Book Review: A SOCIAL HISTORY OF GREECE & ROME

Let’s start off by saying that I enjoyed this book immensely. Michael Grant is one of those writers who words history in a very palatable way, making it fun and exciting.

 

One of my favorite things about this little volume was its prolific reference to classical literature, with the dual purpose of making the text more interesting, and offering the reader a nice background of published work in the time period. Literature, too, is obviously a huge outlet for social information. The literary minds of the time recorded their own views of the social hierarchy, whether it was in commentary like Plato’s or fiction like Homer’s. Now, those views have been handed down to us, to shed a better light on what life was like in the classical world.

The book was organized in this way. Women were detailed first: Greek women, then Roman women. Then came men: Rich men and poor men. Obviously, the greater difference between men would have existed due to rank and station; not nationality. Whether Greek or Roman, men enjoyed the same privileges.

The last, and meatiest, section, deals with “The Unfree and the Freed,” seeing as there were so many unfree people in the classical world. There are chapters about serfs (very different from slaves, but hardly better); Greek slaves; Roman slaves; and finally, freedmen and freedwomen. The freeing of slaves was very popular, for a time, in ancient Rome in particular. Slaveholders dangled the opportunity of freedom in front of slaves, to produce better effort from them. Sometimes, freedmen rose to very high rank and station, even becoming members of government.

If you’re looking for a quick read on classical history from a social, rather than a political, perspective, take a look at Grant’s volume. He’s written many books on the classical world, perhaps the most prominent of which are The Founders of the Western World and The Fall of the Roman Empire, both of which I’m perusing at the moment.

Michael Grant is a former Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, and Professor of Humanity at Edinburgh University. He lives in Italy.

Lovely choice of residence for a Roman scholar!

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