Short Read for Stay-at-Home

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Image: Collected

'24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There', Philip Matyszak, Michael O'Mara Books Limited, London, 2017

In hand is an innovative history book - in length and perspective while covering a different beat; a travelogue with a twist. Just when you ask yourself what could be new under the Roman sun; there drops into your lap a lively historical fictional account of 24 hours in the 'Eternal City' that was not built in a day. This is an out of the box narrative by an observant traveller; albeit a day-tripper. However, far from one whose itinerary lists: ‘if it’s Tuesday, it must be Italy.’

According to one calculation, Rome was founded on April 21, 753 B.C. In a ‘Time Turn’, we reverse to the year 137 AD; close to 1900 years back. On offer is a new memory map of an ancient landscape. What lies behind ancient Rome’s urban façade? "Rome's empire is almost at the height of its power...From the Thames to the Tigris, Rome is mighty, feared and respected." During Emperor Hadrian's reign (117-138), Rome was at the apex of its architectural splendor; recognized for his substantial mega-building projects throughout the Roman Empire. Over centuries, the cycle of renewal of works of art continued in the creation and destruction of physical splendours.

Rome's iconic image remains the Colosseum amphitheatre, the symbol of the city and its life. It is said 'there is more history in this place than in entire kingdoms.' The eighth century theologian the Venerable Bede declared: "While the Colosseum stands, Rome shall stand; when the Colosseum falls. Rome shall fall; and when Rome falls, with it the World shall fall." A malevolent glimpse of this forecast may be projected in the curse of Covid-19 that first swept through Europe via Italy and the terrible trail the pandemic continues to level.

This 24 hour narrative is not about the 'eternal in stone' mega-monuments and mausoleums that dot the imperial landscape of Rome; each a testament to a dot in history. Nor does Philip Matyszak focus on the consuls, emperors, generals, senators - the Roman patricians of this ancient city. The Colosseum, palatial palaces, imposing civic buildings and its frequenters and inhabitants appear as backdrops to the everyday highs and lows of lives lived by the city’s burgeoning population within a challenging urban experience. Horace, (65-8) BC the Roman lyric poet referred to "The smoke and wealth and noise of Rome." Horace has left us with the term ‘carpe diem’ (seize the day). If one writer has explored a day in the life of a ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor;’ Philip Matyszak takes us through an hour in a day of a second century Roman watchman, baker, slave girl, mother, imperial messenger, schoolboy, senator, vestal virgin, jurist, teenager, stonemason, tavern keeper, bath attendant, hostess, washerwoman, cook, priestess, spice trader, prostitute, astrologer, gladiator and parasite. The author must have come across the words of Malorie Blackman, the British contemporary writer: ‘Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.’ In the end, this book has a single protagonist - the city of Rome.

As readers we are self-declared travellers yearning to take in as much as we can in the single day we have in ancient Rome. Our encounters are with Roman plebians. While progress is present; so are days of discontent and times of turmoil. Poverty and pollution, poor sanitation and plagues, dense housing, disease and deprivation are daily realities. A profile of ancient Rome’s under-class urban society is richly detailed. The author’s knack for seizing snippets of incidents and information in a city rife with life; brings one down to 'Terra Firma' at once. For, "Rome might be the greatest city on earth, but those living here still need to navigate the traffic, get on with the neighbours and find good, reasonably priced food in the markets."

The pace is fast and one needs to keep up with the first item of the day long itinerary. The author starts our twenty-four hours at the midnight hour in the company of 'The Watchman Handles a Complaint.' A 1598 reference ‘Summary of Rules in Ripon Town Book’ states: ‘The watchman is not to leave the town in his year of office except because of plague. Penalty 20 Pounds Sterling.’ This was lockdown in a bygone era. In a public campaign, civic leaders demanded greater night protection and policing of narrow cobbled pathways. Fines and foes were frequent. For some, arson was profitable; in an act of private gain despite public loss. Further back in time, Plutarch in ‘Life of Crassus 2’ quoted by the author notes: “He would buy houses that were on fire, and houses which adjoined those that were on fire, and these their owners would sell for peanuts owing to their fear and uncertainty. In this way he (Crassus) came to own a large part of Rome.” Thus did profiteers acquire deep pockets; and thus power. The range of human behavior remains steady; then as now.

In ‘The Carter in a Jam’ we are told “…the horse collar is another invention that is centuries away.” On the all-prevailing issue of law and order, “Rome is largely unpoliced, and one man alone with five mules loaded with easily traded goods has about the same chance of making it across the Aventine at night as a virgin carrying a purse of gold.” The text is lanced by cryptic humour. A recipe for ‘The Herculaneum loaf’ in ‘The Baker Starts Work’ is as enticing today as it was then. The author informs us: “No one yet knows why bread rises, because yeast won’t be isolated as the cause for another 1800 years.” However, the master baker and the Herculaneum town’s population perished in the volcanic flow from Mt. Vesuvius. Such real-world incidents happened then – as they do now. Blasts from the past provide valuable data gleaned from routine Roman lives.

