The Ancient Guide to Modern Life by Natalie Haynes
Book Review by Nick Brown
Authors, publishers and readers are always on the lookout for new concepts and surely no one could deny the appeal of Natalie Haynes’ book from 2010. It sets out to draw parallels between the modern and ancient worlds and does so in a lively, thoughtful manner. In eight chapters, the author – a classics scholar and stand up comedian no less - examines politics, law, philosophy, religion, women, town and country, entertainment and money. The introduction outlines Haynes’ ‘obsession’ with the ancient world and her knowledge and passion are evident throughout the ensuing two hundred and sixty pages.
An early outline of ancient Greek democracy typifies the author’s fluent, balanced approach. While lauding the benefits of the egalitarian, direct voting system, she also highlights the numerous weaknesses – no women or foreign-born inhabitants could take part and the society was largely dependent on slavery. The first of many telling points is also made about modern life: the prevalence of decreasing elector turnout while millions take part in direct votes for TV talent shows. Clearly, something’s amiss; and here indeed it seems we might have something to learn from the ancients. Later in the chapter, a powerful case is made for comparing Rome to the modern USA – both sole superpowers who experienced fraught relations with the Middle East. Haynes argues that present day politicians might benefit from emulating some of the bold ideas and willpower demonstrated by their forebears.
When examining ancient law enforcement, we discover that the Romans, in effect, had none. After a robbery, no police officer would turn up at the door and there was no district attorney to bring charges. There were however, alternatives: the vigiles, who acted as both firemen and night-watchmen and would at least keep an eye out for burglars, muggers and runaway slaves. Civil disquiet, however, was more often dealt with by the military. And if a case actually reached court, evidence garnered from slaves was secured by torture and the outcome was often dependent on the oratorical ability of one’s lawyer (assuming you could afford one). Here, the reader is left feeling perhaps a tad less pessimistic about the state of policing and the courts in the modern world.
When discussing the role of women, Haynes encounters the usual stumbling block; the almost complete lack of sources from a female perspective. Male dramatists and commentators either idealised women as docile, obedient housewives or portrayed them as wanton, dangerous sirens. While learning of the perils of life for women in millennia past, we are also reminded that such treatment has not been banished to history: ‘across the world, 2 million girls a year disappear: they are abandoned at birth, or not treated when they are ill, or worse.’ Though here – as in other sections – we stray a little from the titular concept, the topics covered are always compelling and germane.
Arguably the most engaging section involves the author teasing out the long threads running from ancient forms of entertainment all the way to the twenty first century. She draws convincing parallels between original epics The Iliad and The Odyssey and the long-running television shows so beloved of modern audiences. Like Odysseus or Hector, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – stay with me – is a ‘demigod’ engaged in an epic struggle against supernatural foes who must protect her family with the support of various companions. Hard to argue with. The original protagonists, Haynes contends, eventually spawned archetypal detectives Sherlock Holmes, Sam Spade and Inspector Morse; all self-destructive yet independent and brilliant - like the first flawed heroes.
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Within the epilogue, the author mounts a stirring defence of the study of classics. Some familiar ground is covered in terms of ‘what history can teach us’ but more punches are landed when it comes to the sheer joy and wonder of learning about ancient societies. This accessible but authoritative book is certain to further that cause.
Nick Brown is the author of the ‘Agent of Rome’ series. The fifth book, The Emperors Silver was released this summer.