Books by Philip Matyszak



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The simple life
'Well, life was simpler then.'

I often hear this comment about earlier eras, and I keep wondering, 'Simpler? How exactly?' Let us not forget how much trouble it once took to do stuff that's effortless to modern folk in the west. For us today, water comes at the turn of a tap, light at the flick of a switch, and heating happens automatically.

It was certainly not simpler to keep an eye on the supply of water needed for cooking, cleaning and washing, and to schlep down to the fountain whenever reserves got low. Likewise lighting meant that the oil lamps had to be cleaned, the wicks prepared and a suitable amount of olive oil kept on hand. Heating was fires that had to be tended, and firewood stocks which had to be painstakingly built up over the summer. It all took work and arrangement – on top of the same work and social issues we have today. Our modern society and economy are certainly a lot more complex, but for people at the everyday level this means a lot more simplicity and convenience, not less.

Yet, despite the convenience, I do feel that we might have lost something along the way. Those items supplied by large companies are of the cheapest materials that the public will tolerate for the price, and they tend to lack a certain warmth. For example, I've just been sitting beside a birch-wood fire sipping fresh-ground coffee from an antique china cup. If I wanted ultra-modern convenience and simplicity, I could have had instant coffee from a styrofoam mug while looking at a radiator.
The Production Line
When I get an idea for a book, I first research and check that its a viable project. Then I contact the editor of the publisher the book is best suited to, and make a pitch. If the editor's interested, I start serious research, and do a full work-up, often including sample chapters. Once we've agreed a contract, I hit the books in earnest. It rather annoys people on social occasions that I'd clearly prefer to get back to AD 210,(or whenever) but still …

Then, while it's all planned out and fresh in my mind, I sit down and bang out the text, aiming for at least a thousand words a day. And for this period the rest of the world ceases to exist. Then, after the book has been sent off and perused by the copy editor, there's rewrites, corrections, queries, picture captions and indexing.

Usually at any given time there's two or three pitches being prepared (they don't all get accepted), one serious research project under way, one book being written, and another going through the final edits. So ideally as one book is being printed, the contract for the book after the next book should be in the post. While discussing book proposals with an editor this week, I realized that this schedule is set up until 2021. Wow.

Fortunately, it's November and the days are short, cold and dark. I'm either in the kitchen baking something while I ponder ideas, or hammering away at the keyboard. If I get through several thou words per day now, I can spend Xmas happily doing research with some lovely new books I'm planning to order from Santa.
It is your destiny young [insert name here]
A young man with no knowledge of his true origins tends plants at the edge of the desert. Then a chance incident makes him realise that his origins are more noble and more perilous than he realized. Eventually he must realize his destiny, challenge an evil ruler and change the fate of humanity.

Many people reading this will assume that the events described here happened to a certain Mr L. Skywalker, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. And they did in the 1977 movie “Star Wars”. They also happened to a certain Sargon of Akkadia some time around 2360 BC.

'My mother was a high priestess who kept her pregnancy secret. She kept my birth secret also and put me in a basket of rushes, and cast it into the river. The river carried me to Akki the drawer of water , who raised me as his son.'

So remarks Sargon in a neo-Assyrian text discovered in Mesopotamia. What happened next was described in detail on the next column – literally – but that column has not survived. However, as related above, we already know the story. That's because it exists not just in the Sargon legend, but also in the legend of Cyrus the Great, King Arthur, and Romulus and Remus. Those familiar with the Bible might also note certain similarities with the story of Moses.

As with all legends, there's an underlying truth. Being of noble birth in an unstable kingdom was risky, and being a royal heir was downright unhealthy. Young Mithridates of Pontus, for example actually fled the palace and spent years on the run before returning home as an adult to facehis scheming mother.

Of course, not all of us are set up for a life of madcap adventure, breath-taking risk and derring-do. I wonder how many people quietly decommissioned that droid, or (or whatever), slipped the sword back into the stone, and quietly tip-toed away.
Not feeling very superior
Like water, human behaviour tends to follow the path of least resistance. That is, humans have enough to cope with in life without making it unnecessarily harder for themselves. Also over time, societies evolve customs which exchange short-term work for long-term gain. Last month, as forest fires backlit the mountains around my home, I had reason to ponder that in more detail.

You see, the native American peoples who lived hereabouts were pretty good at forest management. They knew that regular wildfires were a part of the natural cycle, and if scrub built up, it was better to burn it off than risk a later devastating fire. They also built forest clearings that acted as firebreaks and encouraged wildlife diversity for better hunting.

Then along came the Europeans with a zero-tolerance policy for fires, so that over a century the wilderness became one huge tinder-box. Now, a slightly wiser forest management allows fires, but it will take decades before we have put everything back as we found it. All because no-one listened to the people who had been managing the forest for millennia. Because they were savages, you see.

Those studying ancient culture tend to make the same mistake. Anything that the ancients did 'wrong' is assumed to be because they were backward types who knew no better. The truth is that there was probably a good reason for it, and we would do better working out the economic, spiritual or social reasons behind the practice. We might also profitably consider why – as with 'modern' forest management – our modern solutions might not work in an ancient environment. The people of the classical world were neither stupid or unsophisticated. If they did something, it was probably for a reason.
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.

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