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The Ancient Middle Classes

The Ancient Middle Classes: urban life, economics, and a new aesthetic in the Roman Empire, 100 BCE-250 CE

Emanuel Mayer
Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Harvard University Press
Pages: 296
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  • Book Info
    The Ancient Middle Classes
    Book Description:

    Our image of the Roman world is shaped by the writings of upper-class intellectuals. Yet most of the material evidence we have—art, architecture, household artifacts—belonged to artisans, merchants, and professionals. Roman culture as we have seen it with our own eyes is distinctly middle-class and requires a radically new framework of analysis.

    eISBN: 978-0-674-06534-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology, Art & Art History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-xvi)
  3. 1 Class, Stratification, and Culture: The Roman Middle Classes and Their Place in History
    (pp. 1-21)

    The term “ancient middle classes” requires justification. It has been shunned over the last thirty years, and given its previous uses, understandably so.¹ But “middle class” as a concept is essential to understand the great social transformations that led to the mass culture of the Roman Empire, which, in terms of houses and tombs, is the subject of this book. Without a thriving class of artisans, merchants, and professionals, Roman urban life as we know it would not have come into existence. And it is thanks to these middle classes that we are left with the thousands of marble sarcophagi...

  4. 2 In Search of Ancient Middle Classes: An Archaeology of Middle Classes in Urban Life, 100 B.C.E.–250 C.E.
    (pp. 22-60)

    Ancient economic and social history suffers from a lack of hard statistical data. We know that ancient governments kept detailed census and tax records. But these documents were almost exclusively written on perishable materials and are, with a few exceptions, now lost to us. Unless we want to write Greco-Roman economic and social history exclusively in terms of ancient political thought, we must turn to nontextual data. Here, the organization of ancient cityscapes provides us with a macroscopic picture of social stratification and economic life. In particular, the economic transformation of households and the evolution of commercial infrastructure in the...

  5. 3 From Commercial to Middle Classes: Urban Life and Economy in the Roman Empire
    (pp. 61-99)

    The transformation from agrotowns into economically and socially diverse cities created economic opportunities outside agriculture. As many items of daily use could no longer be procured through household production, artisans, peddlers, and shopkeepers made it their business to produce and sell them. This also applied to services. A series of recently discovered graffiti from a medium-sized house in Ephesus list a number of items and services that had to be accounted for.¹ These are foodstuffs like bread, olive oil, and sausages but also items of daily use like laundry detergent and soap. Services are listed too. They include entry fees...

  6. 4 In Search of Middle-Class Culture: Commemorating Working and Private Lives
    (pp. 100-165)

    The new prominence of tabernae and clubhouses reflects the rise of commercial cityscapes and urban middle classes. Economically, these middle classes stood between the working poor and the leisured landowning rich, but mapping them culturally is far more difficult. It seems that the ancients did not conceive of anything like a “middle-class culture.” But the archaeological evidence of tombs and houses suggests that there was, nonetheless, a distinct middle-class lifestyle. This applies in particular to visual culture, even though this may seem counterintuitive at first. The high degree of iconographic standardization in Roman art suggests that middle class Romans imitated...

  7. 5 Decor and Lifestyle: The Aesthetics of Standardization
    (pp. 166-212)

    Like the images on sarcophagi, Roman domestic art has long been interpreted through the lens of literary upper-class culture. On this view, domestic decor in general—from wall painting to garden decoration—was created as a reflection of the tastes and lifestyles of the rich and educated. This aristocratic paradigm and the resulting focus on the townhouses (domus) and villas of Rome’s political and social elites is rooted in discussions of elite housing in Roman literature, most importantly in Cicero and in Vitruvius.¹ These studies have established that the houses and, by extension, the domestic arts of Rome’s late Republican and early...

  8. 6 Conclusions
    (pp. 213-220)

    Urban life is multifaceted. This is why two literary descriptions of the same city can differ so fundamentally that they may seem to describe different places. One of the best-known books on urban imagination plays with this theme. In his Invisible Cities of 1972, Italo Calvino invents a conversation between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan. Marco Polo tells the khan about various cities in his vast realm. Each of these cities is viewed through a lens of thematic reduction. There are “cities of trade” just as there are “cities of desire.” At one point the khan, wary of the tall...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 223-288)
  10. Index
    (pp. 289-296)