Books by Philip Matyszak



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The all-you-can-read buffet
The other day I was introduced by someone who described me as 'writing for a living'. At the time this sounded straightforward enough, but on reflection, that's not really so. If a job is what one actually does while working then it's more accurate to say that I read for a living. And the really great thing about my job is that the supply of reading material will never dry up.
You'd think that with ancient history all the really significant stuff was written a long time ago, and once you've read that then you are up to speed for good. After all, Cicero is not going to write any more letters, and there's no more Roman history happening for Tacitus to describe. So when you've read Cicero's letters and Tacitus' histories that's those two done for good, right?
Wrong. Here's an example. While a post-doctoral student I read Silius Italicus' 'Punica', and was very proud of myself for doing so. Because I'm currently reviewing a book that is essentially a commentary on the 'Punica', I've taken the chance to read the original again. So during commercial breaks on TV, on a hammock by the lake, or in the doctor's waiting room I fish out my e-reader and take in a few hundred more lines. It's fascinating to realize how much sailed over my head the first time round. For example when Hannibal is compared with Tirynses I'd assumed that this was some obscure Greek hero. Now I know it's obviously Hercules, who was born in Tiryns. That's because ancient writers sometimes call people after their place of origin. (Which is why Spartacus is named after a Thracian town.) And so on.
While Cicero and Tacitus do not change, we as readers do. So we keep coming back to their texts with new perspectives while looking for different things. You need to know quite a lot about ancient farming to appreciate Columella, and I've learned a lot about farming since I last read him. This means that Columella is one of hundreds of ancient texts that I'm looking forward to re-visiting. And that's just one aspect of it. There are also modern magazines, scholarly articles, and 'must-read' books that keep coming. Even with a 48 hour day, I'd fall behind with my reading, and that's still without doing any writing.
They're myths, Captain, but not as we know them
The more Greek mythology I study, the more it makes sense to me. Actually on reflection, I'd better rephrase that. The more I study Greek myths, the more the myths make sense. The actual study of Greek myth, with its mythologems, pentadic analysis, motifemes and allomotifs remains pretty much a mystery to me, and I'm content that this should remain so. What has actually come together is how the different names and events actually fold together as one huge story.

This first dawned on me when I wrote 'The Greek and Roman Myths' and realized they were one story covering four generations with more characters and plot twists than the modern soap operas which Greek myth sometimes resembles. (But with extra murder, incest and cannibalism.) Indeed, putting together the story of myth has been like watching a complex TV series with the episodes jumbled out of order. Then gradually, as the story line becomes clear, one realizes whereabouts in the overall plot each episode fits.

Of course, when mythology is used by scriptwriters all this goes out of the window, and Norse and Greek Gods rub shoulders, or Pursues and Heracles are contemporaries instead of grand-dad and grandson. This tends to muddy a picture which is already so unclear to modern readers that most are unaware that there even is a picture rather than a mass of unrelated fragments. And not just modern scriptwriters are guilty. Even ancient Greek playwrights took liberties with the chronology - yes, Euripides, I'm looking at you.

