Saturday, November 06, 2010

Review of The Ancient Guide to Modern Life

When I got back from our trip from Athens a couple of weeks ago I was surprised to find The Ancient Guide to Modern Life waiting for me. For the last five days I had been immersed in ancient and modern Athens , and so was delighted with the prospect of learning more. 'The Ancient Guide' takes some of the more interesting stories from the world of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and explores the modern parallels. There are surprisingly many. For instance the idea of the informer (as in the McCartney, Mao and even Irish 'Troubles' era) is not a modern one: the Romans got there first.

I also learnt a lot of surprising facts like the origin of the phrase 'licking something into shape' the Romans believed that the mother bear actually did this to her newly born offspring (which they believed was born unformed). Another was that the Old Testament advises against getting a tattoo, and that Jesus Christ could be thought of as a 'Cynic' because originally the Cynics were aesthetes, who spurned world goods.

After dealing with the Ancient systems of government and law (which led to our own), Natalie Haynes looks at the philosophies, introducing the way that Socrates made an impression (before drinking hemlock just here)

and then giving a neat summary of how Socrates (definitely didn't) teach Plato (Socrates denied he knew anything), Plato mentored Aristotle who then tutored Alexander the Great. One thing that struck me reading this was how these philosophers were constantly on the attack; asking questions and demanding answers, and generally making anyone in contact with them seem pretty stupid.

The next chapter was about religion, and one of the main thrusts of this chapter was that the Romans weren't particularly cruel to the Jews and Christians - they were cruel to most sects they came across.

There was a very interesting chapter on the general role of women in Greek and Roman society, going on to pick out some notable examples such as Livia, wife of Augustus, and Claudius's four wives. They seemed to be devious, and adept with the use of poisons.

Another excellent chapter was about the ordinary lives; whereas the Greeks lives and worked alongside their slaves in small farms, the Romans were closer to our modern society with town and country dwellers, exemplified by Aesop's fable about the town and country mice. Even at this stage the pastoral life was romanticised, and have read about Rome with its foot traffic by day and wagon traffic by night, I can see why.

The book ended with a thoughtful chapter on money and wealth: the Romans were decadent and commentators like Juvenal despised them for it, whereas the Greeks had little to spend their wealth on except financing productions and choruses, and ships. In this way wealth bought them fame and maybe some respect.

This leads me on to what was my favourite chapter, 'There's no Business Like Show Business'. Maybe I liked it so much because I had just seen so many amphitheatres in Athens,
and Epidaurus, or maybe it was because Natalie Haynes experience as a comedienne and performer enabled her to make many pertinent comments about comedy - in ancient times and now.

The book as a whole has whetted my appetite to read more about the Ancient Greeks and Romans, not just about their societies but about their literature too. The Greeks , I learnt, had invented all our literary forms except for satire, which the Romans invented, so maybe in order to really understand what is meant by 'literature' it is a good idea to go back to where it all started.


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