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Emanuel Mayer: The Ancient Middle Classes. Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE, Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press 2012, XV + 295 S., ISBN 978-0-674-05033-4, USD 45,00
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Rezension von:
Ray Laurence
Classical & Archaeological Studies, School of European Culture and Languages, University of Kent, Canterbury
Redaktionelle Betreuung:
Matthias Haake
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Ray Laurence: Rezension von: Emanuel Mayer: The Ancient Middle Classes. Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE, Cambridge, MA / London: Harvard University Press 2012, in: sehepunkte 13 (2013), Nr. 4 [15.04.2013], URL:

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Emanuel Mayer: The Ancient Middle Classes

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Emanuel Mayer sets out in this book to shift perceptions of who was involved in the generation of Roman Urban Aesthetics from that associated with an undefined "Roman elite" to a quite different group of people, who may loosely be described as The Ancient Middle Class. In so doing, he recognises that the term "class" is fundamentally modern, but is essential for the explanation of the social transformation that led to a "mass-culture" developing in the Roman Empire. The evidence for this shift comes, not surprisingly, from Pompeii and Olynthus where we cannot identify every example of "art" or aesthetics with an imaginary elite culture or with the destitute. This is set out in his chapter "In search of Ancient Middle Class". This is a powerful observation, here, and one that decouples the literary sources of the elite from the observation of the patterns in the archaeological record of Pompeii. It should be stated that this is a shift that does not take us back to Amedeo Maiuri's paradigm of the development of a bourgeoisie at Pompeii and in Herculaneum. What is slightly odd is that Mayer sees the middle-class not just in 1st century AD Pompeii, but also in 4th century BC Olynthus or in Euripides' writings of the 5th century BC. There is a feeling that, if only we looked we would find the "squeezed middle" of the ancient world. However, there is a need to situate the search for a middle class into a temporal and social context and the 1st century AD Pompeii was materially very different even from 1st century BC Pompeii, let alone much earlier contexts mass-culture need not be a universal phenomenon of antiquity, something Mayer recognises in drawing out the distinction. Elite sources do pop-up in this discussion, not least that fictional freedman Trimalchio and his fellow freedmen from Petronius' Satyrica Mayer steps away from the trickle-down effect of cultural change to suggest that the middle-class appropriate the signifiers of Roman culture and re-package them for different form of cultural production. After all, it is making or creating that lies at the heart of Petronius' text Trimalchio made money and produced a house with objects and frescoes, as well as making his own tomb. There is a sense in the book that Mayer is setting out the presence of his middle class, but the full implications of these observations in terms of the economic survival of the middle class needs further analysis. How were material goods of this middle class transmitted from generation to generation, rather than simply consumed in the manner of a single life span such as that of Trimalchio? What effect did major urban catastrophes such as the fires in Rome of AD 64 and AD80 have on the development of mass-culture or middle class urban living set out by Mayer? Certainly, major fires would have disrupted the seamless age of prosperity proposed by Mayer spanning 400 years from 200 BC to AD 200. In any case, looking to the archaeological changes in Rome's hinterland revealed in the Tiber Valley [1] there does appear to be major fluctuations in the first two centuries of this 400 year period, and we might delineate the phase of prosperity to just 200 years on that basis, but still recognise the presence of fires as an urban economic risk in which, presumably, everything could be lost. Intriguingly, the archaeology of Pompeii and Herculaneum provide an indicator of what was lost and what may have been transported away from shops and homes in the face of such a disaster. Thus, the evidence for middle class lifestyle in say the Casa di Postumii can become evidence for the loss of that lifestyle and an ability to assess the economic implications of catastrophes.

Mayer has more than just Pompeii in his book though. His review of the presence of tabernae across the empire reminds us that there is some process at work that caused the cultural transfer of this architectural and socio-economic form to those in cities as far from Italy as Britain. What is less clear is how he sees this archaeologically attested phenomenon coming about. The shops are also traced in the Roman East to come to the conclusion that the cities of the Roman Empire were "cities of middle-class artisans and businessmen" (85). Set out most clearly by him in his discussion of the various collegia of Ostia. The reader may wonder: where have the poor gone? Ostracised from urban life to live in the countryside perhaps? However, one wonders whether the materially impoverished can leave a trace on the cityscape and, maybe, there is much still to be done to create a sense of the realities of family histories that were subject to economic fluctuations and change over several generations. This is apparent in Mayer's discussion of tombs that place an emphasis on the production of the tomb, inscription or sarcophagus as a signifier of the life of a middle class person or individual, rather than as an item that could reinforce and articulate the cultural ideals of a family, whose members could look at the tomb one, two or even three generations later from the point of its creation. There are numerous examples of tombstones that demonstrate the value of work in the lives of the deceased and/or their commemorator/s, but one has to wonder how many of all the epitaphs from the Roman Empire engage with these aesthetics of work? Is it a high percentage of the total? Probably not, not all of the middle class utilised the repertoire of imagery found in this book; many had epitaphs that were simple, mentioning their name, perhaps their age at death, but little else. This is where the problem lies articulated (2) by Mayer through a discussion of the assertion of belonging to the middle class by both John Prescott and David Cameron middle class is a social relativist statement: Cameron and his cabinet, ruling Britain, belong in nearly every case to wealthy elite families, but politically assert that, though millionaires unlike most middle class folk, they wish to define themselves as middle class (Cameron is said to be worth £3.8 million with liquid assets of £190,000 and expects to inherit a further £25.3 million, source the Daily Telegraph 27/05/12). Are the middle classes who commissioned these monuments, such as the tomb of the Haterii, closer to Cameron or closer to John Prescott? The rhetoric of politics, today, is so different from that of Cicero De officiis (1.150-52), but I suspect Cameron and his friends could view Prescott's material world as that of Trimalchio and other to their own material world underpinned by the wealth of their parents. Middle class, ancient or modern, can be everyone and can include everything that they use, but can as easily fragment and turn the middle classes into polarised identities founded on inherited wealth and, in contrast, the hard graft of social mobility. There is a sense by which the images of work engage with a social world separated from that of the millionaires inheriting their fortunes from parents, who might themselves have been Trimalchios and socially mobile. The transfer of wealth and definition of a culture of a middle class in antiquity needs to account for more than its assertion within a short temporal period or even within the life time of one socially mobile person. Inheritance, social reproduction of cultural aesthetics requires greater consideration and further analysis.

Emanuel Mayer has written an important book that is stimulating to read and to think with to formulate new ways to interrogate the archaeology of the Roman Empire. It opens up a whole series of new avenues for research to develop from and, for that, readers should be grateful to Mayer. He has written a book that challenges and causes greater thought about how the Roman Empire produced its aesthetics of urban life. A book to make your students think with.


[1] Helen Patterson / Helga Di Giuseppe / Rob Whitcher: Three South Etrurian 'Crises': First Results of the Tiber Valley Project, in: Papers of the British School at Rome 72 (2004), 1-36.

Ray Laurence