Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Philip Matyszak's "Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day"

Philip Matyszak teaches ancient history in Cambridge. His books include Chronicle of the Roman Republic, The Enemies of Rome, and The Sons of Caesar.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his most recent book, Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, and reported the following:
Open Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day at page 99 and you will find yourself amid temples as a religious procession or two goes by. It may well be that this is representative of the quality of the whole book, though religion does not crop up that often. As a guide book to the ancient city, my work is more concerned with telling you which overnight accommodation has the fewest bed bugs, and insalubrious places to look for entertainment. (Though I note that in this section I mention that the forecourts of most ancient temples are swarming with prostitutes, so perhaps even here my low tastes have betrayed me.)

In my own defence, I do direct readers to more high-minded things elsewhere, such as where to find poetry readings in the original Greek (down at the Odeon, naturally) as well as where to shop for anything from a nice pair of Persian slippers to farm-bred 'wild boar'. And of course, religion itself, as on page 99 is high-minded assuming that we skip over the debaucheries of the Floralia spring festival.

One of the problems with choosing page XCIX is that as this book is only 40,000 words by the time you get to page 99 you are well past the mid-point of exploring the city. The book is by design no heavy-weight tome of the Platner school.

I got the idea of the book while chatting with a fellow author who wrote a guide to travel on the trans-Siberian railway. He explained that even people with no intention of travelling on the thing like to take armchair journeys of the imagination. The idea of a travel guide developed from there. Whilst writing, I constantly kept in mind what a visitor to Rome would like to do or see. Certainly after reading the book, if time travel were possible, you could bluff that you had been there.

'Oh, we stayed in a little Caupona off the Aventine near the Aqua Claudia. It got a bit noisy during the Apollonian games, but the baths of Nero were sooo convenient. I got a bit of a dodgy tummy after eating some Liburnian figs, but the stuffed sow's udders at Marcus' dinner party were simply divine ...'

So is p.99 representative of the whole? In style and approach, probably. Now I know of the test, I'll pay attention to p.99 in the sequel, as the success of this book has inspired my publisher to commission Ancient Athens on a Drachma a Day.
Learn more about Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue