BMCR 2014.07.09

Ask the Ancients: Astonishing Advice for Daily Dilemmas

Sylvia Gray, Ask the Ancients: Astonishing Advice for Daily Dilemmas. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 2014. x, 132. ISBN 9780865168183 $19.00.

At a time when classics programs are disappearing, it is more important than ever to rekindle waning interest in the Greco-Roman world. In an effort to remedy this problem, classical scholars have turned their attention toward the production of publications that are clear and accessible to the general public (e.g., McKeown’s A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities and its recent companion volume, A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities).1 Gray’s book is an example of such a work. Drawing on ancient literary sources, the book offers a compilation of various Greco-Roman opinions on daily dilemmas, as well as on matters of greater consequence.

From contraceptive options to the possibility of life after death, this intriguing book covers a wide range of topics (52, to be precise) that are divided into 10 categories: Career and Workplace, Health and Beauty, Food and Fun, Lifestyles, Human Relations, Sociopolitical Issues, Government, Morals and Ethics, Metaphysical, and Ultimate Questions. An introduction, an index, and a bibliography are also included. The introduction provides an explanation of the origin of the book, and implies that the topics were initially selected at random and later grouped into categories. After reading excerpts from Livy in a college course, the author became interested in the stories and anecdotes of the ancients and the “universal aspects of [the] human experience that shone through [them]” (p. ix). She began to voraciously read Greco-Roman literature, and collected tidbits of advice and wisdom for a column she wrote in a local newspaper. This book is essentially an anthology of her newspaper columns.

The individual entries are organized like an advice column where questions are asked by fictitious inquirers and answered by the author through a series of anecdotes from ancient literary sources. For example, the category “Career and Workplace” includes six topics: attaining consensus; climbing the ladder; personal hygiene; maintaining sales morale; overcoming stage fright; and poetry as a career. Regarding the subject of “stage fright” (pp. 10–11), “Trembling Tremolo” asks “How can I overcome stage fright when I give a musical performance?” The author responds by telling the story of how Nero overcame his own bout of stage fright by “conscientious” preparation (e.g., improving his vocal prowess by lying down and singing with a lead weight on his chest), hiring fans, and controlling his audience (e.g., preventing anyone from leaving the theater until the end of the performance).

The book is most suitable for non-specialists or high school classrooms, but with slight changes it could appeal to a broader audience. In particular, the ancient references following each piece of advice would benefit from more precision and consistency, since some citations are very detailed (“Quintilian Institutes of Oratory 1.1.6” on p. 59), others only moderately specific (“Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics ” on p. 93), and a few are rather vague (“Hesiod Theogony and Works and Days ” on p. 91). Another oddity is the layout. Many pages contain a large blank field after each advice entry. One way to put those empty spaces to good use would be to include translated excerpts in them, along the lines of Aicher’s Rome Alive, which features a similar organization (e.g., subject, commentary, relevant excerpts in translation).2 The inclusion of translated excerpts would serve to more effectively engage the reader and attract a wider audience.

Overall, Gray’s compendium of Greco-Roman advice is an interesting, thought-provoking and widely accessible read, which succeeds in highlighting the similarities, differences, and absurdities that exist between the sensibilities of the ancients and those of our modern world.


1. McKeown, J.C. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; McKeown, J.C. A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

2. Aicher, Peter J. Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City, Vol. 1. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2004.