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Mostly Fiction: "produces a remarkably illustrative overview of how Romans of that time lived. Angela has succeeded at delivering a large quantity of information with an affable, inviting style."

Date: Nov 3 2009

from Mostly Fiction

What would A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome be if we didn’t slip in with the throngs to see the free, first-century amphitheater “entertainment” ourselves? We do, and we wait for the brutal show to begin. “And finally there they are: the gladiators. The crowd is delirious. You have to cover your ears to shield them from the noise. For a second, you have the impression that even the Colosseum could collapse under the shouting and beating feet of tens of thousands of spectators….But it is horrifying to think that all this has been achieved solely for the purpose of producing spectacles of death.”

As we know, instead of violent movies and video games, Imperial Rome settled for real violence — their “reality shows.” Bloody executions, ordered by the State and often administered at the teeth and claws of ferocious animals, were scheduled earlier in the day. Lavish mortal hand-to-hand combat scenarios, sponsored by wealthy patricians who hoped to gain popular political support, were an inextricable later part of a typical day in the then largest city in the world.

But knowing isn’t the same as “being there.” Alberto Angela, author and TV science show host, gets us a ticket with a seat number so we can witness, amongst other matches, a mortal struggle between a murmillo (a “fish man”) and a retiarius. “This couple symbolically represents the fisherman, equipped with a net, trident, and dagger, and the fish…which hides among the rocks, ready to unleash its lethal bite (exactly like this type of gladiator, hiding behind his enormous shield).” Angela neglects nothing of the atmosphere; the Colosseum lives and breathes with the agonies in the arena and the audience’s chants of “now he strikes him, how he strikes him.” And as we watch the fray, Angela also teaches us vocabulary and showers us with facts galore. He is our guide, our instructor in this deadly place.

Fortunately for the less bloodthirsty readers, this day tour introduces (or reacquaints) us with many others aspects of Roman life. After a chapter to orient us in the 115 CE Trajan Empire, Angela confidently leads us through the hours beginning with a predawn survey of the dark, silent streets of Rome. Then he proceeds to show us the home of an upper class family whose denizens are awakening, We find out how togas are wrapped around the human figure, the grooming secrets for both men and women, and what they eat for breakfast. As the day begins in public, we “watch” a barber scrape men’s faces and then wander out to see the rest of the shops opening. We pass by a temple, and then observe games in the street and school being held outdoors. We go inside an apartment building housing common people and see how their lives contrast with those of the privileged we viewed earlier. There is a cattle auction at the Boarian Forum, and a slave market. Then we arrive at the Roman Forum and catch a brief glimpse of the Senate. It isn’t lunchtime yet, but the Colosseum is already in business, and we will hear about or see it a few times today. Meanwhile, a visit to a public restroom demystifies how the Romans coped in the pre-toilet paper era. We catch sight of the historian Tacitus in a bookshop that also serves as a publishing house. After fortifying ourselves with a light repast but refusing some of the other “wares” (aka, sex) for sale in a small food bar, we set off, along with many others, to the baths and cleanse ourselves. Then, after the adrenaline rush of the gladiatorial games, we follow the litters of a domus and his wife as they go to a banquet We watch them recline and consume such Roman delicacies as “flamingo tongues, parrotfish livers, peacock and pheasant brains, and ‘milk’ from a moray eel.” These banquets can last for hours, but often Romans will be home before dark to avoid street robbers. Finally before we bid Rome good-bye, there is some information about Roman sexual practices, but our voyeurism doesn’t go too far.

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome produces a remarkably illustrative overview of how Romans of that time lived. Angela has succeeded at delivering a large quantity of information with an affable, inviting style (he even patriotically and endearingly interjects that spaghetti is in fact an Italian invention; the Chinese created their own version independently, according to him). As he declares in his introduction, “But actually there is a trick to acquiring a real understanding of the everyday life in these sites. Pay attention to the details: the signs of wear on the steps, the graffiti inscribed on the plaster walls (Pompeii is full of them), the grooves left in the pavement by cart wheels or the scratches on the marble doorsill of a house, caused by the movement of the (long since vanished) front door.” He is a stickler for incorporating such observations into his tour.

Gregory Conti has translated Angela’s original Italian work into English for Europa Editions. Occasionally an oddity comes up in the specific words chosen. For instance, the use of “couple” when referring to the pair of gladiators. Whether this and a few examples are the result of literal translations of Angela’s own malapropisms or Conti’s “mistranslations” isn’t clear when relying only on the English text. In any case, only a few noticeable phrases or words gather under this umbrella. Overwhelmingly, the language conveys crisply and clearly the ancient Roman environment.

And the instructive illustrations, drawn by Luca Tarlazzi and strategically scattered throughout the book, very helpfully augment various lessons: for example, there is a chart of Roman hand signals used for counting, mainly in business transactions. Although some of the particulars have been lost in the mists of history, supposedly Romans could count to 10,000 using these signs — using their hands something like an abacus.

It is the many facts like this that particularly suggest this book as a fine introduction to ancient Rome for young people. Perhaps some schools will choose to use it as a textbook. However, that isn’t to imply that A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome isn’t for adult edification. Anyone who has enjoyed fictional jaunts to Rome through historical novels by authors such as Colleen McCullough, Steven Saylor, Lindsey Davis, or Robert Harris will likely be fascinated with the chance to tag along on Angela’s tour. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And it is also a very useful supplement to heavier histories of Rome. As others read this book, perhaps they will think as I did, of one thing that might have further strengthened this offering: even more detail about, for example, the actual building of some of the wonders of Roman architecture. Or, more about the inner workings of the Senate or a court trial. But this volume is close to four hundred pages, so if we want further study materials, we can always consult Angela’s bibliography and other reference works.

Now, in Angela’s words, “And so concludes our day in the life of imperial Rome. An ordinary day, almost two thousand years ago.” We’ve received a gift — a chance to peek into many magnificent spaces and some rather creepy crevices. The last chapter closes at midnight: “As we walk down the street, there is an unreal silence. A silence broken only by the sound of the water flowing in a neighborhood fountain, just a few yards away. The sound of the falling water is our only company.”

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