Books by Philip Matyszak



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AD 451 and all that ...
Recently an interviewer asked me how I felt about the fact that classical history is being taught less in secondary schools these days. Rather than getting indignant about it, my feelings are definitely mixed. There's no doubt that the classical world is immensely important, because what happened before AD 500 created the foundations of the world we live in today. Therefore it is impossible to understand western civilization without knowing something about classical civilization. And in a world where young people often feel alienated from the society they live in, dropping a course that helps them to understand that society is probably not a good thing.

On the other hand, if ancient history is taught the way it was taught when I was a lad, then I've no objection to it vanishing from the classroom. I came to love ancient history despite, not because of my schooldays. Ancient history as a relentless march of dry facts and dates, combined with indigestible gobbets of Latin and Greek is enough to ruin anyone's appreciation of the topic. It's like trying to get a kid interested in football by making him memorize the rule-book and the list of cup winners for the last century. In fact learning should go the other way around. Once a kid becomes passionate about football, the list of cup winners and understanding of the rules happens along the way.

In the same way, I strongly feel ancient history should be taught as a sort of alternate universe - rather like Star Trek or Middle Earth. It's a place packed with fascinating characters, epic stories and bizarre events. There's an awful fascination in seeing the Borg or the armies of Sauron sweeping down on nearly helpless humanity. Now let's look at Attila, the 'Whip of God' leading his Hunnic horde to take down western civilization in a climatic battle, and our hero Theodoric, the Gothic king who died in the epic charge that saved the day. It's stories such as Theodoric's that draw people into ancient history. And once you're hooked, the names and dates come naturally - and are not the main point in the first place.

That's why I don't oppose dropping ancient history from the classroom. Almost everyone I know today who is passionate about the subject got into it in later life. And the comment I keep hearing is that 'it's nothing like what I did in school!'
The temptations of spring ...
As the spring continues its relentless charge into summer, my winter hibernation seems to be well and truly over. Today I have had online discussions with two students, read Cicero's first Verrine Oration while in a doctor's waiting room, mowed the back lawn and read a chapter on the rise of ancient urbanism. And it's just coming up to lunch time.

All this activity has to be bad for one's constitution. I don't do hectic. That's why I moved to a small town deep in the mountains. A friend joked to me that the changing of the traffic lights must be an event. Indeed it would, as we don't have any. However, city types tend to underestimate how dynamic the social and cultural life of a small community can be. I'm having trouble keeping up.

Also, there's another distraction which you don't get in the city. The Monashee mountains look spectacular right now, with snow-capped peaks, mountain meadows covered with spring flowers, and a few million hectares of wilderness waiting to be explored. So on Saturday my firm resolve to revise the voting tribes of second century Roman electoral assemblies was somehow subverted into taking the Jeep to Salmo and having lunch somewhere in the Selkirk mountains.

Fortunately the spring started wet, and the gloriously soggy weather meant that I could stay home at the computer with my books, so by and large I'm well up to date. But I'm not sure how long it will last. Even as I complete this paragraph, I'm casting thoughtful glances at the sunny outdoors, and considering a nap in the hammock after lunch.

Vade retro me, Satan!
Always something to do ...
Occasionally when talking with other writers one of them will tell me that a project has been completed, and now that the book has been published, that writer is going to start looking around for something to do next. At this point I smile politely and reach for a stiff drink. ( One of the good things of hanging around with writers is that stiff drinks are readily available.)

Most writers have what one might refer to as a 'day job' since most writing - and especially writing ancient history - seldom pays enough to keep one in penury, let alone in luxury. Therefore most writers I know are also academics, and the universities and colleges at which they teach are their main source of income.

With me it's exactly the other way around. I do some teaching, but the bulk of my income comes from writing. So looking around for what to do next after publishing a book makes about as much sense as a teacher looking around for another class at the end of a course. It's not an exact analogy, because once you have enough books in print, accumulated royalties still reward the efforts of years past, while once a teacher has taught a course, that's it - at least as far as financial remuneration goes. Still you get the idea.

