Book Review by Marc Ollard
Let me ask you a question. Do you love Roman history? If so, how many of you secretly dream of being there, two thousand years ago, living a life far removed from the modern rat race? Who would you want be I wonder? Perhaps a crafty slave like Frankie Howerd's Lurcio. Maybe a man of action like Russell Crowe's Maximus. Or a sophisticated and sexually ambiguous patrician like Lawrence Olivier's Crassus. Or perhaps like the vast majority of ancient Romans in real life, take on the world and make a success of yourself in latin society. If so, this is exactly the place to be, for Marcus Sidonius Falx has written down his guide to getting somewhere in ancient life - Welcone to Release Your Inner Roman.
This book is quite literally written from the perspective of our esteemed Roman guide, Marcus Sidonius Falx. No, I've never heard of him before, but I suppose in the competitive bear pit of Roman high society not everyone can be famous. Sidonius Falx is a man with strong opinions of what is or isn't a policy for success and despite the book's somewhat tongue-in-cheek perspective, I find Falx a little hard to like with his air of superiority and constant assumption that everyone reading his advice really needs it desperately. But of course, he's no more insufferable than patricians of the Roman Empire would have been, especially those trying to be more successful than they actually were.
The chapters are divided into aspects of lifestyle and career. We start with the habits of highly heroic Romans, moving on to how to conquer your emotions, climbing the oily pole, romancing like a Roman, how to manage your family, the pursuit of happiness, a healthy mind in a healthy body, the Gods help those who help themselves, and finally, live forever!
Jerry Toner is the man responsible for bringing Marcus Sidonius Falx to a wider modern audience. With each chapter Dr Toner adds a commentary showing examples from real life recorded by the Romans themselves to demonstrate that Sidonius Falx isn't talking out of his well cared for behind. He notes that many readers will recognise attitudes and circumstances familiar to the modern world, which is probably none too suprising considering that human beings are not really much different than their Roman ancestors. They too laughed, loved, ate too much, went to the lavatory, and basically trampled anyone who got in their way. Part of this book is all about this recognition, and more importantly, how the Romans coped with their status-hungry lifestyles. Forget any guilt about the rat race - embrace it - win it.
You might be forgiven for thinking that the Romans were less obsessed than us with equating success with material possessions, but the evidence left to us by the Romans themselves displays a penchant for greed and acquisition that is truly appalling. Sidonius Falx however doesn't dwell on that accumulation of objects and concentrates instead on behaviour and relationships. Or with less obvious relish, fame and fortune.
Can this book guide us in our modern lives? Sidonius Falx clearly thinks so, but then he lived at a time when Romans believed they were the epitome of civilisation. Are we so far removed from the Roman Empire? Fast cars vs racing horses. Big house in the country vs a rural villa. Celebrity parties around the swimming pool vs sumptuous dinner parties recliinng on couches. Media superstars vs champion athletes. The parallels are obvious and appeal to the contemporary attraction of comparing ancient and modern civilisations.
The worrying thing is often we're not that different, although we don't throw people to the lions anymore. Come to think of it, we like to see animals protected rather than haplessly slaughtered in public exhibitions. From there we begin to notice the seperation of culture.. Sidionius Falx belongs to a society that was ruthlessly commercial without the legal protections we have. A society mired in intense political cut and thrust that often gets quite bloody and violent, who complain about the noise of urban life and do little to restrain it. A society that throws the contents of bedpans out of upper story windows without worrying about demands to open the door soon afterward.
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In some ways this book reveals a world in very personal terms and one can almost picture daily life and its constant hassles and knife-fights. There is a part of me that is envious of the Roman way of life with such opportunities for fun, social advancement, and taking other people's money withour fear of a prison sentence. The other remains appalled at their attitudes and careless rejection of humane values when it suits them. For all this book's witty style and insight, do we really want to be Roman after the lessons of Sidonius Falx?
Jerry Stoner - I salute you for coping with the arrogance of Sidonius Falx and for bringing his world into such a deeply close perspective.. And for making me laugh. As for you Falx... Well, keep up the good work. Who knows, maybe next year?
Dr Jerry Toner is Fellow and Director of Studies in Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge. His research looks at Roman social and cultural history, with a focus on trying to look at history 'from below'. He is also interested in sensory history, disasters, and the use of Classics to create various imagery and stereotypes relating to subordinate groups.
Book Review of Release Your Inner Roman - Related Topic: Daily Life In Ancient Rome