Book Review by Pertinax
I was very pleased to find this book as I was aware of Mr Dalby's previous works, and it is evident that his sources are well researched and his excellent eye for language digs out subtle interperative nuances that may be lost to the monolingual.
The thing that strikes me about this book is that it benefits from being "read" in the Roman manner, ie: out loud - to savour cadences and phrases like rich foods, indeed that is both a compliment and a type of critiscism. The difficulty with this work is, that if one sits and reads, without the slow discipline of speaking and proper phrasing, the detail of the text is actually almost too rich.
That of course is a critiscism that most people would consider a compliment , my point is that it was apt for me to read this book over the Xmas period as its density mirrored a festive meal. You cannot rush this book, I did so initially because I was keen to try and greedily experience the real sights ,sounds and smells of the Roman world. I started to read aloud to Madame Pertinax and that action made me realise Dalby's desire to "imagine the world of the senses that belongs with the world of monuments and inscriptions" (but which breathe no life).
My abiding interests are the Triclinium and Materia Medica from Roman days,so to be presented with a catalogue of luxuries (and glimpses of simpler fare, betrayed by asides and ancient commonplace) was a delight to me. I think for many Forum members at UNRV the time frame of the work will resonate well - approx 50BC to 150AD when all the fervid events and epic partying seemed to take place. There are remarks to savour in a general context, for example , a rejoinder to remember that the Empire was "without predestined limit" and that such an attitude starkly recalls the confidence of Rome and how it sat in the world. Rome as the centre of Roman excellence and its corrosive desire for luxury and wealth, dating from its final victory over Carthage.
The early parts of the work take us on a sightseeing tour of the heart of the Empire, and as we move along we absorb sights, sounds, flavours with nice insight into social mores and a "rustic idyll" of city life and country estate that would do well in Edwardian Britain ( Faustinus's villa at Baiae p26, a sort of Marie Antoinette vision of bucolic excellence is wholly pertinent). If I quote too much here I may spoil your journey ,so I can offer small signposts to give you a desire to travel - the Lucullan fish ponds of Naples and the joyous detail of the "parrot wrasse" raised not for its indifferent flesh but glorious colouration brought alive to the dining table.
After exploring the Roman countryside we are drawn to examine the splendour of Rome's dominions.We see the stereotypes for each of the "ethnic" groups identified by Rome, and we learn of the produce of these exotic lands. I wondered why I found this section of the book so interesting despite , I felt , it being a little drier in tone than the foregoing chapters. After reflection I realised that this was how I had wanted "geography" to be presented to me as a subject when I was young ie: full of asides as to the ferocity of Liburnian pirates , the white skinned Gauls and their childlike credulity , the dark wavy hair and deep voices of the tough spaniards. The produce of the countries is named but again in a way that gives much more life to the subject eg: certain woolens being suitable for the dress of particular ranks and types of slaves, the context of the product pins it much more vivdly in the imagination.
I couldnt help but enjoy the asides about Britain - being included in a list of "places best left unvisited"-and the ferocity of her peoples, fierce and blue (painted) being the main adjectives employed. My favourite quote on Britain from Statius is included, naming the province as the place for a man of valour and courage to test himself beyond all other places in the wide Empire. I always enjoy reading about this strange "wild frontier". We are reminded of the great extent of cisalpine Gaul and its relationship to Gaul proper.
Many of the generalities in the book will be known to active Romanophiles, but its use lies in the application of flesh to bone, both sweet or strong smelling flesh. My initial comment about the work being like a rich dinner recurs as one becomes caught up in the guts of the book, you may have to slow down to digest properly . I read through in a couple of sittings as I was greedy to imbibe, but I found that dipping back into specific parts yielded snatches of descriptive phrase that gave vivid mental "coat hooks" to time , place and events.
The tour also includes the cultural journey of the educated Roman, that is the urbane asimmilation of Grecian culture , firstly by cultural tourism (possibly the first instance of this in the recent past) and also the linguistic digestion of Greek loanwords into an educated mans vocabulary.The effect of this varying rather, from some languid wit dropping the odd semi-ironic bon mot into his after dinner chat to some lower middle class arriviste ( ) littering a loud cocktail conversation with pretenious phrases. The use of the Greek seems to echo the use (and distrust ) of foreign languages in the robustly phillistine British Victorian upper classes, and a hint of sexual ambiguity attaches to the use of greeek garments and accoutrements. We see also the frisson of temptation as the robust Roman confronts the "eastern" pleasures and the "unhealthily wicked egyptians" ( just speaking that phrase should make you smile ). The company of "flute girls" ,that is temptingly available bar girls of Syrian origin or appearence seem to heat up Stoic Roman blood somewhat.
The Perigrinato continues from the reasonably well known and somewhat salacious to the exotic and other worldly. There are some interesting notes on slavery here - namely the unlikelihood of Numidians falling into Roman hands, but we see earlier in the book the universality of the trade amongst all ethnic types.
The trade of exotica be it the hippopotamus , elephant and rhinoceros is examined and we are reminded of the bestia entertainment of the Colesseum and the prestige of supplying the fabulous and rare for death in the arena . The Roman mind set is considered in the case of Arabia - a harsh desert and desolate yet often called happy and blessed in Roman literature ;mainly we see because of the desire for hair gel. I am skittish with your sensibilities here, but in a modern sense the trade in frankincense ( Boswellia) mirrors that modern grooming accesory, perhaps we can be kinder and say it is the languid, heavy ,cleansing aroma of the resin ous gum that is desired so fervently.Frankincense is not alone but its role gives us a sharp insight into an idea of exotica as desired luxury as an emblem of wealth and discrimination.
The aroma of alluring spices hangs over Parthia and we meet silphium the lost jewel of the the triclinium and from India the splendid pepper, there is a whole line of interest and enquiry related to the trading of spices above and beyond the scope of this work which the authour has tackled in the work "Dangerous Tastes".
So these various journeys bring us back to Rome itself , the devourer of pleasures, tastes , odours, lithe limbs, bloody arenas . As I said the "central " parts of the book may make you wonder "why do I take these journeys in taste and sensation?" The Saeva Urbs and Use of Empire chapters deliver the goods . Here we have the context of the consumption of goods and their social utility.
Firstly Rome is vast. Rome is various and thronged.Rome is a clamouring whirlpool, worried about extending citizenship yet proud of its huge gravitational pull across the whole world. HBOs Rome and its portrayal Caesars mob of greasy haired Gauls in the senate is the very paradox here . We move around city and suburb seeing what and who is on sale, and note how the poor can take advantadge of hot food stalls, not being able to light a risky cooking fire in their rickety tenements . The wafted smells of home cooking drift past us in the clamour of noisy trades,we see the enticing "curtains with price tags", naughty corners of taverns for assignation . The reality of the dish of sow's womb is encountered in a snapshot of promiscuous food ordering . The imagined noise and smells took me back to the crowded pavements of Hong Kong as a sort of approximation to the Rome of butchers and fishmongers crowding the public pavements amidst a riot of bleeding flesh and living fish. The centre of the vortex ,the route to which all the exotica travel to achieve "justification" is the circus and the theatre-arenas to sate the constant Roman need for incident and thrills. Are they not entertained?
We have travelled widely, returned to the maelstrom of Rome and now enter our friends' houses to eat, drink and show a keen appreciation of his good taste (and wealth) in providing both the exotic and the fragrantly bucolic , rare balsams and perfumes to be headily inhaled, myrtle garlands for the heated brow. We also see the very virtuous "rustic idyll" of quality home grown produce brought to the table, a reminder of no nonsense virtue to the strained gut, and a subtle allusion to the Romaness of the host.
Rome spanned the world for its desires, was proud of its reach , and consumed happily and noisily.
Should you buy this work? Rubicon was a good "story" and a useful popular book to give further flesh to the enjoyment of HBOs Rome; these popularising entertainments are to be welcomed as they open up imaginative windows into Romanophilia. The subject book is a heavy mixture of very vivid living snapshots linked as a perigrination around the Roman world, it adds sensuous flesh and perfume to the commoner images and worthier "hard " histories . If you are a Legion and Ballista devotee , I think this catalogue of "greek" fleshiness might not be to your satisfaction . One could not take the book and read it through without pausing and setting it aside for a day or two to consider and digest its plummy contents.I suggest reading it in little morsels at a quiet table near the seafront at Positano, whilst eating a dish of local seafood. A book for daydreaming of Rome.
When I edited this piece I cut out some rather excessive flourishes , one such was a reference to a quote from Ian Fleming's "From Russia with Love" , where Bond says to kerim Bey "Moi j'aime les sensations forte", meaning in food , drink and emotion.
It came to me why I enjoyed the reviewed work so much, Fleming was a master of the description of "things" and fixing their essence in the readers mind by giving telling , accurate and vivid information . This work is full of such lucid snapshots. I beg your indulgence in the verbosity of this review, honest friends have been kind enough to say that I am perhaps over-excited by enthusiasm for a work I enjoyed so much. I vow terse and martial discretion in the future.