Books by Philip Matyszak



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Sophisticated low-tech
There is a modern misconception that a low-technology society is an unsophisticated society, and societies with advanced technology are more 'advanced'. In reality possession of advanced technology does not equate with being advanced, or even with being civilized, as is being proven today by those self-propelled guns driving around Iraq and the Ukraine. On the flip side, we only need look at ancient Rome to see that that low-tech and sophistication - even engineering sophistication - can go hand-in-hand.

By modern standards the Romans were certainly a low-tech civilization, and they almost seem to have preferred it that way. For example, they knew of the steam engine and advanced cranes for building but chose not to use them. (The emperor Vespasian said to the inventor of the cranes 'You must allow me to give jobs to the poor.') When they did use technology, the Romans did it remarkably well. By definition, no modern urban infrastructure has lasted two thousand years, but many Italians routinely use water supply systems built by the Romans. In fact while I was last in Milan, a part of the city centre lost its water supply because builders broke an unrecorded underground ceramic pipe that had - without maintenance - been quietly supplying water for centuries. Rome's Pantheon (in use for two thousand years and counting) encloses a near-perfect 142ft diameter sphere that would exactly touch the ground if extended that far, and the dome is still the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world.

Today I was reading about the Lycurgus Cup. This ancient drinking vessel was made around AD 250. Not only is it of superbly cut glass, but it is colloidal. That is, gold and silver nano-particles in the glass refract light differently. So the cup is green when light shines on it, but red when light shines through it. (Those in London can see the cup for themselves in the British museum.) The Lycurgus in question is portrayed on the cup being punished for trying to harm a follower of Bacchus, the god of wine - an agreeable theme for a drinking vessel.
Many aspects of Roman life appall us today. Yet while they would be amazed by our technology the Romans in their turn would probably not have a high opinion of our civilization. Barbarism is in the eye of the beholder.
Estivating ...
Summer is always productive for me. This is the time when editors and publishers are away sunning themselves on the Rivera - or, as they will indignantly assure me, in their back gardens in Putney. Students are off backpacking around Europe or working at their summer jobs. So in July and August my daily emails drop to about a tenth of their non-holiday levels. (Though I received a memorable one today featuring a picture of a bottle of Caesar Augustus Ale, brewed by Williams Bros. of Scotland.)

Now I am not averse to a bit of estivial relaxation myself, as testified by the fact that there is currently a small oval sunburned onto my belly; this being the part that was above water level when I spent an hour floating on my back in the lake last Wednesday. Nevertheless, July and August are the engine-room of my writing year. By July the research on my current projects is largely done. Therefore, in the absence of other distractions, this is the time when I get my head down and translate that research into writing. In a good week that means over 10,000 words of clean copy. Usually the summer months start with my being somewhat behind on my writing projects. By September not only are things up to date, they can get so far ahead of themselves that I end up having a first draft ready by October.

It's my intention that this will happen this year as well, because the back end of the year is looking crowded with various family and other commitments. Also next year is shaping up as a bumper year for writing projects, so I want to go into 2015 with a clean slate. Fortunately the novel is shaping up nicely, and Heracles has just finished conquering Troy. (You didn't know that he did? Look out for next year's blockbuster book 'Hercules: The first super-hero'. It's one in the a series of 'unauthorized biographies' that are going to keep me busy for some time to come.) Meanwhile for relaxation there's a series of Roman recipes I'm cooking my way through. Eating the end result outdoors with a good bottle of Barolo to keep it company makes a perfect end to the day's labours.
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.

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