Books by Philip Matyszak



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Vote for Democracy!
Lately I've been following a debate about whether the dysfunctional democracy of the Late Republic was better or worse than the (relatively) efficient autocracy of the early empire.

The word 'freedom' is thrown around a lot, though there's a counter-argument that no-one in a civilized society is truly free. If you want roads, some safety from violence and health care you need to submit to a degree of coercion - usually manifested by police and taxes. The best you can do is pick your masters - and in a dysfunctional democracy the choice is limited. (For example between an octogenarian in cognitive decline and an unstable demagogue.)

The issue is not driven by just ancient history either - at present countries such as China are making a strong propaganda pitch for the 'efficient autocracy' model.

The problem is that efficient autocracies never stay that way. Eventually an Augustus becomes a Nero, and then succession issues get involved. In the end one is forced to agree with Churchill's comment that 'Democracy is the worst form of government ever invented - with the exception of all the other kinds that have been tried from time to time.'

Also, democracies are built to be messy. There are demonstrations, and even riots at irregular intervals. Periodically the government ends up in the hands of people you wouldn't trust with a toy train set. That's not a problem with the system - it IS the system.

So in the end it boils down to whether or not you believe that people are capable of governing themselves. And equally importantly, if you don't think so, what's the alternative? (Before you decide, read Plato's 'Republic', where he and his fellow philosophers decide that the best people for the job of running what seems like a totalitarian nightmare are 'good men' like themselves.)
Modern Mythologers
Enough is enough?

After watching a few Hollywood abominations describing the world of Greek myth, it is understandable that anyone with an interest in the subject would want to sign a petition begging the illiterate morons who pen some of this garbage to Just. Stop. Yes, you folks who wrote 'Hercules' for Disney, and 'Clash of the Titans' I'm appealing particularly to you.

And yet … when you get past people who should never be allowed within a mile of a Greek or Roman myth, you'll find some intelligent and interesting takes on the topic. Most of these are the written word and unlike big-screen effluent, they approach the myths sympathetically and respectfully.

Some of these stories fill in the background by enlarging on the lives of minor characters. Usually these are women, though we should be wary of the trope that Greek myths are invariably about overly-macho males. More of the plays of Euripides have female protagonists – and strong protagonists - than they have males. Nevertheless, writers like Madeline Miller ('Circe' and 'The song of Achilles') and comedian-mythologist Stephen Fry are producing highly-readable texts in the genre, and I heartily recommend Spurling's 'Arcadian Nights'.

There are also some good modern translations about for those who prefer their Greek characters not to sound like Shakespearean actors. Try John Dolan's 'Iliad' for example.

Overall it is fascinating to see how generation after generation still engages with the Greek myths – at least in part because these are stories which cut directly to the heart of the human condition. The myths won't get old until the human race itself changes. Achilles eternally demands his rights from a powerful and selfish boss. The prize of their power struggle, Briseis, refuses to be just a pathetic victim and instead schemes and manipulates others as she struggles to improve her lot. There's egotistical, bombastic Ajax and coolly vicious Athena, and that's just a sample from one work -'The Iliad'. By all means read some of the modern derivations – even Percy Jackson, if you really must. But don't forget the raw power of the original texts.

Libris et Orbis

After the gratifying news from my publisher that another of my books is being published in Turkish it occurred to me to check my book case to see what other foreign language editions I have. (It is considered polite for publishers to send the author at least one copy of any books for which they sell the foreign rights.)

In no particular order, there are versions of my books in:

Serbian, French, Dutch, Greek, Slovak, Turkish, Mandarin, Spanish, German, Estonian, Korean, Finnish,Czech, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, Romanian, Japanese, Siamese, Russian – and English.

What is impressive about this - apart from the energy and dedication of the foreign rights departments of British publishers – is the interest in the classical world by peoples who have never had a legionary come within a thousand miles of their ancestor's doorstep. One can understand an interest in Roman history, for example, from the Italians in whose country reminders of ancient Rome are never far away, from the manhole covers in Roman streets marked SQPR to temples re-purposed as churches still serving congregations 2000 years later.

Yet there is also considerable interest in the classical world (and also apparently in the ancient Egyptians) in China, while the Japanese and Koreans seem particularly taken by the myths and religion of the Greeks and Romans.

I'm all for this. Recently I've been studying the Late Bronze Age and the Helladic era, and it's fascinating to see how ideas were spread and developed by a common Mediterranean civilization which was not just Greeks and Romans but also Phoenicians, Egyptians, Thracians and Etruscans (and also Assyrians, Hebrews, Babylonians … the list goes on).

The same thing is happening in the modern world through books, TV and the internet. Whether we like it or not (and some governments definitely don't) the world is developing something of a common culture. Certainly I'm biased, since I get paid every time a foreign publisher buys the rights to one of my books, but adding a tiny bit to international mutual understanding can only be a good thing.

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.


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