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2018-07-04
The Athenians, oh, those Athenians
The 'halo effect' is the human tendency to believe that because a person is good at one thing, then they must be good at all the rest. That's why we let ourselves be lectured about human rights and the environment by people whose only qualification is that they are famous actors. It's why top sportsmen and women sell everything from cars to personal hygiene products. We feel we know them and can trust them.

The same thing happens in ancient history. We know that the Athenians of the classical era wrote epic plays and poetry, we know that their philosophy laid the foundations of western thought. We 'know' the Athenians. So they were the good guys, yes? Not so. The Athenians were nasty, even by the low standards of the time. They were the kind of people who could twist the trust of naive allies to turn them into subject peoples. (And when the allies tried to back out of the 'alliance' the Athenians flattened their cities.)

The Athenians were also in the habit of mugging smaller cities which had done them no wrong. They would then loot the city, kill the menfolk, and enslave the women and children to work in horrible conditions in the silver mines which were the foundation of the city's wealth. One politician remarked, while unsuccessfully trying to persuade his fellow citizens to massacre (instead of enslaving) every man, woman and child in a 'rebel' city, 'Gentlemen, act as if you have an empire or chuck it all in and take up good works instead.'

The Athenians were many things. Ambitious and enterprising, talented artists and architects, brilliant thinkers and far-reaching strategists. They were very good at very many things. But they were not good.
 
2018-06-04
Eat like a Gaul
One of the joys of my job is that I get to read a variety of articles on offbeat topics. Earlier this month it was about Isca grains imported into Roman Britain. In a follow-up on one of the notes, I came across the comment that the dietary intake of the average ancient Gaul was 70% grain. (With vegetables and dairy making up most of the rest.)

The implication was that this was a Bad Thing, because Gauls did not get enough variety in their diet. Compare this with someone today – let's call him Joe Modern. Joe starts his day with a bowl of cornflakes followed by toast. His mid-morning coffee is accompanied by a cookie, and for lunch he has a cream cheese bagel. Then he stops at the supermarket and picks up a pasta fettucini for dinner, with a slice of chocolate cake to follow. Yum. Yet what Joe Modern has just chomped through is wheat,wheat, wheat and wheat with a bit of dairy and even less veg.

It has been noted that of the tens of thousands of edible foodstuffs out there, most of the time the average westerner eats around twenty. We don't recognize the lack of variety in our diet, because – for example – wheat comes in so many forms. It is probably because of my interest in ancient diet that I've started doing more and more at home. An ancient Gaul would recognize my usual fortnightly shop. It's 10kg of flour, with dairy and fresh vegetables. (And apples in season. British Columbia does the finest apples on the planet.)

The flour becomes bread, of course. But also spaghetti, lasagne, pizza base, focaccia, pie crust, bagels, noodles, buns, tortillas, cookies, perogies and submarine rolls. I'm experimenting with croissants, but my wife assures me that they have a a short way to go. (It's around six paces from the oven to the bin, which is indeed short.) Thing is, I spend a lot of my time pondering. Currently for example, I am working with Aristophanes and need an easy way to count iambs to see when he has moved to tetrameter in his verse. While I am thinking it over, I might as well pound dough.

Baking takes time, but mostly the yeasty-beasties do the work while I'm back at the computer. Where I am involved, I find it great to let my subconscious chew on classical things while I work on stuff my body can chew on later. Oh, and I find that I don't at all miss silicone dioxide or guar gum, or any of the 35 other most common preservatives modern manufacturing likes to put in my food.
 
2018-05-03
The Via Alberta
This week I needed to get to Calgary in Alberta, so in true Canadian style I hopped into a Jeep and set off on a 700km journey across the Rockies. Western Canada and the western Roman Empire have this much in common - humans are relatively few and far between, and the different provinces sometimes do not see eye-to-eye.

At present Albertans are furious that British Columbia is not allowing them to build an oil pipeline across British Columbia to a salt-water port. British Columbians, weary of mopping up the messes from previous oil spills, resent Albertan 'bullying' and are digging in their heels. So it was not the best time to go to the oil capital of Alberta in a vehicle with British Columbian number plates.

