Tag Archives: Philip Matyszak

Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak

Title: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a DayAncientRome5DenariiDay
Author: Philip Matyszak
Year of Publication: 2007
Length: 144 pages
Genre: nonfiction – history
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 3.75 stars

This book is a great resource, though it isn’t quite what I’d expected or hoped for. Matyszak writes with his usual felicity and accessibility, but this book is not, as the title and cover might led you to believe, quite so similar to his Legionary or Gladiator. The premise does not really drop you into the role of ancient tourist. Rather, the book provides a snapshot view of Rome-at-a-glance, somewhere around the year 200.

And it just that — a glance view, with plenty of anecdotes and trivia, but not a particularly deep exploration. I do like the book’s organization, which takes you through things to do, places to go, and social customs to observe. Matyszak pays special attention to the geography of the city of the Caesars: what’s on which hill (temples, temples, and, oh yeah, some more temples), what you’ll find in the Subura (crime and prostitutes, mostly), what’s across the river (nothing you want to be a part of), which forums to hit for what activities and shopping excursions. He stresses a lot of the activities most important to Roman social life at all strata — bathing, eating, gossiping, going to the races. Roman entertainment can be beautifully poetic or utterly depraved, though Matyszak does unpack the goings-on at the Colosseum — not always lethal combat between gladiators (who were, after all, expensive investments), not necessarily to everyone’s taste (Romans throughout the centuries voiced their distaste for the more gruesome activities — though enough still approved, clearly, that they kept it up), and Christians pretty much never got thrown to the lions (they got crucified instead, because that’s the Roman sense of humor there in a nutshell). He notes the architectural genius of the colosseum, able to fill in 20 minutes and disperse as quickly, using techniques that stadium-builders still employ today.

Matyszak also does a great job of discussing the integration of religion with Roman life — all-important and yet not terribly pious, at least to a modern point of view. The gods are everywhere. Literally, everywhere. Every hill, every valley, every home, every crossroads. Celebrations in their honor dictate the movement of the calendar. Auspices and astrology inform political life. And yet the gods don’t actually care if you believe in them. So long as the rituals are observed, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain, and you can go on to merrily worship anyone you choose. “Confessing a deep love for a particular god,” however, as Matyszak notes, “is superstitio and the person concerned is probably emotionally disturbed.”

Though the humor in Ancient Rome in 5 Denarii a Day is not as laugh-out-loud funny as I found Legionary to be, or even the Classical Compendium, Matyszak’s sly humor still shines through periodically. Some of the best bits of the book, though, actually showcase the humor of the ancients, every bit as dry and ironic as the best of the BBC. Matyszak liberally sprinkles the book with quotes from Plautus, Cicero, Tacitus, Plutarch, and others — and even when those are from “serious” sources, they often highlight the absurdity of social or political life. They also provide insight into those great geological details about what sort of people you’d find in what places.

Overall, this is a nice resource to have — not particularly comprehensive, but an excellent overview, and certainly inspirational for me. There are all sorts of fun tidbits to mine and to research further. This would be a great addition to any Rome-enthusiast’s bookshelf.


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Classical Compendium, by Philip Matyszak

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.


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