CUP (2022) h/b 382pp £ 29.99 (ISBN 9781009123211)

Only about 5% of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire lived in cities, and it is the highly educated among them who have produced the history of that world. Village life does not feature large in it. Previous efforts to investigate the topic have tended to draw on anthropological research into the moral and social values of recent peasant life, in order to see if it will cast light on the image of the ancient Greek peasant world recorded by e.g. Hesiod. Such work certainly sharpened up our sense of what ancient peasant life ‘must have been like’, but told us little that was actually new.

In this scholarly, beautifully written and at times rather gripping book, Peter Thonemann (Wadham College, Oxford), whose main scholarly interests lie in Roman Anatolia, directs his attention to the ancient world itself, drawing on an ‘extraordinarily rich body of funerary and propitiatory inscriptions’, many of great length and great detail, found in the remote upland region known to scholars as north-east Lydia. In the process, he produces the first in-depth account of the life of villagers from anywhere in the Roman world, covering everything from livestock, intra-familial relations, standards and values, to gender relations and class structure. The inscriptions record very few Roman citizens, most of them only modestly wealthy, and only two families of equestrian rank.

For that region T. invents the name Hieradoumia (‘sacred kinship-group’), which he sees as the defining feature of the villagers’ social organisation. The evidence is derived wholly from the above stone inscriptions (stêlê, pl. stêlai). The 677 funerary examples regularly name dozens of individuals (one contains 32!), all very precisely located within the family tree of the deceased person. Surprisingly, they use specific Homeric terminology (for e.g. ‘husband’s brother’s wife’) that had long become obsolete because extended Greek families, such as Priam’s, no longer existed: Greek children left their families to set up their own separate households. Hieradoumia represented a quite different kind of social organisation. Further, it is clear that children moved freely around from family to family, having both natal- and a foster- parents, a situation that generated a clear need for clarity about what precisely ‘auntie’ meant. Inheritance, as one would expect in such a system, seems to have been partible. T. examines the evidence for all this and expands it in fine detail, some of it of considerable statistical complexity on matters of demography and household structure.

They also insist on ‘honouring’ the dead family member, in the style of funerary inscriptions usually reserved for the civic elite, and it is clear that the ‘honour’ consisted in the raising of the stêlê, not in any e.g. outstanding public works (though a few are honoured for this). T. considers this a result of ‘generic transfer’ from city to village.

The second source of evidence is what are called the ‘propitiatory’ inscriptions. These described the moral or religious transgressions committed by a family member, which had now been punished by the gods with e.g. death, sickness, blindness etc. They culminate in expressions of gratitude to the god for demonstrating his power (contrast Jesus’ reaction to that view at John 9.1-12), and in assurances that the god will be shown due respect in the future. This was not penitence or confession: it was a public admission of failure, for the whole community to see and for which the whole family took responsibility. T. suggests that these inscriptions reflect a powerful sense of peasant solidarity: the one honours the family that faithfully adheres to social norms, the other condemns social dysfunction within a family and acknowledges the divine anger this can arouse.

T. now turns to analysing what these stêlai tell us about Hieradoumian society. This review cannot go into the full detail, but will select a few examples under a number of T.’s different headings.

While in other parts of the Greco-Roman world the commemoration of the dead was a purely family matter, in Hieradoumia individuals and groups outside the family—slaves, neighbours, cult associations, trade guilds—also featured large.

Take what the propitiatory stêlai tell us about the activities of e.g. the local religious cult associations. There was a clear distinction between private land and sacred land. A god could very well punish a delinquent by taking over his private land, or claiming a tithe from him, which local peasants, we learn, often resisted either by foot-dragging or non-compliance. Tampering with sacred groves by e.g. cutting down trees and poaching sacred doves or pigeons was especially blameworthy, as was refusing to serve a god as a temple slave, presumably to work sacred land or serve as a religious official, for a fixed period, during which sexual abstinence was imposed. Here Theodoros, who was blinded for seducing women, is told how to pay for his crimes:

[Meis/Zeus]: ‘I punished Theodoros in his eyes, because of the hamartiai he committed.’

[Theodoros]: ‘I had sex with Trophime, the slave-girl of Hapiokomas, the wife of Eutyches, in the praetorium.’

[Meis/Zeus]: ‘He takes away the first hamartia with a sheep, a partridge, a mole.’

Second hamartia.

[Theodoros]: ‘But while I was a slave (doulos) of the gods in Nonou, I had sex with the monaulia Ariagne.’

[Meis/Zeus]: ‘He takes it away with a piglet, a tuna, a fish.’

[Theodoros]: ‘In the third hamartia, I had sex with the monaulia Arethousa.’

[Meis/Zeus]: ‘He takes it away with a chicken, a sparrow, a pigeon, a kypros of mixed wheat and barley, a prochos of wine.’

In all these cases, of course, it required some disaster to befall the delinquent (unless caught red-handed) to prove that he had done something wrong. Doubtless many were prepared to take that risk, but no one could complain if the god took action. That was the way the system worked, and everyone from the poorest peasant to the greatest toff had better understand it.

The stêlai also inform us of the sort of conflicts and tensions which ran through that society—false oaths, burglary, defaults on loans and especially disputes over animals—and the role of the gods in being invited to mediate and so maintain proper social order (the language often reflected that of the Roman Senate and judicial practice). T. gives an example of how the legal system worked: X is accused of theft. He denies it and nothing can be proved to the villagers’ satisfaction. A solemn ritual is performed, inviting the gods to help. In time one of the two parties is struck down (or not). And so justice is done. But this raises a problem: can you be certain that the affliction was caused by the god for that crime? T. offers a couple of fascinating case studies of the locals’ efforts to deal with the problem.

Interestingly, such stêlai started to appear in the late first century A.D. This was the time when the area was being carved up into new urban poleis, and T. concludes that the purpose of the stêlai was to keep the state at arm’s-length—Hieradoumians needed no outsiders to tell them how to run their affairs—while also maintaining the moral fabric of the community.

Pulling together all the evidence—there is a great deal more—T. concludes that his Hieradoumia is a ‘decentralised and autarkic region structured around the family neighbourhood and village rather than city, tribe or social class’, reflecting real differences from adjacent territories. Large and extended kinship groups were not purely ‘private or sentimental networks of related households’ but had an independent institutional existence, especially in the religious sphere. He contends that the three chief organising principles were ‘kin group, worshipping group, and village community’ and not the polis, and reflects that, such was the rigour of the communal ethical code, where everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business, life may not have been particularly comfortable.

The evidence for all this is clearly laid out and incisively discussed and analysed, and Greek inscriptions are extensively quoted and translated. T. is to be warmly congratulated on opening up this fascinating and quite unexpected society, unique in the ancient world, as is Cambridge University Press, which has produced the volume to high standards and at a bargain price.


Peter Jones