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Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day by Phillip Matyszak

Book Review by Ursus

Many Romanophile books are quite informative, and some are even enjoyable enough to read. Rarely are they simply as fun as hell.

So... you live somewhere in the backwater provinces of the Roman Empire, and you must visit the Eternal City for the first time for business or pleasure (or both, if you're savvy enough)? The imperial capitol holds many promises of profit and adventure, but one misstep could mean a social faux pas, a breach of the Praetor's law, or perhaps even a quick journey to the underworld courtesy of a brigand. If only there were a handy traveler's guide to counsel the would-be visitor to the Eternal City. Wait no more, my friend, for one has been provided for you!

Your guide shall be an Oxford educated Cambridge professor (yes, apparently those half-civilized tribesmen in Britannia actually became cultured at some point) who traveled back in time from two millennia hence. With a guide thus bestowed with a proper education and 2000 years of hindsight, you cannot go far wrong in your travels. Only the god Mercury could provide you better service. Oxbridge professors, however, unlike Olympian deities, presumably do not require animal sacrifice in exchange for their good graces.

It is a few decades shy of Rome's millennial anniversary, or about two centuries into the Christian era. Roma has become the cosmopolitan capitol of three continents, and has long since outgrown its quiet, rustic heritage. It has evolved into sprawling mass that entreats both rich and poor, both native and foreigner. All roads lead to Rome; but the trick is exactly what to do, what to see, and whom to meet once you get there.

Our travel guide is arranged into several logical chapters. First our guide offers some sage advice on how to negotiate the journey to Rome by sea and land; then it offers a sketch on the notable outskirts of Rome. Once one arrives at Rome, one is given some advice on where to stay, what to wear, what to eat, and how to navigate the social hierarchy. There are delightful sections on Rome's many shopping and entertainment venues (I personally found the section on commercialized sex quite enlightening). Also included, for your benefit, are sketches of two things very near and dear to any Roman: religion and law. Finally one is treated to some 'must see' sites of the imperial wonderland, and one is provided with a convenient walk about through the fair city.

You thus have in your possession everything you need for a successful stay in the Urbs. The travel guide presents a sweeping yet informative survey of Roman culture and daily life as it will greet you the moment you step through the Servian walls. While there are of course more scholarly works out there that go into greater detail, this guide assumes you just want the nitty-gritty. Besides, scholarship can be boring, and our guide is interested in navigating you through a living, breathing city rather than a stale museum piece.

The guide itself is fairly short and proves a quick read. It is rather cheap, and its small size makes it easy to carry about and store later. The prose is filled with a sort of understated dry writ (that seems to be the hallmark of the sophisticated culture those Brittania natives develop in the centuries to come). Furthermore, there are many illustrations conveyed through the pages, some of them rendered in beautiful color and sharp clarity by technology contemporary Romans can scarcely fathom. Sprinkled throughout the book are choice quotes by famous Romans, and tables detailing fun facts on Roman history and culture. Finally, there is a map of the city at the end, along with several handy Latin phrases.

If however you cannot visit the Urbs anytime soon, fret not. Our city, like our empire, shall stand forever. It is not going anywhere. It shall stand the test of time, always beckoning the human race hither to witness its unassailable glory. Emperors come and go, but the city of Rome is truly eternal.

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Book Review of Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day - Related Topic: Roman Coins


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