Duck Duck Book

52 – ancient rome on five denarii a day
03.24.2008, 8:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

Ancient Rome on five denarii a day / Philip Matyszak.
London : Thames & Hudson, 2007.
[MCL call number: 937 M445a 2007; three copies, no holds]

Before Rough Guides and Let’s Go, before Frommer’s and the Michelin Guides, even before Baedekers, people traveled. How they managed it can be quite hard for a modern, first-world person to imagine. Can you picture going from northern Spain to southern Italy by foot, or at sea in a tiny ancient boat with a square sail? Even if you can imagine the toil of the journey, what about the practical concerns of feeding and housing yourself while traveling, avoiding bandits, or communicating with local people in farmhouses, villages, and cities? All of this is very different from a 21st century road trip across the U.S., a journey by night train, or a trans-Atlantic flight. And then, if you’re traveling in the past, when you get there, you’re still not in the modern world!

Rome has been a major tourist destination, on and off, for thousands of years, and if you’d like to fantasize about visiting the place in ancient times, classicist Philip Matyszak can be of help to you. In Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, he provides modern readers with a travel guide to that city circa 200 A.D. — a guide engineered to help us cross the cultural gap of nearly two millennia. Readers learn how to get themselves safely to Rome, and, once there, how to enjoy and educate themselves, how to fit in socially, and how to avoid trouble.

Practical advice and cultural instruction is interwoven with quotations from Roman diarists, historians, statesmen, letter-writers, and poets. These bits and pieces, though certainly germane to the subject at hand, are not always exactly illustrative. However, they have a certain charm. For example, when introducing the chapter on shopping and the marketplace, Matyszak quotes Horace: “I ask the price of greens and flour and . . . as the sun sets, I’m off home for a dinner of leeks, chickpeas and flatbread” (from Satires 1.6, page 63). I thought this relatively mundane quotation was actually quite evocative, and it made me hungry myself.

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day is illustrated throughout, and is appended with a map of the city, a nice subject index, and a two-page lexicon of Latin including practical phrases (In quantum parte templum Iovis est? / Where is the temple of Jupiter?), clichés (Vestis virum reddit / Clothes make the man), and even literary references (Deliriant isti Romani / These Romans are crazy).


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