Books by Philip Matyszak



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All about Vesta
One of the things about living in the mountains is that some questions get a certain degree of consideration. For example, let's assume that an avalanche took out the gas and electricity supply. How long would it take for the necessities of life to be restored? Remember that the road would have gone too, and there's over a meter of snow just outside my front door and temperatures well below zero.

With such thoughts in mind, in November I invested in a serious wood-burning stove, which was about the size and cost of a small car. For this I stacked up a substantial pile of wood under the kitchen window, and at a stroke (well at several strokes of a wood-splitting axe) our house became energy-independent.

Suddenly it became apparent to me why the hearth was such an important part of the home in the days when everyone lived off the grid because there was no grid to be on. The stove has a flat top, so cooking is simply a matter of placing the appropriate pots or pans anywhere on the surface. The flames do an adequate job of illuminating the room, and the entire house stays toasty warm. Add a decent supply of non-perishable food (you can get rice in 50lb bags in these parts) and losing electricity and gas goes from a life-threatening problem to an inconvenience.

Fresh water is not an issue, as it comes white and pure from the sky, and lies around in large piles for months. All one needs is a stove to melt it on. If you like to make your own beer, as I do, the stove even keeps the brew at a decent temperature for fermentation, so none of the necessities of life are absent. They say that no man is an island, but given a decent stove and plenty of wood, I can see that in the past he could at least have been a peninsula.
Forthcoming Attractions
Over the past few months a number of people have asked me what has happened to the book on Petellius Cerialis, since 'Imperial General' has been in the forthcoming section for several months now.

Of course, once an author has written a book his part is more or less done and it's up to the publisher. In this case my anxious queries have established that there was some sort of technical delay which has now been resolved. The books are apparently reaching the warehouse and will hopefully be available in time for Christmas. (And for the one thousand nine hundred and forty-second anniversary of the battle for Rome in which my hero took part.) So all going well, imperial General should grace a few Xmas stockings.

On the topic of Xmas stockings, those looking for a gift for the history fan who has everything should consider the beaker I was given to review at the start of the month. It's a fine Calanthus (a type of tall drinking vessel) in pewter modelled on a genuine version from around the first century AD.

So far, careful testing has revealed that this beaker splendidly complements red wines, port and (rather unhistorically)whiskey and water. It's not cheap, but the workmanship of the side panels is correspondingly splendid. The full review can be found at

On a final note, Neil Faulkner's Guide to the Ancient Olympics will be coming out next year in time for London's celebration of the modern event. I had the chance to see an early draft of this book, and can heartily recommend it.

How accurate is history?
One of the joys of my profession is that I get to have long, interminable discussions with fellow enthusiasts about ancient history. Sometimes these are carefully-considered debates on web-forums, or emails exchanged over a period of months. At other times these are beer-fuelled discussions in a pub, or over whisky long after most commercial establishments have shut their doors.

One such discussion recently raised questions which are worth sharing. The basic question was about the nature of history. History is inquiry into the events of the past and reporting the results. However, on this occasion I was debating with a narratologist - one who believes that what actually happened will never be known. The best we can hope for, he claims, is to discover what people at the time thought was happening. Sadly, what we usually get instead is the version of the story that those people in charge at the time wanted people to believe was happening. Then that version of the story is further twisted into what the people in charge right now want us to believe actually happened. Somewhere along the way reality drops out of the picture and all we have left is a credible myth.

My position accepts that cynicism is justified, but misplaced. There is indeed a narrative which is manipulated and twisted as far as possible (and a touch further) by those in power. However, what is mostly manipulated is not history, but history in the making - that is; news. It is precisely the job of the historian to stand back, and from the perspective of years, decades or centuries, to enquire whether (for example) so-and-so really was the great president or emperor that people thought at the time, and whether his claims were justified boasts or blatant propaganda.

My position is that history is not just inquiry, it is a conversation between the historian, those who have - for whatever reason - distorted the events of the past, and the objective facts as far as these can be established. In this conversation, the misunderstandings, spin and outright lies can be examined, rejected, and replaced with something nearer the truth.

Ah, argues my friend, but all the historian accomplishes by his inquiry is to again distort events, this time to suit his own perspectives and prejudices. This may be so, but if the truth is out there, I believe that it is not 'a truth' or 'my truth' but 'the truth', and it is my job to keep looking for it and reporting what I find.

Getting 2012 into shape
November already? Well, in one way I'm not surprised, because I'm actually up to December with my writing. On the other hand it's something of a shock to see autumn leaves outside the window where there was mid-summer a few moments back.

There's another way I can tell that the year is ending, and that's because developments are speeding along for 2012. There's a number of projects in the works of which I'll be telling more as they get sorted out.

The first is that my teaching schedule is becoming clearer for next year. I enjoy teaching. And the internet lets me work with students from all over the world without having to venture into the four-foot snowdrifts outside my front door. I'm hoping to do three semesters next year, so if this works out, expect a coming blog entry to read like a huge advertisement for Cambridge University's Continuing Education programme.

Secondly, I'm working with a very large internet Roman site on a project that will be unveiled in 2012. Details are under wraps at present, but this is another new development that has me excited about the future. I'm also going to be working on a new book dealing with Roman Spain, so I might need to include the Pyrenees in next year's diary.

Talking of mountains, we got interested in buying a place in the Monashee mountains in the Bigfoot country of south-east British Columbia. It turned out the sellers were interested in moving before the winter, so we'll be moving sooner rather than later. I'll be writing next month's blog entry (and much else besides) even deeper in the wilds, where the bears and elk considerably outnumber the human population.

And there's no building work scheduled in the area over the next year. I checked.
Moving on
Some of our relatives complain of the mess that we make of the 'M' page in their address books. We seldom stay anywhere for more than a couple of years. We change towns often, countries occasionally and continents infrequently. We are now in a beautiful town surrounded by vineyards, mountains and lakes. This time next year, we won't be (though the next destination is currently uncertain). Friends often ask us why we don't settle down, and we usually ask 'Why should we?'

Look at it like this. Do you remember your first day at school? Probably. Now do you remember your hundredth? Exactly. By constantly moving to new places we have fresh experiences, meet new challenges, make new friends and find different ways of doing things. Of course, for me as an ancient historian, this is great. So much of what we take for granted is a result of cultural conditioning.

It's hundreds of little things, for example whether we carry a bouquet of flowers with the flowers facing up or down. People in Anglo-American cultures carry the flowers head up, but many Europeans carry the bouquet head down, which - when you think that the blooms are heavy and delicate - is the more sensible way of doing it. With such everyday observations, my concepts of how people function in a society and how that society itself functions are constantly called into question. This stops me from unconsciously thinking of the Romans as simply modern Englishmen in togas.

That's not why we move though. My wife and I can work anywhere that has a good internet connection and somewhere to keep our libraries. We keep in touch with friends ad family through visits (we usually end up somewhere eminently visitable) and the net, and we see and understand far more of each place we stay than a tourist would. So the view out of our front window keeps changing, and meals vary from pancakes with maple syrup to spaetzle mit kase, tagliatelle or fish and chips. The main reason we move far and often? Because we can.

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