Edited by Lucy Grigg

CUP (2017) h/b 369pp £75 (ISBN 9781107074897)

A lengthy introduction theorises about what one might mean by ‘popular’ and ‘culture’ To put it very simply, G. does not mean opera vs. bingo, but a whole range of behaviours across the political, social and artistic spectrum in all their (cliché alert) ‘richness and diversity’. There follow two essays on classical Greece, four on Rome, three on the world of the Roman Empire and four on Christianity in late antiquity.

M. Canevaro makes the central point that Athens’ radical, direct democracy served the interest of the people because it was the people by, and so for whom, it was shaped. Consequently popular ‘subversion’, so thrilling a thought for today’s thinkers, was a contradiction in terms. It was struggling elites who were the true subversives (cf. Philocleon’s parody of symposium culture in Wasps). J. Robson observes that Aristophanes, keening on winning prizes, served both constituencies—appealing to the masses with obscenity and low characters but also identifying different sorts of elites (the rich, intellectuals, those in public office) who were both mocked but also acknowledged. After all, it was mainly toffs like Pericles they listened to in the assembly, and Aristophanes knew how to make an audience feel ‘in’ on an intellectual joke.

C. Rosillo-López argues that the plebs’ use of nicknames, e.g. calling a politician a ‘Gracchus’, indicated that they had an ‘alternative and independent memory’ to that of the elite: plebs knew where their interests lay. C. Courrier skilfully enlarges on this theme: the plebs backed politicians who backed them (e.g. Marius, Clodius) but also backed off (Clodius again). They protested against taxes, expensive wheat, shoddy games. When the emperor became the sole political point of reference, it was he who bore the brunt of their displeasure. They were, in other words, an active and fully integrated political force. T. Hawkins further elaborates the theme through the plebs’ use of invective to make their common voice heard. A. Vincent, doing his best with the slight evidence available, wonders how far ceremonial music—especially the ‘big band’ instruments like the tuba and cornu—acted as a ‘unifying element of urban identity’.

J. Toner reflects on the intellectual life of the non-elite, expanding the concept beyond the literary realm to take in philosophy (the popular wisdom of fables and proverbs, dealing with abstract ideas like power and class); myth, expressed in dance and pantomime; and gambling, especially with dice (including their oracular use), which was a way of exploring the abstract notion of chance which to a pleb must often have seemed the only way to get ahead. V. Jennings explores this idea further in relation to divination, especially the do-it-yourself sort with birds, little feathery jobs flying about the place tweeting but also, at times of state crisis, portentous harbingers of fate: plebs wanted their own share of that predictive power. A. Pudsey turns the spotlight on children’s culture in Roman Egypt, showing in fine detail that children were both children in their own right, even across social groups, but also ‘responded to adult expectations of them’ as they grew up.

The rise of Christianity and the theological response to popular culture dominate the final four essays. L. Grig analyses how the plebs refused to allow Christian authorities to demonise their annual New Year celebrations on the Kalendae of January by arguing that they were not sacrilegious, nor superstitious, let alone a threat, but just a jolly custom which they had always enjoyed. N.D. Lewis finds in catacombs and cemeteries evidence both ancient and modern that ‘lived religion’, in this case magical beliefs such as necromancy, curse-tablets and oracular magic, coexisted perfectly happily among ordinary Christians despite the best efforts of the church’s decrees that such practices were not acceptable (Council of Laodicea, AD 363-4). Such practices were felt to be effective, and that would always win out against orthodoxy. On the same theme J. Maxwell shows that the plebs were perfectly happy to hear sermons about, and discuss, difficult theological concepts (bishop Gregory of Nyssa said that if you asked for the price of a loaf you would probably find yourself in a discussion about the relative statuses of God the Father and God the Son). In other words, theology was not separate from common culture, nor did it operate independently from ‘popular beliefs’ about relics, healing, divine protection, demons, angels and so on. Finally, J.C. Magalhâes de Oliveira exploits evidence from North Africa to show that religious leaders like St Augustine were taking risks in attempting to assert themselves by imposing new religious ideas on the masses, since the masses were used to having their own ideas about such things. This new religion, however powerful, needed time to bed in among people in a culture which (to our knowledge) had never before been given orders from on high about what to believe about the gods. A 43-page bibliography and index follow.

This a commendable collection of essays, all detailed, readable, well-argued and with much of interest to say on the topics they elaborate.
Peter Jones

We welcome your comments; please send via our social media.
Back to Reading Room