Books by Philip Matyszak



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If only it was all Greek to me
So, after a quiet after-breakfast coffee on the patio, I fire up the computer. The plan is to spend a quiet morning translating Antiphon so that I can use the material in a chapter that I'll be working on in the afternoon.

First though, there's the morning emails to get through. Let's see. The bank wants to know why the credit cards they sent me a fortnight ago have not been activated. Well, because they came with seven pages of densely-typed legalese labelled 'Important changes to your Terms and Conditions'. Last time they pulled that stunt, somewhere on page 6 para iii subsection c, they tried to sneak in a raft of extra charges, so I have to carefully read the damn thing, and I don't have time.

Now there's good news from my accountant. She's finally got me officially registered as a 'beneficent alien entity' (or something similar) in the US. This means that I must now complete form 3705B (ii), Tax Harmonization Schedule which she can send to the UK and I'll eventually pay less tax down the line.

But first, the webmaster of my site reminds me that the CA certificate of my HTTPS rating needs validation or a MiMO attack is a very real possibility. Finally there's form i2PAB-X from the postal service which I need to complete so they can investigate why recent online orders have not been arriving. There's also something marked 'Urgent' from the city council that I'm just going to ignore.

That's a pretty standard haul for a weekday morning. It explains why, if I get through the paperwork to Antiphon before lunchtime, I'll get there as a gibbering wreck.

Look, if I could cope with the modern world, I wouldn't be an ancient historian.
The Athenians, oh, those Athenians
The 'halo effect' is the human tendency to believe that because a person is good at one thing, then they must be good at all the rest. That's why we let ourselves be lectured about human rights and the environment by people whose only qualification is that they are famous actors. It's why top sportsmen and women sell everything from cars to personal hygiene products. We feel we know them and can trust them.

The same thing happens in ancient history. We know that the Athenians of the classical era wrote epic plays and poetry, we know that their philosophy laid the foundations of western thought. We 'know' the Athenians. So they were the good guys, yes? Not so. The Athenians were nasty, even by the low standards of the time. They were the kind of people who could twist the trust of naive allies to turn them into subject peoples. (And when the allies tried to back out of the 'alliance' the Athenians flattened their cities.)

The Athenians were also in the habit of mugging smaller cities which had done them no wrong. They would then loot the city, kill the menfolk, and enslave the women and children to work in horrible conditions in the silver mines which were the foundation of the city's wealth. One politician remarked, while unsuccessfully trying to persuade his fellow citizens to massacre (instead of enslaving) every man, woman and child in a 'rebel' city, 'Gentlemen, act as if you have an empire or chuck it all in and take up good works instead.'

The Athenians were many things. Ambitious and enterprising, talented artists and architects, brilliant thinkers and far-reaching strategists. They were very good at very many things. But they were not good.
Eat like a Gaul
One of the joys of my job is that I get to read a variety of articles on offbeat topics. Earlier this month it was about Isca grains imported into Roman Britain. In a follow-up on one of the notes, I came across the comment that the dietary intake of the average ancient Gaul was 70% grain. (With vegetables and dairy making up most of the rest.)

The implication was that this was a Bad Thing, because Gauls did not get enough variety in their diet. Compare this with someone today – let's call him Joe Modern. Joe starts his day with a bowl of cornflakes followed by toast. His mid-morning coffee is accompanied by a cookie, and for lunch he has a cream cheese bagel. Then he stops at the supermarket and picks up a pasta fettucini for dinner, with a slice of chocolate cake to follow. Yum. Yet what Joe Modern has just chomped through is wheat,wheat, wheat and wheat with a bit of dairy and even less veg.

It has been noted that of the tens of thousands of edible foodstuffs out there, most of the time the average westerner eats around twenty. We don't recognize the lack of variety in our diet, because – for example – wheat comes in so many forms. It is probably because of my interest in ancient diet that I've started doing more and more at home. An ancient Gaul would recognize my usual fortnightly shop. It's 10kg of flour, with dairy and fresh vegetables. (And apples in season. British Columbia does the finest apples on the planet.)

