Tuesday, December 21, 2010


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J. C. McKeown, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. xiii, 243. ISBN 9780195393750. $17.95.

Reviewed by Keely Lake, Wayland Academy

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James McKeown has written a lighthearted miscellany that will serve as a wonderful gift for anyone who is fascinated by the Romans. The humor with which he has approached this book is evident in the book cover, which contains glowing blurbs such as "Greater than the Iliad." The quotation is not from a lofty collegiate colleague about McKeown's own book, however, but by Sextus Propertius about Vergil's Aeneid. There is no pretence in the preface either, where McKeown describes his efforts as a mere collection of observations about ancient Rome. He has not cited some sources "to ensure that the reader does not suppose that this book has academic pretensions" (ix), and he has chosen among multiple versions of other stories as suited his fancy, either using the best-known source, or the most coherent, or simply wherever he happened to note it first. McKeown is a natural teacher with an ear for an engaging anecdote. He knows how to sift through his vast knowledge of the ancients to present a story that will entertain and educate those listening. As such, this interesting volume will amuse the amateur and provide the expert with grand fodder for their classes; our students will enjoy hearing of these odd little facts and tales in the spare minutes after a lesson is done.

McKeown has not pulled punches in his choice of anecdotes. Death, suffering, cruelty, and base human vanity and foolishness are all here—he has not whitewashed the Romans for those with prudish sensibilities, and there is much suffering evident in the treatment of people of every status, gender, and nationality. Indeed nothing has been sanitized: there is a section on medicine and another on toilets; one section warns off the faint of heart altogether with the title "Not for the Puritanical." The reviewer must admit that she was frequently troubled by the brutal treatment of human life, natural resources, and the animal kingdom portrayed by ancient writers as a matter of course. There are enough funny bits, on the other hand, including McKeown's own occasional commentary on the stories included—such as in Polybius' seeming description of the Romans as eighteen inches tall (42-43) and the reason that enjoying the smell of burning papyri does not constitute glue sniffing (183)—to keep one going through what one might find the more depressing pieces. It is an easy book to keep reading, just as it is an easy book to lay aside and return to later without a loss of continuity.

The book is, of course, a nice source for some of those tidbits which we might remember from our own school days, ones which we could not find later or which we had simply forgotten over the years. This book does not ask for a long review where one scours for errors or technical arguments; how does a reviewer take issue when grandeur and pretension are so studiously avoided? The modesty with which the material is presented, however, hides an important truth amongst the wild facts and anecdotes sometimes difficult for a tender heart to read: ancient life was not all Ciceronian discourse and Vergilian polish. Those in the Roman world lived as dirty and as dangerous, as deadly and as perverse a life as we do today. McKeown's book is honest about this darker side, and his relaxed tone allows us to work our way through many things we may have forgotten, perhaps intentionally in our reverie for the Romans, but which we should not forget. The human world is on display here with its faults and its progress, its sadness and its humor. This cabinet is as true to the Roman world as the highbrow history it eschews. Whether we use it as a gift to friends or light reading for ourselves, the readers' understanding of the ancients will be enriched by the stories they take away from this treasure chest of curiosities.

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