In ‘The Senator goes to meet his Patron’, we are told of ‘The System of Patronage’. For “…as soon as he reaches any position of authority, a potential patron immediately starts looking around for clients…clients are often the instruments by which the patron gets things done.” No one less than Machiavelli (1469-1527) himself in his master political treatise 'The Prince' noted: "It is the nature of men to be bound by the benefits they confer as much as by those they receive."

Labyrinthine lanes remain littered with chamber pots of urine, sewage and household refuse. “To put it bluntly, Rome stinks.” Well, Pliny in ‘Natural History’ noted: ‘Men’s urine relieves gout, as is shown by the testimony of fullers, who for that reason claim that they never suffer from this malady.’ Yet another virtue of urine comes up in the same chapter ‘The Washerwoman does a Late Shift.’ For “The Romans believe that washing clothes in urine makes whites whiter and colours brighter, and this magic ingredient also removes stubborn stains.” Thus are we informed of an ancient Roman’s take on hygiene, health and happiness. Furthermore, “Baths are a staple of Roman civilization…Often this becomes the nucleus around which a new town forms…at Aquae Sulis in Britain – a town later so well known for this feature that the name will become simple ‘Bath’.” Well, this nugget of information I garnered in 2021 reading ‘The Bath Attendant Checks in Customers.’ Set in Somerset, England I had visited Bath in the late 1970s.

Roaming Romans featured early in history. Enterprising and explorative, everyday matters relating to travel and trade was challenging priorities. After all, ‘All roads lead to Rome.’ In 1494, a German scholar named Peutinger discovered a twenty-two foot long scroll listing all the cursus publicus (Roman imperial courier and transportation service stations) globally. The over-time embellished and extended copy shows the document as it was around AD 430. It is to be found at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. For our culinary taste, spice is right. So too it was for the Romans – once they had discovered it.

“Most Romans have no idea of the origins of the black powder that puts a kick into their lentil soup, but Miyrius (the spice trader) knows that the stuff comes from Kerala in India. (There, the locals call the pepper kari, and ‘curry’ will be the name for spicy eastern dishes ever after.” After a long day of accompanying the author through his numerous encounters in diverse milieu, between 19.00 -20.00 we accompany ‘The Spice Trader Sets Out for Dinner.’

If a well-crafted menu heads into crisis, ‘The Cook Gets Frantic.’ The main course material is unavailable. A Master Chef accreditation is not acquired easily. For in this case, in the non-availability of “a breeding sow before his piglets are weaned… He cunningly hinted of the exotic charms of tiger steak or fillet of giraffe.” “A show staged at the Colosseum recently saw the death of these and other animals by the hundred. The Roman has a ‘waste not, want not’ attitude to such things and almost every creature slaughtered in the arena eventually finds its way on to a Roman dinner table.”

"Historians who are interested in people generally make better writers than those who prefer theories...So professional historians are welcome to write for each other; for us ordinary readers, Dalrymple will do" is the blunt summary by Ira Pande in her review of 'The Last Mughal: Bahadur Shah Zafar.' Likewise, Matyszak delves deep into Roman lives as they interact with the imperial cityscape and the end-product is an exhaustive, lively and personal tribute to Rome, Romans and the Roman spirit. For “Above all, ancient Rome was an attitude”’ The author artistically navigates the reader and captures the profile of lives lived by the bulk of Roman humanity in a witty and unique style, while providing colourful glimpses into people's pulses. Philip Matyszak walks us through neighbourhoods; all the while punctuating the travelogue with little known details of data. Assisted by historical images, ancient and contemporary contextual recipes, sketches and sayings by Roman historical notables; the read is an ingenious combination of fact and fiction – a shift in perspective. The book qualifies to fall into the 'basket of must-reads' prior to visiting the 'Eternal City.' And when will that be? Only Time will tell. ‘When this is all over’, embrace the freedom to travel and fulfill one’s wanderlust. Meanwhile, a bookworm may absorb all of 'Ancient Rome in 24 Hours'; indulging in a portrayal of a city within your imagination and a literary canvas full of texture. For in the words of the nineteenth century Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.”

Raana Haider is a travel writer. She is the author of a number of books; including ‘Parisian Portraits’ University Press Limited, Dhaka, 2000. Retitled ‘Paris: A Homage’ was published by Tara-India Research Press, New Delhi, 2007.

  • Philip Matyszak
  • A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There
  • 24 Hours in Ancient Rome
  • Short Read for Stay-at-Home

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