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Volume 10, No. 8 - November 2000  
Table of contents for this issue  

The Classical World
We asked five experts to recommend the best recent books about ancient Greek and Roman life.

Richard Jenkyns, professor of the classical tradition at Oxford University and author of Dignity and Decadence: Victorian Art and the Classical Inheritance (Harvard, 1992).

"James Davidson's Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (HarperCollins, 1999) deserves the wide praise it has received. Examining ancient Greek attitudes toward physical pleasures such as eating, drinking, and sex, Davidson concludes that although the Greeks had a tolerant and humane attitude toward physical appetite, they also saw a fierce struggle against desire as a natural part of life. Along the way, he introduces us to many rich particulars. We learn where the best eels were hunted and which parts of the tuna were considered the most delicious. We catch the smell and texture of ancient Athens and the taste of Greek wine—redolent not of vanilla oak casks but of goat wineskins or the resin used to seal amphoras. Less juicy, though equally rewarding, is Religions of Rome (Cambridge, 1998), by Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price. A handsome, impressively illustrated two-volume set about the complex tangle of religious belief and practice in the ancient Roman world, Religions of Rome sets out the written and visual evidence for how the Romans thought about their gods."

Joy Connolly, assistant professor of classics at Stanford University, currently working on a manuscript about rhetoric and oratory in ancient Rome.

"William Fitzgerald's Slavery and the Roman Literary Imagination (Cambridge, 2000) explores with insight and flair the symbiotic relationship between Roman slaves and their masters. Romans had to 'live with' their slaves in every sense of the phrase, writes Fitzgerald, from sharing domestic space to putting up with attempts at resistance. Reading a wide range of texts, including gravestone epitaphs, fables, biographies, and satires, Fitzgerald examines competing ideologies of servility in Rome and the ways that Roman slaves, as imagined by their masters, mirrored and mediated relations among the free. Life, Death, and Entertainment in the Roman Empire (Michigan, 1998), edited by David S. Potter and D.J. Mattingly, offers informative articles on other aspects of everyday life in ancient Rome, including religious ritual, the family, and elite-male identity. The contributors ask relevant questions about the political dimensions of Roman leisure activities and provide lively discussion where one would expect heavy going, such as in essays on demographics and food supply. The collection also provides scholarly correctives for thousands of misled Ben-Hur and Gladiator fans: It was very rare for charioteers to win by coming from behind, and most gladiatorial bouts ended without a kill."

T. Corey Brennan, associate professor of classics at Rutgers University and author of The Praetorship in the Roman Republic (Oxford, 2000).

"Shuffling out of my local multiplex after two and a half hours of Gladiator, I remember wondering what in the world prompted me to study the ancient Romans for a living. Then the college teacher in me started to grade. For historical accuracy the film gets an F, for combat an A-minus. And for sex? Incomplete. To fill in the blanks, start with John R. Clarke's illustrated Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 b.c. to a.d. 250 (California, 1998). The book might have been titled Squinting at Lovemaking: Much of Clarke's (significant) contribution is simply to figure out what is happening in difficult sources, such as several naughty but damaged frescoes from Pompeii. Clarke's exegesis of wall paintings from the so-called Suburban Baths, which had a Roman unisex locker room, is worth the price of the book alone. Less cheery, but invaluable, is Thomas A.J. McGinn's Prostitution, Sexuality, and the Law in Ancient Rome (Oxford, 1998). McGinn describes how the emperor Augustus codified traditional attitudes toward prostitutes and pimps into common law. Although this book gets into the nitty-gritty of the sex industry only here and there, McGinn's forthcoming study, Prostitution and Roman Society, will no doubt have much more to say on the subject, which has so far escaped systematic treatment in English."

Keith Hopwood, lecturer in classics at the University of Wales, Lampeter, and editor of Organised Crime in Antiquity (Classical Press of Wales, 1998).

"Unorthodox in format but brilliant, Keith M. Hopkins's A World Full of Gods: The Triumph of Christianity (Free Press, 2000) attempts to re-create the multitudinous faiths of the Roman Empire. Hopkins sends specially commissioned time travelers to Pompeii and investigates post-Temple Judaism in the format of a British news program. Scholars both real and imaginary send ripostes to Hopkins's idiosyncratic approaches. The mélange sheds new light on the rise of Christianity and exposes some unpleasant truths about the origins of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Stephen C. Todd's The Shape of Athenian Law (Oxford, 1995) elucidates a key aspect of Athenian democracy. Using cutting-edge anthropological models, Todd devotes a chapter to each aspect of the Athenian legal system and introduces each chapter by presenting a typical case. Todd ultimately sees the courts as an extension of democracy: The random collection of citizen-jurors voted on legal issues and the definition of the law, as well as on the case before them."

James Davidson, professor in the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at Birkbeck College, London, and author of Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens (HarperCollins, 1999).

"In recent years, first-rate scholarship has done much to situate ancient Greek art in its proper cultural context. Although there are many excellent titles, and it seems invidious to recommend only one, Robin Osborne's Archaic and Classical Greek Art (Oxford, 1998) stands out for its range and cogency. Osborne shows, for example, how statues of naked men functioned at once as sexual objects, as ideal images of humanity, as memorials to the dead, and as gifts to the gods. He shows how ancient Greek vases evoke a lost world of drinking parties and socializing, and he demonstrates how temples reflect Greek ideas about cosmic order and the place of the Greek city within that cosmos. Meanwhile, Helen King's Hippocrates' Woman: Reading the Female Body in Ancient Greece (Routledge, 1998) surveys a broad range of ancient gynecological texts from Hippocrates to Galen and shows how they have been used and misused right up to the twentieth century. In the classical Greek belief system, women's wombs could be tamed by applying noxious substances to the mouth or sweet-smelling ones to the genitals. A woman whose husband had been exiled would grow a beard. King mixes amusement at this strange pseudoscientific world with astonishment that ineffectual remedies continued for as long as they did."

Matthew Price

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