Naked Statues, Fat Gladiators, and War Elephants: Frequently Asked Questions about the Ancient Greeks and Romans
© Garrett Ryan
For those interested in the life of Greece and Rome beyond senatorial politics and agricultural policy, Naked States offers an absolutely entertaining and unexpectedly detailed look at various aspects of Greco-Roman culture. At first glance, the text is simply a series of essays, written in response to questions — some specific, some general, but this is no dry catechesis. Ryan’s lively explanations run cut cross not only the world of the Greek city-states and the Roman realm, but make occasional forays into Persia and Egypt, as well, illustrating how no part of the classical world existed in a vacuum. The essays end with what the author cheekily frames as an ‘irresponsible short’ history of the classical world for anyone who needs a little context. In short, for those with any interest in the goings-on of Greeks and Romans, this is an absolute delight.
It’s almost impossible to do justice to the variety of content contained herein. Although Ryan’s approach isn’t as tightly organized something like the Gies‘ Daily Life in a Medieval Village, or Ian Mortimer’s wide-ranging social histories of England, it nevertheless succeeds in offering a panoramic view into Greek and Roman life, across classes. Each question opens an entire avenue of consideration: “Were gladiators really fat?” for instance, is answered in an essay covering the entire scope of gladiatorial games in Rome, with an extra focus on their diet. Given how much more information is available about the emperors and upper classes, there’s a slight preponderance of patrician topics, but this isn’t a book just about the aristocrats. Some of its more memorable offerings include a comparative study of how nudism was treated in the classical world, a history of how our delightfully composite calendar got that way, a consideration of slavery in Greco-Roman societies, a survey of how Roman buildings were treated as the western order gave way (plundered, mostly, even the emperor’s tombs), and a comparison of sporting events in both Greece and Rome. (The Romans found the Greek obsession with the Olympics a little weird, except for Nero — he insisted on hosting his own games, in which he ‘competed’ — and won in a chariot race despite falling out of the the chariot and finishing third). Ryan provides a skillful mix of useful, general info and more interesting-but esoteric content, with just enough humor to make it playful but not so much that it veers toward the trivial.
The War that Made the Roman Empire, Ben Kane’s Eagles at War, and some stuff that’s not related to Rome followed by more stuff that’s related to Rome (hopefully). I have both CC and TBR I can tie in to a Roman focus so don’t be surprised if the togas and legions take over in September.