Matyszak, Philip. Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day.

NY: Thames & Hudson, 2007.

I’ve read several purported travel guides to various periods in history and they generally come off as too “cute” and trying too hard. This one is different.

The author (who has a Ph.D. in Roman history from Oxford) jumps right in with the first page of the Introduction, telling the traveler how to find a ship, what it’s likely to cost and how long the journey will take from various parts of the empire to the Eternal City (two days minimum from North Africa, more than a week from Gibraltar), and why you should dock at Puteoli, down the coast a bit, rather than directly at Rome’s port of Ostia (so you can see the sights along the Appian Way on your way into town). And where do you stay when you get there? Ah! That’s why you always offer hospitality to visitors from Rome in your own town, because then they’re obligated to return the favor. Actually, it’s a bit more complicated than that and the author explains the system of favor-for-favor accurately and succinctly. You’ll learn about the sorts of neighborhoods to be found on each of the seven hills and in the flat land beyond, and why you want to locate yourself near one of the public baths. You’ll learn the protocol of dining out as a guest in someone’s home, and what to wear in various situations, and where to shop and when (the small daily markets are quite different from the larger, every-nine-days markets). There’s an excellent chapter on “The Social Order” and the place of the family, and of slavery in Roman society (it was viewed as simply a misfortune that might strike anyone), and another on crime and the courts and public punishment (which should not only be seen to be done but should also be as messy as possible for the criminal). And then there’s religion, and entertainment (whether gladiators or Greek theater), and finally a series of walks through all parts of the city, from the Forum (“Romanorum,” since there were several others) to the grave of St. Peter on Vatican Hill.

The putative date for the city in the book as Matyszak describes it is about AD 200, shortly after the Arch of Septimus Severus was dedicated, but he strays from the time-travel conceit occasionally to tell you what will happen to certain temples and other buildings in later centuries. (The Renaissance has a lot to answer for in this regard.) And throughout you will find scattered quotes and excerpts from the classical Roman authors, always relevant to the topic at hand. The author’s sly wit adds a nice leavening, too. Matyszak has done a similar book for classical Athens, which I’m obviously going to have to hunt up.

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