held the position either of consul or tribune annually, suggesting it was an either/or. Augustus’s tribunician power was renewed annually from 23 BC and recorded on the base-metal coinage. He held the consulship annually until 23BC and again in 5BC and 2BC, of course holding the tribunician power simultaneously. Augustus’s crucial possession of imperium goes unmentioned.

For obvious reasons the book does not and cannot get deeply involved in arcane historical debates, but by the same token an up-to-date synthesis ought at least to reflect something of contemporary thinking. Instead on p. 44 we learn that according to Suetonius Tiberius led a life of ‘disgusting immorality’ (without any evidence being cited). There is no sense of critical evaluation of this judgment which appears to be accepted at face value. Caligula’s reign is condemned with the comment that ‘he became drunk on power and ruled with great cruelty’, again with nothing to substantiate that judgment and no suggestion that modern revisionist perspectives like that of Richard Alston (1998) exist. Here the lack of a reading list is a shame because it would help demonstrate the whole subject to be far more dynamic than the impression created by the sense that all ancient historians do is reiterate Suetonius.

The principal emperors are awarded a few sentences each, making for an enjoyable trawl if one knows nothing about the Roman Empire but providing little hint at what might be usefully researched further. The pace hots up when the third century is tackled in little more than a page and the end result is that the whole of Roman history is afforded less space than that allocated to Pompeii.

The chapters on Religion and Society have a useful litany of topics and anecdotes but the sparse index inhibits the sort of dipping and quick referencing a book like this will mostly be used for. The text sometimes seems unnecessarily fragmented. For example, on p. 64 we are told that the Romans primarily objected only to exclusive cults like Judaism or Christianity because ‘Romans expected all the inhabitants of their empire to worship their gods as well as any others’. This was surely an opportunity to cross-reference the Pliny-Trajan correspondence on dealing with Christians which the author discusses and quotes from on p. 120 (using the Penguin translation by Betty Radice, but uncredited). Family religion appears incongruously in the chapter on Society at pp. 133-5 and is indexed under ‘family religion’.

An absence of footnotes here and elsewhere and limited or erratic use of references also makes it difficult to research the author’s points further. On p. 74 the author references book and chapter in Livy for his point about the early worship of Apollo whereas a box on the imperial cult on p. 80 includes quotes but no information on the author’s sources. The latter is far more typical of the book as a whole. On p. 284 the CIL reference is given for the Holconii at the Pompeii theatre. That’s all very well, but CIL will mean nothing to the average student (or non-specialist teacher) who will have no access to the source material anyway; moreover, in the absence of a Bibliography or Further Reading, the reader is not supplied with any expansion of CIL, any other abbreviations or list of ancient sources. It would have been far better in this instance at least to add a reference to the Cooley Sourcebook of inscriptions from Pompeii which is both in English and in print.

The chapter on Pompeii is serviceable enough with a potted history of the town, the eruption, excavation and the physical remains. But one wonders just how useful this book would be even to a casual student when so many other books are available with considerably more detail. Baths, for example, are covered in under ten lines and obviously therefore little substantive information is supplied though a rare cross-reference directs the reader to p. 250 and a plan of the Stabian Baths in a more general section on baths. Other buildings such as the theatre are treated in slightly more depth and linked to other sections in the book (see below). The brief descriptions of some public buildings and houses, together with their plans are useful but anyone with a serious interest (perhaps for a GCSE Coursework option) would need to investigate further; without any notes or suggested further reading this is not easy.

The Herculaneum chapter follows the same pattern though very few buildings are described in any detail, these mainly being the Forum Baths, the House of the Wooden Partition, the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, and the Villa of the Papyri, while considerably more space is devoted to the skeletons found in the vaulted chambers along the shoreline. As a passing matter of interest, none of these buildings is specifically cited amongst the prescribed material for OCR’s A-level paper CC6 (City Life in Roman Italy) or AQA’s A-level Option E on Roman Architecture and Town Planning; the several Herculaneum buildings that are in these specifications are more or less ignored. The Herculaneum buildings he has included are useful, but it does seem odd that they appear to have been featured at the expense of structures which A-level students will have a specific interest in. Instead, the included material appears to have been built almost entirely around AQA’s GCSE in Classical Civilization. Nothing wrong with that, but it does mean that the potential for meeting the book’s wider remit is limited.

