Posts Tagged ‘Empire’

Alberto Angela: Une Journée Dans La Rome Antique

July 4, 2022

     This is the third book in Alberto Angela’s astonishing trilogy about life in Ancient Rome. The previous two – Empire and Les 3 Jours de Pompeii – were really good: a journey around the Roman Empire imagined through the travels of a one sesterce coin, and an hour-by-hour account of the days leading up to and immediately following the volcanic eruption which annihilated Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79CE. This one is self-evidently about the daily life and routines of the Eternal City. Angelo chooses a Tuesday some time in 117CE, when the empire was at its greatest extent.

Angela is a well-known writer and historian in Europe, not really known here although Empire is available in English as The Reach of Rome. It’s definitely popular history in its tone, rather than an academic work, but it very definitely is not dumbed-down: every article, object or place is always given its Latin name, for instance, for those who want to know or remember…

Although I studied Roman history at school, there was very little about how Romans lived; Angelo has taught me a lot, as have various visits to Roman sites like Hadrian’s Wall, or Arles and Orange in Provence. It had never occurred to me that Romans collected antiques, for instance, but Angela points out that ancient Egyptian ‘collectibles’ were already 2000 years old at the time he is writing about. It is the wealth of details, and the explanations and connections with our own times that fascinate here: food, clothing, daily household tasks and routines, and the objects used. All this serves to humanise and bring that ancient world vividly to life.

I’d never really taken in the scale of the megalopolis that was Rome at its heyday, with over a million inhabitants, most living in the equivalent of today’s tower blocks; the place was on the scale of today’s London or New York with its buildings and crowds and problems. It’s also very hard for us to visualise what any Roman town of city would actually have looked like, since all we get to see are pillaged and stripped ruins which are, above all, denuded of their original colours. And the colossal amount of wood they needed to burn every day.

The explanations of how Roman public toilets actually worked, and the horrors of childbirth in those days, are vividly presented. Often Angela will go into such detail as to leave one thinking ‘this is docu-drama, he’s inventing to bring this to life’ and then explain that that particular person actually existed and cite the sources for his information.

In the end I found myself marvelling at how Angela manages to synthesise his portrayal, from the writings of classical writers of the time, from archaeological and historical research, and from scientific sources: when all this is put together, you end up with an accessible yet detailed and fascinating book. Full marks here, and where are the English publishers to make Angela’s work accessible to readers here?

2018: My year of reading

December 27, 2018

A bit more reading than last year: I’ve managed to slow down the number of acquisitions slightly and have passed on quite a lot of books to Amnesty International this year. So far I’ve read 68, and can also report that unlike last year, I don’t seen to have given up on any. Out of the total, 21 were novels, half of those science fiction, and most were re-reads; I’ve read almost no new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of Nature for some reason.

A resolution for 2019 is to read more fiction, as is to continue with clearing out books I shall never read again, trying to buy fewer books, and trying to read more of those on the waiting pile, which I think has probably stopped growing(just as well) but hasn’t shrunk appreciably…

Awards for 2018: most disappointing read was Klaus Mann’s The Turning Point, his autobiography completed shortly before he killed himself. I struggled with Thomas Mann as a student and his son’s book sat on my shelf for over 30 years. His daughter Erika’s collection When The Lights Went Out, a collection of short stories about life in a small town under the Nazis, however, I did enjoy, and wrote about it here last year [?]

Again there is no award for weirdest book: I haven’t read anything weird this year.

Best new novel: an easy choice, this one, as there were so few to choose from, but it would have been my choice anyway – Stefan Brijs’ masterpiece set in the early days of the Great War, Post for Mrs Bromley. I do hope someone is out there working on a translation into Englsh.

Best novel (as in not one published recently) I think has to go to Ernst Weichert’s The Jeromin Children, although Marguerite Yourcenar’s L’Oeuvre Au Noir comes a very close second.

I have a difficult choice to make for the next two categories, Best non-fiction and Book of the Year, as they are both non-fiction. Since it’s my blog and I’m allowed, I’ll cheat. I award Best non-fiction title to Alberto Angela’s Empire, a really good example of the popularisation genre that actually works: the story of the Roman Empire told through the travels of a one sesterce coin. That allows me to give my Book of the Year title to Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, one of the most horrifying and depressing books I’ve ever read, but which absolutely needed to be written and published, as such things must never be forgotten.

I’ll finish by thanking all my readers for your interest in my thoughts, and for your comments if you’ve made any; I hope you’ll continue to visit and find worthwhile things to read here in 2019…

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