Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: Philip Matyszak’s Classical Compendium

This is a delightful little book containing a wide array of miscellaneous anecdotes, lists, jokes and historical facts primarily from Ancient Greece and Rome. It’s very much the kind of book that can be read in little bits over a long period of time, or all at once (which is what I did).

There are quite a few wry jokes in, and not just from the author. Sarcastic comments from chaps like Augustus and Vespasian, amongst others, are included, along with many traditional Greek jokes about Elithio Phoitete (who is the Hellenistic equivalent of Tim-nice-but-dim).

There are occasional passages of poetry, as well as bits of graffiti and curses. The book takes a scattergun approach (as must be expected with a book of miscellany) but does better than most to actually make the ancients seem a bit more real. Reading the jokes and curses and strange occupations that no longer exist may make it easier to imagine the people of Rome and Greece millennia ago than the almost superhuman feats of Hannibal, Caesar and Alexander. After all, the epic crossing of the Alps is harder to imagine than Vespasian narrowly avoiding an Elvis-style death on the toilet (although the emperor was older and thinner).

Throughout the book are many attractive illustrations, including some mosaics and similar items from the ancient world. I particularly enjoyed the almost perversely obscure facts (Sterculinius, god of spreading manure, is presumably the modern day patron of party political broadcasts).


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