Surprises from a book of oracles

… it gives us a rare glimpse – as Jerry Toner stresses in Popular Culture in Ancient Rome – into the day-to-day anxieties of the ordinary inhabitants of the Roman Empire. For (never mind the publicity yarn about Alexander the Great) this is not elite literature, or certainly not literature aimed exclusively at the elite; in fact, the question about “being sold” implies that slaves were among the intended clientele. Here we have a long list of the kinds of problems that made ordinary Roman men (and they do seem to be exclusively male questions) anxious enough to resort to fortune-tellers. Some of these are the perennial issues of sex, illness and success (“Will I split up from my girlfriend?” “Will the one who is sick survive?” “Will I be prosperous?”). But other questions reflect much more specifically Graeco-Roman concerns about life’s fortunes and misfortunes. Alongside worries about the wife’s pregnancy, we find questions about whether or not to rear the expected offspring: a vivid reminder that infanticide was one orthodox method of family planning in the ancient world, as well as being a convenient way of disposing of those who emerged from the womb weak, sickly or deformed. Debt and inheritance also bulk large among the topics of concern, accounting for at least twelve of the ninety-two questions (“Will I pay back what I owe?” “Will I inherit from a friend?”). So do the dangers of travel (“Will I sail safely?”) and the potential menace of the legal system (“Am I safe from prosecution?” “Will I be safe if informed against?”). Even illness may be thought to be the result of crime or malevolence, as the question “Have I been poisoned?” shows.

Toner is excellent at squeezing the social and cultural implications out of this material. As well as reflecting on the perilous, debtridden, short and painful human lives that the oracle book reveals, he notes some surprising absences. There is nothing here (poisoning apart) to suggest a fear of violent crime, despite the fact that we often imagine that the Roman Empire was full of highwaymen, pirates and muggers. Nor is there anything on the institution of patronage. Modern historians have written volumes on the dependence of the poor on their elite patrons – for everything from jobs, to loans or food. Toner speculates that the intended users of these oracles were so far down the Roman social hierarchy that they were below the reach of the patronage system (which only extended so far as “the respectable poor”). Maybe. Or maybe the whole system of patronage was far less important in the life of the non-elite, than the Roman elite writers, on whom we mostly rely, liked to imagine. Or, at least, maybe it was far less important in whatever corner of the Roman Empire this strange little book originated.

Pushing the evidence a little further, Toner suggests that we might see in these oracles a rudimentary system of risk-assessment.

From this must-read review by Mary Beard at TLS; link via Jenny.

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