The Long Shadow of Antiquity: What have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us?
Gregory S Aldrete and Alicia Aldrete
Bloomsbury
412pp, 74 black-and-white illustrations
Paperback, £16.99

Subtitled What have the Greeks and Romans Done for Us?, this look at the ancient world takes as its starting-point the Delphic injunction: 'Know thyself'. While there is interest in our immediate ancestry, the authors write, it is also important to know how much our behaviour, habits and environment were formed in the cultural crucibles of Greece and Rome.

Gregory S Aldrete is Professor of History and Humanistic Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and, with Alicia Aldrete, an alumni of Princeton, wrote Reconstructing Linen Body Armour, published five years ago. Their aim here is to make the ancient world seem relevant today, a task in which they have certainly succeeded, by looking at all aspects of daily life, from housing and law to fashion and holidaymaking. In Rome, for example, the vast majority of the people lived in tenements, apartment blocks that could rise as high as six to 10 storeys. A 'single dark and squalid' room could fetch the same price as a manor in the country. Many were precarious and jerry-built: Cicero was a slum landlord. There are descriptions of the rowdy bathhouses from Seneca, of celebrity and personality cults, of mealtimes and worship in ceremonies later taken up by the Christian church, which borrowed from pagan cults.

There was, of course, no lack of entertainment, not just in the arenas and Olympiads, but also in museums, which were often collections kept by temples. 'The Wonder Cabinet of Mankind', amassed by King Nebuchadnezzar in Assyria in the 6th century BC, is thought to be the first public museum. Cultural tourism was also popular, with tours to the sites associated with Alexander the Great, and with Helen of Troy. Pliny the Elder complains that people are much more interested in far-off places than they are in sites nearer to hand.

This is the second edition of the book, and it has been brought up to date with a chapter reflecting current concerns. Rome was polluted, and a miasma was said to hang over it, while Pliny the Elder complained that the plundering of the earth's resources only led to 'crime and slaughter and warfare'. The rich, declared Marcus Varro, altered the landscape when they built their fancy seaside villas. What is plus ça change in Latin? Some things are not the same, of course. To the inhabitants of the ancient world sex was just sex, and the gender of the object of desire often did not matter over much. By and large we do not dress to advertise our rank. Nations were not then known as they are now, but chroniclers of the Roman empire, as of modern empires, insisted that their conquests improved the lives of grateful indigenous populations.

The book is aimed primarily at an American audience. It refers to a statue of George Washington wearing a toga, to show that he stood for Roman values, while a selfie of the authors in front of the Neoclassical Supreme Court Building in Washington makes an immediate visual point. History seems to be poorly served in the American educational system, being sometimes taught as an add-on by games teachers, if at all, and this book is an encouragement to learning. Friendly and easy to read, it is a fulsome response to John Cleese in The Life of Brian, when he asked: 'What have the Romans ever done for us?'

Roger Williams

 

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