I wondered whether it would not have been better to deal with these classes of buildings in a single place, rather than scatter the information. Housing, for example, ends up being dealt with generally from pp. 125-32, at Pompeii from pp. 308-24, and at Herculaneum from pp. 341-8. Temples are covered generally at pp. 85-7, but also appear in other places such as pp. 112-13 where Pompeii’s temple of Isis is featured, and then other temples at Pompeii on pp. 290-2. Temples are, however, only indexed at pp. 85-7 making it unlikely a reader would appreciate initially that he or she needed to look in at least three different places. Theatres and amphitheatres (amongst others) escape the index altogether unless one looks under ‘drama’; in any case they too are dispersed – a general section on theatres appears at pp. 225-6, with a description of the theatre district at Pompeii on pp. 283-5. A general description of amphitheatres is a component of a section on Gladiatorial Games in Chapter 4 (Entertainment) between pp. 211-22, but then we have three pages on the Pompeii amphitheatre starting at p. 285; all these are only indexed under ‘gladiatorial games’.

The images which proliferate throughout the book are generally well-chosen and range from the familiar to the new. Some are clearly recent shots, such as those taken at ground level in Pompeii whereas others such as the aerial view of the Herculaneum excavations (p. 338) are positively antediluvian. Quality of reproduction is patchy – some seem to bear the hallmarks of relatively low resolution digital images (a common issue with digital pictures taken around five years ago or more), while others are sharp and well-defined. Captions are of limited utility and often do not attribute artifacts to precise locations. For example, the ‘Cave Canem’ mosaic illustrated on p. 128 is from Pompeii’s House of the Tragic Poet but this is not mentioned, and the furniture casts and replica illustrated on p. 131 are from Pompeii’s House of Julius Polybius but this is also not stated. Various other statues and reliefs are illustrated throughout but most give no provenance or information beyond the basic, such as ‘a young man in a toga’ (p. 147) or ‘Mars dressed in armour’ (p. 73) where, in addition, no hint of size or scale is provided. The Piazza Armerina bikini mosaic is illustrated on p. 244 but not identified as such, and nor is it supplied with a date. Some are simply wrong although these are very few – the image captioned ‘Marcus Aurelius’ on p. 52 is actually of Caracalla.

 Images seem totally appropriate for this sort of book but I could not help wondering whether the book has the aura and appearance of a title produced a generation or more ago; students today are entirely accustomed to high resolution colour images available in a trice on tablet computers or other media. To be fair this affects many BCP titles so perhaps it is time the publishers looked into upgrading their approach to illustrations.

In the end then, does the book fulfil its remit? The overall impression I obtained was that this book has been assembled laboriously from an extensive archive of personal interests but has lacked the discipline of an editor who might have borne the needs of the reader, rather than the author, in mind and who might have encouraged a more precise link to the exam board specifications. For this the BCP editorial committee must bear some responsibility. Had the book been armed with guidance on where to take research further this would have ameliorated the inevitable consequences of trying to wedge a quart into a pint pot. I can see this book finding a place in a school classroom where a student might dip casually into it, but it would have been vastly improved by the simple expedient of fuller referencing, a comprehensive and properly-organized index, detailed captions and a less fragmented text.

These criticisms may seem too harsh if the book’s intended readership is really restricted to GCSE students and their teachers. In that respect it will probably fulfil its purpose well, in spite of the limited assistance to encourage further research. However, this should be made much clearer in the book. If the intended purpose is genuinely to serve a much wider range of courses including A-level then my feeling is that it will be of no more than limited utility.

Conversely, at around £16.99 in terms of pages per pound this book represents sound value compared to most of Bristol Classical Press’s offerings which are mostly around two-thirds of the price but a third or less of the length.

Guy de la Bédoyère

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