Wednesday, March 25, 2009


Philip Matyszak, Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Pp. 136. ISBN 9780500287651. $18.95 (pb).

Philip Matyszak, Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. 144 p. ISBN 9780500287606. $18.95 (pb).
Reviewed by John Bulwer, European School Brussels 1 (

The conceit of these two books is that they form guides for the traveller to Athens or Rome in antiquity, a kind of Rough Guide to Ancient Athens or the Rome volume of the Lonely Planet series. As we all know these guides go out of date very quickly and the price of a meal in a restaurant or a hotel room always has to be revised, usually upwards. So a guide to ancient Rome is going to be pretty hopeless as a real aid to travellers, given the inflation that has affected the denarius recently, not to mention the changes in the transport system and the restaurant menus. What then are these guides for? And who are they aimed at? The imagined reader is a fictitious ancient tourist who is not firmly characterised or placed and so the pretence of a guidebook for the traveller to Athens or Rome is not sustained for very long. Perhaps it would have worked better with an imagined time traveller from our own days, as in Keith Hopkins' daring chapter about Pompeii in A World Full of Gods. A date has to be chosen for this target traveller and Matyszak chooses a time in Athens just before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, and a slightly vaguer date of the late 2nd century CE for Rome. The immediate difficulty is that anything worth commenting on from a time later than the one chosen has to be given an anachronistic justification. The later date for Rome works better here as all the must-see sites can be included.

These books really are modern versions of the volumes that used to be called Everyday Life in Ancient Rome, or something similar. When I was at school such books were rather reluctantly given out just before Latin examinations, when a few marks would be allotted for a display of such knowledge. The reluctance seemed to stem from an assumption that too much interest in such things as what the Romans ate, or what they wore under their togas would mean we would not pay the necessary attention to our grammar and syntax. Today we all teach such things as the context into which the language learning fits and our students are much better informed about the baths, the forum, the amphitheatre and even the brothels than we were. The target audience might well be beginners of any age in Greek or Latin language needing more social and cultural background. A class or institution library would benefit from a few copies for students to browse through and fillet for information.

The chapters are arranged in the usual way with treatment of the baths, the amphitheatre, the forum, transport, food, dress, religion, slaves and so on. The Greek volume has a very similar arrangement with chapters on the agora, the gods, drama festivals, and others. Both pay rather more attention to the sex lives of the Athenians and the Romans than was traditional, and teachers will wish to judge whether these books are suitable for their particular classes. The information is arranged in chapters called "Settling In" or "Shopping", which then include a miscellany of facts and advice on how to get around. "Settling In" for the Rome volume covers basic topography including a simple map and types of accommodation, before moving on to medical matters, what to wear and food. All these topics are given a couple of pages each. The text is broken up by line drawings, maps, diagrams, boxed quotations from ancient authors (with detailed references) and every few pages Res Romae (miscellaneous anecdotes, facts, recipes, laws and stories, without references). The Athens volume has chapters on "Athenian Pastimes" (cock-fights and taverns as well as shopping and money) and one on "Activities" (drama festivals, and a symposium which gets fairly lively). Greek illustrations are similar to the Roman ones but include several vase paintings which lend themselves well to black and white reproduction. Both guides conclude with the obligatory useful phrases section, which include such gems as "analabe ton son chiton, o philtate, eme gar eroti keleis" or "in hac tunica obesa videor?" as well as more conventional sentiments. There is no indication of what is controversial amongst the information given, nor what the evidence is for any particular assertion. But that would be to press the format too hard and expect the guides to be something other than what they set out to be. Teachers will need to make it clear that these are fun ways of learning about everyday life in ancient Athens or Rome, but that the information will have to be looked at with a more critical eye at some later stage.

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