Nevertheless, once one gets to grips with the story, and the fantastic amount of detail it contains, you see the connections. So reading of Iapetus, one of the moons of Saturn, one thinks of the Titan, father of Prometheus and Atlas (bet you never knew those two were brothers). This allows the mythologist to consider himself learned, whereas those who know that - for example - Dathon was captain of a Tamarian starship in Star Trek are merely pathetically geeky.
Dying for the right word
Earlier this month I deeded to look up the Latin for 'murder', and was rather startled to find that there was no such word. It's not that the Romans did not have plenty of words for homicide - including 'homicidum' which means 'the killing of a man' - but there's no word for carrying through a planned and illegal killing. This started me wondering why this was so. One can tell a lot about a society and its circumstances through its language. For example there's the famous factoid that Eskimos have no word for snow. They have words for thick, fluffy snow, and hard, granular snow and so on, but because these things are all very different, no-one found a need for a generic word for the stuff - rather as we don't have a collective word to describe air and water together, for example during a spring rainshower.
So why no murder in Rome? It's not as if the Romans were not very good at killing each other - as any reader of Cicero or Tacitus will confirm. After some thought, I decided that the answer is privacy. Murder in the sense we understand it today generally needs to be carried out in secret. To murder someone, you have to be alone with your victim, and the average Roman was seldom alone. Until the 20th century people lived on top of one another in a way we find hard to imagine today. In a large city people could go from birth to death without leaving the company of other human beings. So it was hard to get someone away from friends, relatives and slaves long enough to stick a dagger into him, and even if you did someone was bound to notice that you had left with your victim and returned alone.
Perhaps the best way to do the nefarious deed was to knife your victim in a crowd and escape in the ensuing tumult, or slip something deadly into the wine and hope that Roman medical science was poor enough to mistake poisoning for natural death. And this is what Roman killers did. So there were courts to punish carrying (and using) sharp instruments with intention to kill or rob, and courts to investigate and punish cases of poisoning, but no courts to investigate murder as such, because it didn't happen often enough to require a special word.
Cives Canadianus sum
Almost exactly a week ago, I officially became a Canadian, and I'm extremely pleased and proud about it. Admittedly my experience of the country is limited to the folks in my corner of British Columbia, but I'm more than happy to be counted as one of them. The ceremony struck a very pleasing balance between dignified formality and relaxed fun. (Something Canadians are good at doing.) Naturally however, given what I do for a living, I could not help wondering how people felt two thousand years ago when they went through a roughly analogous ceremony to become Roman citizens. We know that Roman citizenship was bestowed by a ceremony because, as a special treat, Pliny once arranged for the emperor Trajan to preside over one such occasion. (The emperor was passing through town at the time.)

There's another similarity as well. The Roman cives sine suffragio involved entire populations being involuntarily conscripted into the Roman citizen body and often only informed of the fact afterwards. As one historian commented 'Some were born Roman, some achieved the citizenship, others had it thrust upon them'. This reminded me of an Indian nation in the Canadian north who recently and rather plaintively pointed out that people join a state through conquest, or through a treaty agreement. As their tribe recalled doing neither, how and when had they become Canadians?

While sympathizing with the injustice of it, one can't help noting that whether one became Roman or becomes Canadian by default there are many who would have no objection to sharing the same fate.
Professor Polylogos vs the 300
Once again ancient history is in the box office, with two offerings - 'Pompeii' and '300- Rise of an Empire' to tempt moviegoers into the world of antiquity. I have to confess to having seen neither film, though '300' is sorely tempting. However, my policy is to avoid historical fiction (apart from the stuff I write myself) because if it's done well, it's too easy to confuse with historical fact when writing later books, and if it's done badly what's the point of engaging with it?

One reviewer remarked that the '300' movies are to ancient history what synthetic fast food is to a meal in a good restaurant. That's true, but so what? There are times for top-rate cuisine, and times for shoving curly-wurlyz through your face while you watch, well, movies like '300' on the DVD. There's another reason why I'm in favour of such films, and that's because they misrepresent ancient history with a huge abundance of lustful energy (and if you ever do get to see Eva Green in action as Artemesia, you'll know that 'lustful energy' is exactly the right expression).

There's this terrible perception among some sections of the public that 'Classics' are the preserve of upper-class twits in corduroy jackets who analyze the use of the infinitive conjunction in Cicero. The fact that Latin also contains the bawdy and scurrilous verses of Catullus and Martial is something that is carefully hidden from the average college student, let alone the general public. So ancient history as histrionics, blood and guts by the bucketful and trireme battles to the accompaniment of Black Sabbath's 'War Pig' (an inspired choice) is a useful counter-balance.

Who knows? Maybe the movies will persuade some viewers that ancient history is not some dull, obtuse subject to be suffered in class but what it actually is - a collection of fascinating stories, and indeed full of histrionics and bucketfuls of blood. When those viewers follow up to find out 'what really happened' in Herodotus, hopefully they'll do so to a mental soundtrack of Black Sabbath rather than some professor droning on in the background. As a final thought - if ten years after the battle of Salamis, the ancient Athenians had a choice of viewing a '300'-style re-enactment in the theatre or attending a lecture on 'Trireme distribution and numbers at Salamis' by Professor Polylogos, where do you think the crowds would go?

So bring on the pseudo-historical trash. It might be a parody of the real thing ('rock opera history on steroids' says one review) but the real thing is in there somewhere, inviting viewers to take a closer look, and re-defining ancient history as something worth doing for fun.

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