The flour becomes bread, of course. But also spaghetti, lasagne, pizza base, focaccia, pie crust, bagels, noodles, buns, tortillas, cookies, perogies and submarine rolls. I'm experimenting with croissants, but my wife assures me that they have a a short way to go. (It's around six paces from the oven to the bin, which is indeed short.) Thing is, I spend a lot of my time pondering. Currently for example, I am working with Aristophanes and need an easy way to count iambs to see when he has moved to tetrameter in his verse. While I am thinking it over, I might as well pound dough.

Baking takes time, but mostly the yeasty-beasties do the work while I'm back at the computer. Where I am involved, I find it great to let my subconscious chew on classical things while I work on stuff my body can chew on later. Oh, and I find that I don't at all miss silicone dioxide or guar gum, or any of the 35 other most common preservatives modern manufacturing likes to put in my food.
The Via Alberta
This week I needed to get to Calgary in Alberta, so in true Canadian style I hopped into a Jeep and set off on a 700km journey across the Rockies. Western Canada and the western Roman Empire have this much in common - humans are relatively few and far between, and the different provinces sometimes do not see eye-to-eye.

At present Albertans are furious that British Columbia is not allowing them to build an oil pipeline across British Columbia to a salt-water port. British Columbians, weary of mopping up the messes from previous oil spills, resent Albertan 'bullying' and are digging in their heels. So it was not the best time to go to the oil capital of Alberta in a vehicle with British Columbian number plates.

The trip in took ten hours, and the trip home took twelve, thanks to a rockslide which closed off the highway and forced a 180km detour to a different pass across the Rockies. On the long journey I consoled myself by considering how much worse it was for the unfortunate Roman traveller. In a vehicle, I was insulated from bears,wolves and other predatory wildlife which some Roman travellers might meet just a few mules from Rome. And while the natives I met might not all be friendly, they would not murder me in some remote inn and rob my corpse before tipping it into a midden.

Petronius tells of a traveller who was delighted to find that a soldier was going his way, so that he would have an escort on the journey. This need for a bodyguard was in a civilized and well-populated part of Greece, so you can imagine the situation in the wilder parts of the Balkans. (Okay, so the soldier turned out to be a werewolf, but my point still stands.)

Travel these days is incomparably easier, but that feeling, of looking across the mountains, and knowing I was the only human for miles and miles - that, I think I shared with Roman travellers.
The Rites of Spring
Last week Easter Sunday and April Fool's day were one and the same. (Memorably celebrated this year by a relative who arranged the usual Easter egg hunt for her kiddies, but didn't hide any eggs. I consider this a valuable life lesson for the young 'uns.) Anyway, the conjunction of dates led someone to ask me whether the Romans had either April Fool's day or Easter.

Easter has certainly a long tradition, because spring festivals are ubiquitous in northern cultures. In fact some medieval writers claim the name of the Christian holiday comes from Eastre, a Germanic vernal Goddess. Her symbol was the hare, which is why we have the Easter bunny. In ancient Rome there was Attis the lover of the goddess Cybele who was considered reborn with the spring, and also Mithras, whose birth was celebrated on the winter solstice and his rising from the dead celebrated on the spring equinox.

The traditional hot cross bun also has a history. Apparently the church originally tried to ban the pagan rite of baking sweet buns to welcome the spring - a tradition which goes back at least to Roman times. Eventually the clergy gave up the attempt, but the cross was added to show that these were good Christian buns, not some pagan culinary atrocity.

Practical jokes were certainly a Roman tradition, but not celebrated particularly on April the first. There is for example the 'Tantalus Cup' - a surviving example of what is also called a 'greedy' or 'Pythagoras' cup. If he pours in a modest amount of wine, the drinker is fine. However, a hidden siphon ensures that if filled past a certain point, the cup leaks all its wine over the drinker's lap. (You can still buy modern examples of these cups online.)

The emperor Commodus was an extreme practical joker. We are told of guests who awakened after a drunken party to find that they were sharing their bed with a lion or tiger. The animals were tame and allegedly harmless, so the only casualties were those guests who died of fright - which of course made the whole prank all the more hilarious.

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