A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities

I’m still catching up on reviews for stuff already read, so you get this retro review from July 5, 2010.

Barry Baldwin did review this for Fortean Times. It was a mixed review as I recall.

Review: A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire, J. C. McKeown, 2010.Cabinet of Roman Curiosities

Whether you’re a fan of Barry Baldwin’s “Classical Corner” column in the Fortean Times, a fan of the tv series Rome, or already a Roman history buff but can’t remember if it was in Cassius Dio or the Historia Augusta where an 11 year old Commodus ordered a slave to be burned for too cold of bath water, this is the book for you.

From the clever octopus that stole garum out of a warehouse to graffiti in Pompeian brothels to the paucity of praenomina in the latter republic to the sadisms and mere eccentricities of emperors, this is an always lively and amusing book. Each curiosity is never more than a page long, often a single paragraph. McKeown has constructed the whole thing so that you can dip in anywhere though, occasionally, there is a reference to something you would have come across if you would have read the book the traditional cover-to-cover way. Most of the bits are taken from classical works, but he sometimes goes off on modern tangents like comparing the multi-tasking of Caesar to President James Garfield, noting the inaccuracies of Fascist Italian cinema in recreating the Punic Wars, and the horror of French novelist Stendahl at British tourists. And, channeling Pliny the Elder, he notes that he’s left it up to his classical sources to verify the truth of their tales.

The specific topics McKeown covers are Roman family life, women, names, education, military, naval matters, the law, farming, medicine, religion, philosophy, attitudes toward foreigners, slaves, animal tales, spectacles, decadence, food and drink, architecture, sex, timekeeping, and rulers. Throw in a helpful glossary about famous sources, people, concepts, and places and several illustrations – especially of coins, and this is a keeper for anyone interested in Roman history no matter where they are in their studies.

 

The Rome page.

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