Books by Philip Matyszak



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Surprisingly Useful
The other day I was in the forest performing an activity with which any rural Roman would be intimately familiar – gathering firewood for the coming winter. Making a fire of an evening is an easy job, provided one starts early enough, and even six months in advance is cutting it a bit fine (pun intended).

This is because the wood needs to be cut and split with plenty of time to dry out over the summer. Otherwise you end up with a smoky mess that burns badly, spits flaming cinders at you when you open the stove door and clogs up the chimney with creosote. However, what I want to talk about here is allocating the rounds – those cross-sections of tree trunk cut to 18-inch lengths that are going to dry into firewood.

Lumberjacking is not a solitary occupation. The woods are dangerous enough even if you are not dropping trees with a chainsaw, so ideally you want a three man-team who split the wood between them (pun intended).

Therefore one has to keep a running total of how many rounds are cut and who has got how much wood, since when it is all loaded on the back of a truck counting is more tricky. Fortunately the woods are full of twigs, and do you know what? – keeping track of changing numbers is most easily done with Roman numerals.

Take ten twigs and lay them on the truck hood/bonnet. Start with I,then add another for II, and another for III. Need to remove two rounds? Remove two twigs. Got III and need to add another? Move the last two twigs to make IV, take a twig away to make V and put it back on the other side to make VI. It's way quicker and easier than writing Arabic numbers on a notepad. Ten is X, fifty is L and a hundred is <. With ten twigs you can count reasonably high very fast.

We tend to think of Roman numerals as clunky and inefficient, and so again underestimate the ancients. Using numerals to (for example) count sheep in and out of a sheep-pen is by far the best way to do it. And you can use the twigs afterwards to start your fire.

Hits and Myths
Greek myth is really starting to grow on me. I started studying the topic because you really can't understand the Greeks or Romans without understanding the myths, which were deeply embedded into everyday existence. You get Augustus quoting Homer when seeing a remarkably well-endowed man at the baths ('His lance casts a long shadow') and Martial remarking of a lady's elaborately piled hairstyle, 'From the front she looks like Andromache, from behind like someone considerably shorter'. And so on.

So I'd like to bring to your attention to some books on Greek myths by modern authors. One is 'The Gods of Greece and Rome'. This is by Philip Matyszak who looks at the Greek and Roman pantheons and the differences between how the Greeks and Romans saw the same gods (and why the Roman goddess of marriage is also the goddess of sewers), and gives a biography of each deity. It's due out later this year and I'm right now going through the final proofs.

Another modern work on myths which has really caught my fancy is a set of two books by novelist and playwright John Spurling. JS is the grandson of J.C. Stobart, who wrote the epic 'The Glory that was Greece' and he has picked up his grandfather's mantle with a pair of books called 'Arcadian Days' and 'Arcadian Nights'. They're re-tellings of the Greek myths in a lively and accessible form and I have greatly enjoyed them, not least because unlike some of the modern atrocities in print or on screen, they remain true to the original.

Arcadian Days tells of the heroes of myth such as Perseus and Theseus, but I'm really into Arcadian Nights, which deals with the battle of the sexes with male-female pairings such as Jason and Medea and Achilles and Thetis.

If you are not up to grappling with Euripides and Homer after a long day at work, curl up with one of these engaging stories instead.

Feeling unsettled
Do you ever get the feeling that the world is collapsing all around you? Hardly have the efforts of Plague slowly begun to wane when the next of the horsemen of the apocalypse, War, comes galloping out of the east, not on a horse but on a T-14 Russian Armita tank. I dread to think what Famine has in store, especially as I live in a non-agricultural mountain region that relies on regular truckloads of food reaching us from the plains.

Current projects on my (somewhat crowded at present) worklist include a study of the Roman empire in its last years. This certainly does not help my mood. The writer Jerome, for instance read of the fall of the west with horror from the safety of his home in Jerusalem - rather as today I, in a peaceful little town, watch the TV for news of disaster on the other side of the world. As a friend put it, after a decade of relative calm, Big History is happening again and that is never a good thing.