Keeping a steady supply of bread on the table means keeping a steady flow of work coming across my desk. So this week I've been looking over the final draft of my next book (just the index and pictures to go), and editing the second draft of a book I hope to see out at the end of the year. The book scheduled to be out next year is up to chapter three, and I'm in the process of preparing to pitch to a publisher for another book for which I hope to get a contract.

This leads to a certain fragmentation of effort, in that I can spend a week deeply immersed in the military situation in first century Spain, and the next week looking at geopolitics in Anatolia six centuries later. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it means I keep coming back to each topic with a fresh mind and new perspectives.

However I like to keep track of each book with sequential postit notes arranged by chapter going down a wall. These notes are quotes, ideas to include, comments and corrections. With four books currently in different stages of production, my study looks as though it was wallpapered by a frantic madman, and I'm running out of walls.
Fine-tuning and fresh air
March has been one of those months. I've a book in the works - actually there's two, and the year is ticking by. So the thing to do is settle down at the keyboard, tune out the world and get writing, right? Sadly, not so.

Firstly there's the ghost of literary efforts past coming back to haunt me. Until a book is actually printed there's always something else that can be done with it. I recently completed a large project for a new publisher (well, new for me, anyway), and as always in such cases, there's adjustments to be made to fit the house style. Also the nature of the project was such that it's going to take a lot of arranging, both on my part and on my editor's, to get it all exactly right. There's also the matter of getting together pictures for another book - on Sertorius in Spain, which is coming out later this year. The pictures are coming together nicely; in fact a friendly museum in Spain sent some today. Nevertheless, these things always take time. (Though getting a good selection of pictures is very satisfying. I still feel a rush of gratitude to the Trireme Trust whenever I look at the pictures they contributed to my book on the Athenian expedition to Sicily).

Secondly, even once a book has been published, I'm not done with it. If the book was any good, it generates a certain amount of discussion, and I can't seem to stop myself joining in those discussions, either to explain a point further, or to add information that there was no room for in the book. There's also the occasional criticism or query, and if this concerns factual matters I'm happy (possibly to the point of over-enthusiasm - I love to see research pay off) to give chapter and verse on my sources.

Finally, it's spring. Easter was in itself a distraction, and my wife's fascination with the great outdoors grows even as the last snow-banks on the hills fade away. Apparently it's time to get out into the pine-scented air and blow away the winter cobwebs. I'm a bit more ambivalent, and down at the local pub-and-eatery I was pleased to hear another couple having the same sort of discussion.

He: How does three millimetres of tent protect me from a bear?
She: Bears won't bother us if we don't have a food source in camp.
He: There's grizzlies out there. To grizzlies I _am_ a food source.
Spring is coming! Um ... hooray?
There's something rather pleasant about being snowbound. Outside the dining room window is a wall of snow that continues up to the height of the roof. However, because the house is partly built into a hillside, the lounge window overlooks the valley. The view from there looks like a stereotyped postcard - imagine snow-covered log cabins and a backdrop of pine forest and mountains sweeping off to the horizon.

In summer, a part of this view is my problem. I have to keep the lawn clear of weeds, moss and bear poop. The flowers on the balcony need watering and freeing from insect pests, and there's the siren call of forest trails and swimmable lakes to distract me from my computer.

In winter the balcony contains nothing but a rather dramatic row of icicles which grow with no maintenance. Getting to the tool-shed in the garden would involve moving dozens of cubic meters of snow and there'd be nothing to cultivate once I got there. So I can leave the great outdoors to itself, and the garden to its winter slumber. Once a month we go down the mountain and return with the mail - mostly books - and a jeep-load of groceries. Otherwise my connection to the outside world is via my cable connection to the internet.

This means that I can sit by the wood-stove catching up on my reading (a couple of fellow authors have sent me material for preview and comment, and I've research to do on first century Italy). Once a week I have an audio-visual chat with students in a chat-room which Cambridge has set up, and there's periodic visits to the hockey rink to cheer the local team's effort to avoid hitting the bottom of the league table (again). It's all rather relaxed and convivial, especially as the town is full of jolly individuals toting skis and snowboards.

However, I can't help noticing that its getting lighter in the mornings. There's a whiff of spring in the air. Soon the bears and I will have to emerge blinking from our winter cave to see what the summer has to offer.

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