This book is exactly what is needed for those who would attempt to re-introduce the Roman and Greek world and its legacy to a Western society increasingly less well informed about its heritage. For decades now, Classicists have tried to diagnose the decline in interest in our courses and studies (Hanson and Heath’s Who Killed Homer? (1998) or Hanson, Heath, and Thornton’s Bonfire of the Humanities (2001) are well-known examples of this trend) and the acknowledgement has been made that we, as purveyors of this knowledge, have overspecialized and have too often left Roman and Greek contributions to Western civilization to speak for themselves. The most frequent prescription for “saving the Classics” is to demonstrate how the Romans and Greeks can offer special perspective for 21st century life. In this spirit, Gregory Aldrete and Alicia Aldrete have offered a remarkable volume aimed at restoring the respect that the Romans and the Greeks deserve, while simultaneously avoiding the condescension or superficiality of similar, previous attempts, the suspect scholarship of a TV show like Ancient Aliens, or the gratuitous soft pornography of Spartacus: Blood and Sand. In this review, I will not address the book’s arguments as it is not the sort of book that offers new and contentious readings of well-known evidence. Rather, I would like to briefly delineate the volume’s notable strengths as an introduction to Rome, Greece, and their effect on Western heritage.
The authors have targeted the casual reader with an interest in ancient history and a “curiosity about the world he or she lives in” (x). Specialists and advanced students will find little new in this book, although academic libraries would do well to obtain a copy for those looking to learn something about the Romans and Greeks. What makes this book more successful than volumes with a similar purpose and audience is its forthright mission to help its readers “comprehend the complex culture we live in today … [gaining] at least some knowledge of how those individual strands that comprise our culture were formed” (ix) [my emphasis]. In essence, readers are encouraged to “know [themselves]” more fully as 21st century Westerners through an awareness of Greek and Roman contributions.
After a short “mission statement” introduction (ix-xi), the book offers seven chapters, each discussing a different aspect of Greek and Roman life, giving the reader enough substance to actually imagine life two thousand years ago. The coverage of topics is commendable, offering the standard topics for handbook volumes (i.e., food, housing, banquets, marriage, sexuality, stages of life, the calendar, religion, entertainment, and government) as well as topics less often included (i.e., architecture, science, law, and philosophy). Aldrete and Aldrete should also be commended for constructing a good balance in discussing Greek and Roman life; each chapter covers both civilizations with relatively seamless transitions in between. What is most noticeable about the discussions in this volume as opposed to similar ones (such as Philip Matyszak’s two light-on-evidence, but otherwise attractive volumes: Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day and Ancient Greece on 5 Drachmas a Day) is the careful and moderated, yet full use of evidence. Sprinkled through the text the reader finds canonical authors like Vergil, Pliny, and Plato, non-canonical authors like Athenaeus, Aulus Gellius, and the Scriptores Historiae Augustae, numerous inscriptions from the CIL and IG, and a modicum of numismatic evidence. In addition to the wide variety of literary evidence, which includes an extensive use of Greek and Latin words, a clear attempt is made in the volume to include extensive archaeological evidence, taken not only from mainstay sites like Pompeii and the Roman Forum, but also from collections of grave steles, sculpture, and ceramics.
The presentation of this material is, perhaps, the volume’s greatest success, as this sort of book demands an intriguing and stimulating presentation for readers who could easily put this book down and pick something else up. The authors have remarkably avoided typical pitfalls in writing popular history texts (i.e., using too much jargon or writing in a patronizing manner), and have situated the volume’s diction exactly where it needs to be: clear and jargon-free, but absolutely not condescending. The tone is friendly and conversational and in many places humorous; it avoids the sometimes off-putting and distant tone of the professor. In the numerous passages where Latin and Greek words or technical terminology are used (i.e., “Hippodamian” city planning, 176-177), it is not superfluous to the discussion and includes definitions and etymological explanations. For example, in the passage on the terminology of money and measurement (35-38), we find an interesting explanation of the etymological foundations of modern coin names, like “quarter” and “dime,” as well as other relevant English vocabulary.
Considering the book’s populist purpose, the volume is remarkably unencumbered by “filler,” without being too dense for a reader to make sense of the material. That fact has much to do with the Aldretes’ careful attention to the book’s central theme: “know thyself.” Each discussion makes a clear effort to connect modern life with ancient life. For example, in chapter one’s discussion of food in a Roman city, the authors liken the popinae and thermopolia of the ancient world to our McDonald’s, which seems a particularly apt and evocative connection (6). In the especially outstanding discussion of democracy and its effect upon the founders of the United States (152- 160), the authors have accomplished the effective teaching of ancient Greek democracy and Roman republicanism, while also presenting how the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and others used their classical education to create the basis of a society we now enjoy today in the USA.
The frank, yet balanced honesty in which the authors couch discussions of unpleasant topics like slavery and misogyny is also quite welcome and notable. This book does not whitewash embarrassing facts or events. For example, the Mytilene incident in 427 BCE, during the Peloponnesian War, is used to illustrate the “enduring flaws” of democracy (138-139) and the ancient presumption of the legal, social, and intellectual inferiority of women is described as particularly unpalatable, though historical fact (44). The mature, informed, and candid discussion of ancient sexuality is another example of this welcome honesty (62-68).
Finally, in addition to the features discussed above, the volume also contains a full index of topics and a rudimentary bibliography, which a reader could use effectively as a list for further reading. The volume is ably edited with a negligible number of minor typographical errors. Overall, this volume is an excellent new addition to the list of popular introductions to the ancient world.