Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ray Laurence – Roman Passions

Here's to all the nice people out there who write good books for the long winter months. Ray Laurence's “Roman Passions – A History of Pleasure in Imperial Rome” is precisely one of those readings that require a cup of hot cocoa and soft carols in the background. And a cat purring somewhere on a rag.

I was a bit reluctant with this one, since the title made me believe it would be one of those tabloid-type works, but it's not – quite to the contrary, it's well balanced and carefully documented. Guess the title was just for marketing purposes – and I wonder if it didn't work the other way round – people who actually bought the book were disappointed and found it dry history, while those searching for serious history overlooked it. (I got it as a birthday present. To be sure, I would have bought it anyway, I buy everything Rome-related, even when I suspect it's the biggest junk in the world.)

In “Roman Passions”, Laurence manages to present a coherent vision about Roman aesthetics, and does a great job in selecting the common, as well as the exotic bits that shaped it. It was particularly nice to see how he emphasized the fact that the Romans were a rather puritan bunch, and the scandalous stories of the age were just that – stories. This is an idea I found most often in French historic literature, the English-language school seems to ignore it (or take it for granted, with Brits it's always hard to say).

I was a little surprised that the author chose to ignore the games and theaters – or rather, to include them under the generic chapter of “Violence”, when I've always felt that the amphitheaters, odeons and circuses were a social and cultural space in their own right, creating “internal” rules that skewed the natural order of the Roman society quite a bit. Also surprising is how little Laurence quotes Ovid – I'd say he was the supreme authority on Roman pleasure (of course, I'm biased. I like Ovid.)

The uneasy relation Romans had with their own pleasures is well underlined (guilty of feeling good, long before Christianity made it a standard), but more demographic data would have helped me understand Laurence's point of view easier. At times I wasn't sure whether his statements referred to the mindset of the ruling aristocracy or to the masses of Roman citizens.

So, all in all, a good read when it's dark and snowing outside, and may contain some starting points for more serious research in the coming year. If you're still unsure, you can check out the writer's style and ideas in this blog post: Top 10 Passions of Ancient Rome: Sex, Binge Drinking, and the Culture of Pleasure.