Title: Classical Compendium: A miscellany of scandalous gossip,
bawdy jokes, peculiar facts, and bad behavior from the ancient Greeks and Romans
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 192 pages
Genre: history / nonfiction
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4 stars
Matyszak has a great approach to history. He displays it not as staid, overworn stories of famous individuals, but as the real experience of ordinary people — sex, violence, whiny complaints, and all. Matyszak’s Rome is not a land of starched white togas and squeaky-clean marble; his is the Rome of garish dyes and roughspun tunics, of squabbling neighbours and petty disputes, of bad behaviour and its often quite public shame, and, most importantly for the reading experience, of dry wit, frank judgments, and explicit language. I’ve previously read Matyszak’s Legionary, and I hope to read more of his books in the future, because I so appreciate his voice.
In the Classical Compendium, Matyszak has combed the annals and anecdoates for the best tidbits, juiciest gossip, and weirdest tall tales out of Greco-Roman history. And there is, no doubt, some strange stuff in there. Matyszak’s scope includes travel, the military, religion, love affairs, animal lore, odd jobs, criminal records, and even the customs surrounding death in the ancient world — and some of most notable suicides and murders. He also sprinkles the text with traditional jokes from ancient Greece, many of which could be told today without anyone having the slightest feeling of anachronism.
You’ll learn about silphium, a plant worth its weight in gold for its medicinal uses, which included cough syrup and fever relief, as well as birth control and abortifacent; it went extinct sometime in the first century. You’ll find aphrodisiac recipes, and love poems guaranteed to win a woman’s heart — alongside invective poetry guaranteed to drive her away, if that’s your aim. Pompey had trouble with elephants, chameleons live on air, dogs got crucified once a year, and Julius Caesar had a horse with toes. Augustus Caesar imposed strict morality on his people, but couldn’t govern his own family (as anyone who’s watched I. Claudius knows). You’ll learn about some of the ancient world’s most bizarrely specific jobs, like anti-elephant infantrymen, pig igniter, theatre shade operator, professional informer, and phallus manufacturer. If you have someone you desperately need to curse, the ancients have some delightfully specific recommendations. Everyone from commoners to emperors sought advice from the oracle, for questions as big as whether to go to war, as small as “Will I retrieve the mattresses and pillows I have lost?”, and as universal as “What have I done to deserve this?”
What all of these tidbits bring to life is the idea of an ancient world that was full and lively, in some ways as sophisticated as our own, lacking only our technology. It’s a treasure trove, the gems of which illuminate a world long gone, alien to us in some ways, but alarmingly familiar in many others. Matyszak’s books are fantastically educational, but eminently readable and entertaining as well. This isn’t a stuffy recitation of dates and famous names; this is people, as they were and as they still are. And that, to me, is the very best kind of history.
This book got 4 stars instead of 5 mostly because I wish there had been more things in here that I didn’t already know. I would say the book is probably half-and-half information that was new to me versus information that I’ve picked up somewhere along the way, either in school or just in my own trawling of historical topics. I also think that, because this book relies more heavily on the primary sources, there’s less of Matyszak’s sense of humour coming through than there was in Legionary, and I missed that. The Classical Compendium is, well, exactly what it says: a miscellany, bits and pieces out of the original authors or generally summarised, without a lot of connective material or commentary. Still, it’s thoroughly delightful, and a wonderful historical reference book. Every lover of the ancient world should have this on her shelf.