Book Review by Ursus
Need some light reading this holiday season? Want a good stocking stuffer to give to someone this Saturnalia? Consider The Classical Compendium by Philip Matyszak. As with all of Maty's books, it is an enjoyable yet informative read. This tome in particular seems to be geared as a "fun" event to be enjoyed by the more casual history student. The work surveys a variety of interesting trivia from the Roman and Greek worlds.
I am a firm believer that there would be a larger appreciation of classical heritage if more emphasis were placed on the humanity of the ancients in all their color and with all their quirks. Instead they seem too often treated as stuffy cardboard cutouts from a degenerate era of dead white male imperialism. My favorite authors are those who serve us a picture of the ancients as the interesting if flawed creatures that they were. Like Andrew Dalby, for instance, who knows how to (re)tell classical mythology. And then there is Maty, who has quickly become the leading author on witty surveys of various aspects of classical history.
The Classical Compendium is divided into ten chapters. They discuss such topics as incredible traveler's tales, military trivia, weird religious beliefs, odd jobs from antiquity, gossip and tales of romance. The book is presented in an easy to read format, with illustrations, primary quotes, charts and bullet points of interests scattered on virtually every page. You'll even get a recipe for brain pudding.
From peasant to emperor, from the sands of Babylon to the fields of Roman Britain, from Archaic Greece to the Fall of Rome, Maty offers a unique look at classical culture. My favorite running gag are the short tales of Elithio Phoitete, a dullard (named by the author) existing in the realm of cynical Greek humor. Poor Elithio finds himself in a variety of situations and never comes out the better for it. I can't believe I've been a classics buff for years and never read some of these laugh-out-loud jokes.
As with all of Maty's books, you couldn't ask for better prose or more captivating wit, which is what really makes for a page turning experience. Everything is solidly researched, and Maty acknowledges contributions from other established classical scholars. The book from Thames & Hudson is small and perfectly travel sized, and as a nice touch there is even a ribbon in the bottom to serve as a book mark.
My main concern is how many more books like this even a prolific writer like Maty can produce? Hopefully the field has yet to be fully mined, for books such as these are always a joy to read.
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