Archive for June 1st, 2010

“A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities” by J.C. McKeown

Tuesday, June 1st, 2010

McKeown cover imageOxford University Press sent me some books to review (no money changed hands or influence was brought to bear, trust) and the first one I dived into was A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World’s Greatest Empire by J.C. McKeown. Much like actual cabinets of curiosities, the book collects all kinds of notable tidbits from ancient Roman authors. Some are precious gems, some colorful corals and some just sort of weird-looking rocks.

McKeown, a classics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes it clear in the preface that he’s not making any historical or factual assessments. He’s just sharing the wealth that he’s encountered in his perusals, which is for the best, because to paraphrase Obelix, those Romans were crazy. As McKeown so felicitously puts it:

As it happens, I personally find it hard to believe that a six-inch fish could have held back Mark Anthony’s flagship during the Battle of Actium, or that Milan was founded because a woolly pig was seen on the future site of the city, or that the phoenix appears every five hundred years, or that touching the nostrils of a she-mule with one’s lips will stop sneezing and hiccups, or that fish sauce is an effective cure for crocodile bites, or that any Roman emperor was eight foot, six inches tall. I strongly suspect that goats do not breathe through their ears, and there are no islands in the Baltic Sea inhabited by people whose ears are so enormous that they cover their bodies with them and do not need clothes. I do not myself wear a mouse’s muzzle and ear tips as an amulet to ward off fever, nor do I know precisely how one might attach earrings to an eel. (Preface, pg. VII)

The chapters on medicine and religion are particularly replete with this kind of off-the-wall quasi-fact, and yes, they are all awesome, but even the entirely believable observations can be mind-blowing.

For example, Roman encyclopedist Celsus in his volume On Medicine counseled people with wounds to avoid the public baths because “bathing makes [the wound] moist and dirty, and that often leads to infection. (Celsus On Medicine 5.28)” Marcus Aurelius went even further in his Meditations where he called bathing “olive oil, sweat, filth, greasy water, everything that is disgusting (Meditations 8.24).”

I had always assumed that the Roman penchant for copious bathing was indicative of general hygiene, but those eye-witness comments made me realize that the baths couldn’t help but have been pools of nastiness. Most of them weren’t spring-fed but filled and emptied like any other pool, only there was no chlorine, no filter and not even any soap. Can you imagine the sheer quantities of dirt, oil left over from the scraping that stood in stead of washing, human excretions and secretions of every variety that must have been floating in those baths?

That wasn’t the only tidbit that sent me on a voyage of discovery. In fact, this book is ideal for the history nerd/research monkey who loves following up on a good clue. I spent two whole weekends link hopping and Googling to find out more about an anecdote in the book. For anyone like me, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities is just the beginning, the nucleus of a do-it-yourself network that you, the Internet, and your library can create. It gave me visions of where digital books could go over the next few years: every source linked to, every footnote connected to further information.

I had an opportunity to ask the author some questions about the book and his process. McKeown can’t exactly picture himself as the “spider at the center of a huge Web” of networked links. He went about collecting these facts in a more traditional manner, and some sources may not even be available online. (Also his wife is apparently arachnophobic.)

I have a tendency to enjoy and remember trivial facts and stories like these. The majority were gathered during my reading over the years. I like to read Latin and Greek for a couple of hours every day, regardless of what else I am doing, and my texts have a lot of passages underlined or commented on in the margins, so it was easy to pick them out.

I wasn’t originally setting out to write a book. I started using quirky facts in class to keep students interested in learning Latin and then, when I spun the Web site to accompany my textbook, Classical Latin, I incorporated interesting stories to appear randomly at the bottom of each page as an incentive for students to continue with the online exercises. It started with about 90 items and grew from there.

For a lot of the stuff that appears in the book it would be hard to go looking for it specifically. For example, nobody would really set out to inquire how many testicles the dictator Sulla had or, if they did want to know, the problem would be where to look, but the answer comes out of the blue right at the end of Justinian’s Digest – the cornerstone of so much modern Western law.

Yes, I would enjoy feasting on this man’s tasty, tasty brains.

There is a downside to his approach, however. When he introduces a contemporary reaction to a classical anecdote, the facts can be hazy. It doesn’t happen often — the vast majority of the book cites Roman and Greek literature — but I did encounter two questionable claims. One is that our phrase “parting shot” comes from “Parthian shot”, after the famed archers of the Parthian cavalry who were so skilled that they could fire their bows over their shoulders as they rode away from the battle field. It seems, however, that the literal “parting shot” expression appears in English texts earlier than the Parthian version.

The second iffy claim was one that sent me on the most wonderful romp through archaeology in post-Unification Rome. While discussing plagues and the burial of the dead, McKeown says:

A pit one hundred and sixty feet long, one hundred feet wide, and thirty feet deep, containing an estimated twenty-four thousand corpses from the early imperial period, was discovered outside Rome in 1876; when it was opened, the stench was still intolerable. (Medicine, pg. 75)

You can see why I had to follow up on that kind of juicy tidbit. After some Googling and a trip to one of my favorite sites, LacusCurtius, I found a book called Ancient Rome in the Light of Recent Discoveries written in 1888, just 18 years after Rome joined a unified Italy, by Rodolfo Lanciani, the first official archaeologist of the new Italian capital. On pages 66 and 67 of chapter 3, he discusses finding that very pit on the Esquiline hill in 1876.

He found plenty of ooze and stench in his excavations of the area, but the actual 1876 pit wasn’t the locus of it. The bones turned to dust as soon they were exposed to air. It was in 1884 at a nearby spot that he and his diggers encountered the remains of a garbage dump (plenty of bodies, human and animal in that one too) which was so rank he had to give his team regular breaks so they could go off somewhere and breathe.

I asked McKeown if Lanciari was his source, and he said that it was a late entry into the book that he had jotted down casually. He couldn’t exactly recall the source but he did remember talking to an archeologist colleague to confirm the anecdote’s accuracy.

Obviously it’s no huge deal, but it’s a grain of salt to keep with you when you read the small portion of the book that isn’t a direct quote of an ancient source.

Final verdict: this book is awesome. It’s a fascinating glimpse into the ancient mind, life, culture, society. It’s a boon for anyone with a yen for chasing after historical details, and as I proudly told the author, it’s an outstanding bathroom book. It’s easily digestible, easy to follow, and easy to pick up where you left off. Throw out your cheesy magazines and leave this on the tank. Your guests are sure to thank you, not to mention bring up far more interesting lines of conversation at the dinner table than they would have if they’d just put down last year’s fall shoe issue of Cosmo.

After all, we don’t have community toilets that we all sit on together to socialize during excretory functions. Vacerra, that friend of Martial‘s who spent all day in the community latrine hoping to scrounge a dinner invitation from one of his fellow crappers (Toilets, pg. 190), would have to find a new way to freeload.






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