Popular Culture in Ancient Rome

Emma Dench writes:

No one could accuse Jerry Toner of a lack of empathy with those who take centre stage in his gripping new study, Popular Culture in Ancient Rome. Toner’s Roman people have neither time nor energy for the entertainments that have dominated traditional treatments of ‘daily life’: festivals, baths and games. They are grim and resigned, struggling with poverty, badly in debt, about to be sold into slavery at any moment (if they aren’t slaves already) and, unsurprisingly, prone to depression and schizophrenia. Toner keeps politics out of things: it’s seen as just another area in which the people were screwed by the wealthy. For self-help, they have dice oracles, which predict death to three out of ten of those who ask about their child’s fate. Worse still, there is precious little sign of solidarity: most of the time everyone hates everyone else, and isn’t too shy to say so. Thank goodness for the emergence of Christianity, which, in age-old fashion, Toner sees as a potential solution, with its ideology of charity and care for the less fortunate.

(LRB 17 February 2011)

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