A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities by J.C. McKeown

Book Review by Ursus

Did you know that Romans believed that goats breathed through their ears? Well, that is just the sort of priceless information you can find locked away in A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities. This is a book that takes a lighthearted romp through Roman history to collect some of the more obscure but colorful bits of information.

J.C. McKeown is professor of classics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has penned a book on Latin and is currently working on a commentary on Ovid's Amores. McKeown states in his introduction he has no higher purpose for offering this book. The Roman having left us more information about themselves than any other ancient Western society, he simply decided to jot down random nuggets of information from Latin and Greek texts he deemed odd or amusing.

The ordering of the information, admits the author, is superficial at best; the curious facts conveyed will be arrayed around a loose topic such as "food and drink" or "women" or "medicine." (One chapter even focuses on toilets, proving that even our stately ancestors could not get their minds out of the gutter). Beyond that, however, the book is simply a collection of the exotic and the weird - stuff that you may not find in mainstream histories of Rome. Each entry is usually only several sentences long, separated from the next entry with ample spacing. When the author quotes directly from an ancient text he italicizes the work, otherwise the information is presented in normal text. But always at the end of each entry he references a primary text, which assures us he is not simply fabricating the information. The beginning and end of each chapter has a choice Latin quote from a primary text, and there are enough photographs and illustrations to provide some visual entertainment. The book also ends with a perfunctory glossary on important Roman names and terms.

Fur purposes of writing a review, I tried reading A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities straight through as much as possible, giving it my upmost serious attention. This is probably not how the book should be enjoyed. Instead one should probably read it a chapter at a time when one is in a whimsical mood. That way one can better absorb and appreciate the kernels of wisdom in it. For instance, if you yourself are working on your third glass of Chardonnay, then you may be better able to sympathize with St. Isidore, who stated that "People who drink wine in which eels have been drowned lose their appetite for drinking wine." (Etymologies 12.6.41)

This work invites comparison to Philip Matyszak's A Classical Compendium, another attempt at detailing the weird and wonderful tidbits of the ancient world. But whereas Matyszak concentrated on both the Roman and Hellenic worlds, McKeown concentrates solely on Rome. McKeown's more focused study may appeal to Romanophiles who don't give a fig for Greece. However, to be honest I thought A Classical Compendium was done with a little more passion, wit and organization, making it the overall better read. Nonetheless I still sympathize with McKeown's goals in furnishing us this work. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities, on the whole, is a cute read, to be enjoyed as a lighthearted Romanophile outing.

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