On a personal level 2022 is looking good. Pandemic restrictions are easing, I've a full work schedule and people are buying my books in reassuringly large quantities. (For which thank you very much!) When sitting at the computer gets too much, I strap on snowshoes and head out to enjoy spectacular mountain scenery and the absolute silence of the forest in midwinter.

Yet even when miles away from the nearest humans there's no way to hide from the feeling that the world is changing around me. It's not a comfortable sensation, whether one lives in 422 or 2022.
All about Hestia
If you live in an extreme climate there's something reassuring about a woodstove. Outside right now it's -7c (19f) and the snow is up over the windows at the back of the house. (There's still a great view from the front – living on a mountainside has advantages.) It's not unusual for avalanches to block the road, or snow-laden trees to fall across power lines. The great outdoors is not necessarily friendly, and supplies of power are not guaranteed.

I have a friend whose response has been to go hi-tech. His house is near self-sustaining with heat pumps, and electricity from solar and wind. As an ancient historian, I go the other way and drop back a few thousand years, which is where the woodstove comes in. Any ancient Roman would grasp the basics of that stove faster than most modern folk. As a cube of iron heated near red-hot a stove heats the house very well, and as it has no moving parts it's almost indestructible. The fuel supply is a large - but now dwindling - stack of firewood which cannot be put out of operation by any technological failure. (Unlike another friend who purchased a back-up gas stove and discovered after the first power cut that it needs electricity to power the solenoid and vents.)

As the name suggests, you can cook anything on a woodstove that you can cook on a modern range, and with heat, food and light one has the basics of civilization no matter what's going on outside. All I really need is some means of using my stove to hook me up to the internet – and lately I've seen some interesting little TEG (Thermo-electric Generator) devices that provide electricity simply by being placed on a hot stove top. I may need to jump forward a few centuries after all.
Annus novus
The coming year looks kind of tidy in Latin numerals - MMXXII - yet I suspect the next twelve (okay, XII) months are going to be somewhat untidy.

For a start there is this dratted pandemic, for which I've just got my third shot for the fifth wave (it's getting hard to keep track) which means I shall continue to travel widely. In the past year I have attended a Christmas party in Cambridge, meetings in London, given a lecture in New York, discussed book projects in the Netherlands and video games in Australia. All without leaving the computer chair in the snowbound mountain home where I now sit.

Since covid the world has got a lot better at virtual meetings. I'm still unsure whether this is a good or bad thing, but I've been doing it a lot, and I suspect that now people are more used to it, I'm going to have to keep scheduling meetings before breakfast. (British Columbia is behind most of the planet, chronologically speaking.)

Also next year is going to be busy. I should have two new books out, and will be working on three more. There are also various other projects about which non-disclosure agreements force me to remain silent, but I'll spill the beans as soon as I am able. On which topic, congratulations to Nick and his Roman-themed award winning Forgotten City video game, on which I was an enthusiastic collaborator through all of last year. It's a great game, though I tend to die often and gruesomely while playing it.

Finally, the snow outside is currently almost deeper then I am tall, and I want to spend a lot of time wandering around the mountains on snowshoes taking in some of the best scenery in the world (while gasping desperately for oxygen - those mountains are high and steep, but that's another matter). I also want to get a new kayak for summer and explore the local lakes, and there's backwoods trails to scout for suitable winter firewood. Meanwhile that paneer press I ordered as a Christmas present for myself should arrive any day now, and in the meantime I continue to explore Mexican cooking with home-made fajitas, tamales, quesadillas and of course tacos.

Naturally the year is going to throw some unexpected developments at me also, and I'll have to fit them in somehow. I'll eagerly await the next scientific breakthroughs on cloning, as I already have enough on the go to keep three of me busy all year long.

I do hope your 2022 is a good one!


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