Books by Philip Matyszak

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2019-07-05
It's all in the nose
Someone recently wrote to say that I once commented that ancient cities, especially Rome would have been a major assault on the senses in terms of crowding, noise and smell. While he had no issues with the crowding and noise, the writer took issue with the matter of smell.

Now at first, it seems obvious (it did to me anyway) that a city of around a million people with only ox-carts to haul off rubbish was going to have a large olfactory component. Not so, says my correspondent who has spent time as an anthropologist in the urban areas of some developing cities. By and large, smell comes from waste, and in a society with genuine poverty there is not a lot of waste.

Ancient Rome had aqueducts the equivalent of small rivers which flowed into Rome day and night. What comes in eventually comes out, and the water departed in the negative to Rome's aqueducts - sewers which also flowed constantly, carrying away the city's excrement. Other excrement, for example from the aforesaid ox-carts, would be scooped up by enthusiastic urban gardeners. Even the poorest householders probably maintained window boxes or balcony plants. Especially the poorest, in fact.

Almost all forms of waste can be recycled if someone is desperate enough. It is not that long since the rag-and-bone man was a common sight on British streets. The only non-recyclable form of ancient waste was distinctly odour-free broken pottery. Personally I'm not fully convinced, but I do know that the human nose gets really good at filtering out common smells. For example when I last left my mountain retreat to visit the UK I was struck by something those living in the south-east of England probably have not noticed. The place reeks of petroleum.
 
2019-06-03
June is busting out all over
We have four very pronounced seasons here in the mountains, and each comes with its own set of challenges. Summers are hot, full of bugs and with the threat of wildfires lurking in the background. Autumn is short, colourful and packed with preparations for the winter (which lasts five months of the year). Winter, with six feet of snow in the garden and temperatures hitting twenty below speaks for itself, or rather howls around the chimney in boreal gales.

Each season has its demands and temptations luring me from my keyboard. Winter is snowshoeing through deep forest and up mountainsides amid jaw-dropping beauty. Summer is kayaking on mountain lakes and berry-picking in the woods.

Then there's spring.

Spring is our short growing season, when the plant life goes mad trying to get maximum foliage out before the summer drought. This means mowing the lawn three times a week, and wondering how the dandelions still manage to blossom between times. It's repairing fences, and cutting tree branches damaged by snow. It's restacking the wood we didn't use for the stove, and hunting down wasps trying to nest in the eaves. It's when mama bear drives her cubs away to prepare for the babies she plans on having in summer, leaving confused ursine teenagers raising havoc in the garden and trying to set up home in the garden shed.

In summer and winter, distractions from writing are at least great fun. With spring, for all the blossoms and honeybees, the distractions are hard work.


 
2019-05-04
The Hellenistic Queens – a real-life soap opera
The more I get into Hellenistics, the more I wonder why no-one has turned these people into a TV drama. For example - and there's lots of other examples - hands up everyone who has heard of Berenice of Cyrenica. All none of you? Thought so. Yet she's part of a story that you'd be hard pressed to turn into credible fiction.

Berenice (born around 266 BC) was the daughter of King Magas of Cyrenica. She was a keen horsewoman and a good cavalry commander who fought alongside her father in battle. When her father died, her mother arranged for her to marry the so-called Demetrius the Fair of Macedonia. So 'fair' was this Demetrius that the mother was unable to resist his charm and started an affair with him.

The affair ended when an exasperated Berenice entered the couple's bedchamber with a pair of assassins who proceeded to butcher Demetrius while Berenice stood in the doorway critiquing their work. She afterwards married Ptolemy III of Egypt. Ptolemy then went to war with Syria because the Seleucid king had married Ptolemy's sister after divorcing his previous wife. However, the Seleucid king decided he preferred his first wife, went back to her and was promptly poisoned by her. The first wife then killed Ptolemy's sister and her infant son, causing an enraged Ptolemy to invade Syria, leaving Berenice to run Egypt.

Berenice later participated in an equestrian event in the Nemean games and allegedly was also an Olympic competitor. She then retired to raise a family, including the ungrateful Ptolemy IV, the son who had her assassinated when Berenice's pharaoh husband died. (Her other son, Magas, was killed at the same time – scalded to death in his bath.)

I would write her biography as a screenplay, except a number of historians in antiquity already have the copyright.
 
2019-04-04
Older than you think
Lately I've been doing quite a lot of ancient history. Now you might not think that's unusual because antiquity is my job. But there is a difference between ancient history and classical history, and classical history is where I spend most of my time. The classical era is usually reckoned to have begun around 800 BC with writers such as Homer and Hesiod. Ancient history begins around 5200 years before that.

To put that into perspective, consider the Egyptian calendar. It had 365 days, but no leap year, so it lost a day every four years. (In modern parlance, Dec 31 became Dec 30 and another four years later it became Dec 29, and so on all the way back until the same day became January 1.) By the time of Julius Caesar, that lost day had cycled right through the calendar – twice.

It's odd to think that the Greeks and Romans – whom we think of as ancient – were actually part of a Mediterranean culture that was thousands of years old when Homer was still a baby. These days we remember almost nothing of the wars of the Akkadians and the Elamites, yet those civilizations lasted longer than the USA has existed. Sargon the Great developed the idea of a nation state where previously the largest governmental unit was the city. Hammurabi wrote one of the world's first law codes. Yet a recent internet poll of the '100 most important people in history' mentioned neither of these men. Justin Bieber was there though.
 
2019-03-04
The Milky Whey
Those who follow this blog – and a goodly number of you do, according to our server statistics – will know of my interest in cooking Roman-style. There's something about cooking from scratch that appeals to my primitivist instincts.

I've acquired a cast-iron pot that handles most Roman 'dutch-oven' style recipes, and much of last year was spent on bread products. As well as Roman-style buns, breads and cakes, I started making homemade pasta and pizza just to keep my Italian up to date.

This year, I've added a cow to my virtual cornfield. That is, I'm seeing what a peasant can make from a gallon of fresh milk. So far I've discovered that making whole milk ricotta cheese is slightly easier than making toast. (Add lemon juice to milk and heat. Once the curds and whey separate, drain and store.) Likewise, if you don't make your own yoghurt, you should consider starting – it's straightforward and the results are delicious.

Mozzarella is more tricky, but apparently once you know what you're doing it takes just 30 minutes to go from a gallon of milk to a half-kilo of cheese. It takes me three times as long, but now when I make a pizza, I *make* a pizza, starting with just flour and milk. There's also a cheesecake in the fridge made from home-made cream cheese.

There's a cheddar at the drying stage, and provolone is the next project. However, my research already makes one thing abundantly clear. Left to themselves, Roman peasants with a decent bit of farmland could eat way better than the average takeaway-fuelled modern Brit.
 

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