The trip in took ten hours, and the trip home took twelve, thanks to a rockslide which closed off the highway and forced a 180km detour to a different pass across the Rockies. On the long journey I consoled myself by considering how much worse it was for the unfortunate Roman traveller. In a vehicle, I was insulated from bears,wolves and other predatory wildlife which some Roman travellers might meet just a few mules from Rome. And while the natives I met might not all be friendly, they would not murder me in some remote inn and rob my corpse before tipping it into a midden.

Petronius tells of a traveller who was delighted to find that a soldier was going his way, so that he would have an escort on the journey. This need for a bodyguard was in a civilized and well-populated part of Greece, so you can imagine the situation in the wilder parts of the Balkans. (Okay, so the soldier turned out to be a werewolf, but my point still stands.)

Travel these days is incomparably easier, but that feeling, of looking across the mountains, and knowing I was the only human for miles and miles - that, I think I shared with Roman travellers.
 
2018-04-05
The Rites of Spring
Last week Easter Sunday and April Fool's day were one and the same. (Memorably celebrated this year by a relative who arranged the usual Easter egg hunt for her kiddies, but didn't hide any eggs. I consider this a valuable life lesson for the young 'uns.) Anyway, the conjunction of dates led someone to ask me whether the Romans had either April Fool's day or Easter.

Easter has certainly a long tradition, because spring festivals are ubiquitous in northern cultures. In fact some medieval writers claim the name of the Christian holiday comes from Eastre, a Germanic vernal Goddess. Her symbol was the hare, which is why we have the Easter bunny. In ancient Rome there was Attis the lover of the goddess Cybele who was considered reborn with the spring, and also Mithras, whose birth was celebrated on the winter solstice and his rising from the dead celebrated on the spring equinox.

The traditional hot cross bun also has a history. Apparently the church originally tried to ban the pagan rite of baking sweet buns to welcome the spring - a tradition which goes back at least to Roman times. Eventually the clergy gave up the attempt, but the cross was added to show that these were good Christian buns, not some pagan culinary atrocity.

Practical jokes were certainly a Roman tradition, but not celebrated particularly on April the first. There is for example the 'Tantalus Cup' - a surviving example of what is also called a 'greedy' or 'Pythagoras' cup. If he pours in a modest amount of wine, the drinker is fine. However, a hidden siphon ensures that if filled past a certain point, the cup leaks all its wine over the drinker's lap. (You can still buy modern examples of these cups online.)

The emperor Commodus was an extreme practical joker. We are told of guests who awakened after a drunken party to find that they were sharing their bed with a lion or tiger. The animals were tame and allegedly harmless, so the only casualties were those guests who died of fright - which of course made the whole prank all the more hilarious.
 
2018-03-04
The (witch)doctor will see you now
Recently I was discussing ancient medicine with a friend. That friend is a medic himself, and was somewhat appalled by one of the remedies suggested by the elder Pliny. This was that nine pellets of hare dung taken daily prevents saggy breasts. I then pointed to another recipe that probably seemed no more or less bizarre to Pliny. This said that when willow bark is pounded into paste, that paste can be eaten for relief from rheumatism.

Ah, said the friend, that makes perfect sense because willow bark contains salicin, which is the basic ingredient of aspirin. However, my point was that Pliny didn't know how basic molecules act with the body's T-cells, or anything about the major histocompatibility complex. He had to go with what people told him, and as any doctor will agree, that's a tough way to practice medicine.

Consider the pellets of hare dung. You'll probably agree that someone who is that desperate to maintain a particular body image will also do the other things - such as diet and exercise - that are actually effective. This makes it harder to separate what works from what does not. To make it even tougher, there's also the well-known 'placebo effect' which means that some potions work because people believe they work.

Someone suffering from insomnia who starts wearing an amulet that prevents sleeplessness might well sleep like a baby afterwards, simply because he believes the amulet will work. Is the amulet therefore effective? 'Magical cures' and 'real medicine' co-existed in the ancient world. A physician might clean a wound and wrap it in a clean bandage before adding a magical sigil to the dressing to speed recovery. Hippocrates (an ancient doctor himself) said the first law of medicine was 'do no harm'. Unlike hare dung pellets, most magical conjurations did no harm and might do some good. The rest was informed guesswork.

After all, even in these days and despite our much greater understanding of how the human body works, a considerable percentage of the population prefers to use alternative medicine that we might say is well, very alternative.
 

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