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The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire 100 BCE–250 CE

The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire 100 BCE–250 CE

By Emanuel Mayer. Pp. xiv + 295, figs. 30. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass. 2012. $45. ISBN 978-0-674-05033-4 (cloth).

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Every so often a book is published in the field of Roman art and archaeology that promises to change dramatically our scholarly paradigms and conceptions of ancient life, art, and society. Mayer’s book has the potential to do just that. His study participates in current and much-needed discussions of the commercial lives and artistic commissions of individuals outside elite circles. But his study is more bold than that, tackling as it does entrenched ideas about the Roman economy, cityscapes, and funerary and domestic art, all with the notion that the middle classes fueled an art market and radically transformed urban life and aesthetics in ways that scholars have yet to acknowledge. In this last regard, Mayer is committed to the notion that art commissioned by the Roman middle classes cannot be explained by a simple “trickle-down aesthetic,” a concept that insists that nonelite individuals naively imitated elite artistic trends and commissions. Indeed, this idea pervades studies of Roman art, either explicitly or implicitly, and it is refreshing to move through an argument that not only wrestles with the weight of scholarship but also proffers novel frameworks for seeing and understanding the artistic commissions of urban middle classes.

Mayer’s book is divided clearly into two sections. The first is dedicated to defending his admittedly anachronistic use of the term “middle class” in a Roman context and to demonstrating the very real extent to which Roman commercialization in urban centers gave rise to such “middle classes.” In the introductory chapter, Mayer engages debates on the Roman economy and society, adopting Max Weber’s notion of status group and “social class,” defined as a group of individuals who “share similar economic opportunities, and, at the same time, social and cultural conditions” (2). In so doing, Mayer argues that the Roman middle class had its own set of values and forms of cultural expression, distinct from the aristocracy (and therefore not in imitation of it). This middle class was quite sizeable, leading him to observe that it produced “the bulk of the archaeological evidence from Roman cities” (21). The second chapter is therefore devoted to finding the middle class, which, Mayer demonstrates, began to experience unprecedented economic opportunity and social mobility in the Late Republic as agro-towns transformed into cities filled with trade and commercial activities. In addition, Mayer challenges our long-held dependency on Roman writers, who create the (false) picture that the upper classes did not participate in commercial enterprises. He thus turns to the archaeological record, looking, for example, at first-century C.E. Pompeii, where we witness the proliferation of tabernae (shops) connected to both large and smaller domestic units, alongside an active rental market. Its rental market, of both shops and apartments, Mayer argues, catered to an ever more prosperous middle class of people who rented shops for commercial activities and apartments elsewhere for living. The third chapter traces the development of the taberna economy (66), and this is perhaps the most compelling section of the book. Mayer looks to cities throughout the empire and across time to expose the extent to which merchants and artisans (making up the middle class) contributed in meaningful ways to cityscapes, with shops and workshops being “the defining feature” of many large and bustling ancient cities (81). For instance, he offers an extensive discussion of the ways that businesspeople and local magistrates were in constant negotiation as collegia took on large civic projects and left highly visible imprints on cities (e.g., the Piazzale delle Corporazioni at Ostia Antica), again showing how the middle and upper classes had vested interests in commercial activities. It is in this chapter that readers will see just how vital and visible the middle classes were in the economic and social life of Roman cities.

The second part of the book focuses on aesthetics in middle-class contexts. In an attempt to challenge the trickle-down aesthetics paradigm mentioned above, Mayer characterizes middle-class funerary art as tending to promote an individual’s profession as part of his self-definition (e.g., as shown with the stele of the shoemaker from Rome) and developing its own visual expressions for displaying affection within the family (esp. with depictions of myth on Late Roman sarcophagi). While Mayer walks us carefully through his argument, I think readers will find two interrelated problems with it: he risks setting up a dichotomy with elite art forms (something he had avoided in the previous section as he put local elites and middle classes in dialogue) and essentializing the taste of the middle class, despite its very heterogeneity. His argument follows similar lines with respect to domestic interiors. Mayer claims that mythological paintings and sculptural ensembles did not invite the ultra-elite readings with which scholars have imbued them, but rather were selected to create an atmosphere. By showing how such domestic ensembles were generalized, he concludes that middle-class owners were not attempting to better the local elite. Rather, art was simply “a commodity to be enjoyed” (165), a statement that is at once paradigm shifting and vague. In this latter regard, I think Mayer misses an opportunity to see/read more nuance on the subject than he allows, even outside the overly erudite readings he justly critiques. His final argument will likely find its way into future discussions and spark debate, perhaps as Harris did with respect to literacy in the ancient world (Ancient Literacy [Cambridge, Mass. 1989]).

For a study partly based on aesthetics, 30 images are far too few. There is a richness to Mayer’s argument, which would have benefited not only from illustrating the artworks he discusses but also from considering more images overall (perhaps from beyond Rome and Pompeii) by way of comparison. This last point was particularly salient with respect to Mayer’s discussion of art in the domestic realm, which was limited to a sustained analysis of only two Pompeian decorative ensembles (the so-called House of Octavius Quartio and the Casa dell’Ara Massima). Furthermore, the lack of a bibliography (or works cited section) makes the endnotes difficult to navigate. This book is designed for specialists—the ones who know intimately the venues and images to which Mayer refers and the bibliography on the topic. This is a pity, as Mayer’s book has potentially far-reaching consequences and could become a standard work for scholars and students invested in the social histories of Roman art, the Roman economy, and aesthetics of the Roman middle classes. Nonetheless, Mayer has written a study that must now be confronted in any investigation of sub-elite art in urban landscapes, filled as they were with successful craftsmen and businessmen, the very people who did much to drive the art industry and market.

Lauren Hackworth Petersen
Department of Art History
University of Delaware
Newark, Delaware 19716

Book Review of The Ancient Middle Classes: Urban Life and Aesthetics in the Roman Empire 100 BCE–250 CE, by Emanuel Mayer

Reviewed by Lauren Hackworth Petersen

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 117, No. 4 (October 2013)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1174.Petersen

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