Thursday, May 22, 2014

Review: A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire

A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire
A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire by J.C. McKeown

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Book Info: Genre: Non-fiction, historical anecdotes
Reading Level: Any who can read it can learn some fun facts about Rome
Recommended for: Anyone interested in learning fun and interesting facts about the Romans

My Thoughts: There are a number of quotes from the book in the synopsis, but I just have to add a few of my own that I found funny, such as:
Romans on Dealing with Children:
Pliny states, in “Natural History”, “Putting goat dung in their diapers soothes hyperactive children, especially girls.” [pg. 5]

Romans on Solving Marital Discord:
Livy reports that about 170 women from leading families were convicted in 331 B.C. of poisoning their husbands. Other sources give even larger numbers. [pg. 8]

Romans' Preferred Animal to keep Watch:
Marcus Manlius Capitolinus saved the Capitol from the Gauls in the early 4th century B.C. when he was alerted to their approach by the cackling of Juno's sacred geese. [pg. 19]

Romans Naming Themselves:
Caracalla [ruled A.D. 211—217] called himself Germanicus after victories over the Germans, and it was said that he was mad enough and stupid enough to say that, had he conquered Lucania [a region in southern Italy], he would have claimed the title Lucanicus [which means not only “Lucanian” but also “sausage”]. (Historia Augusta Life of Caracalla 5). [pg. 21]

Romans on Successful Grape Cultivation:
Vines should be freed for a few days from the trees to which they were attached, and allowed to wander and spread themselves, and lie on the ground they have gazed at for the whole year. Just as cattle released from the yoke and the dogs after a hunt enjoy rolling about, so vines also like to stretch their lumbar regions.” (Pliny Natural History 17.209) [p. 60]

Romans on Useful Medical Treatments:
Touching the nostrils of a she-mule with one's lips is said to stop sneezing and hiccups” (Pliny Natural History 28.57).
Sexual intercourse is good for lower back pain, for weakness of the eyes, for derangement, and for depression” (Pliny Natural History 28.58). [p. 73]

Romans on Proper Disposition of Criminals:
A justification for vivisection: “It is not cruel, as most people maintain, that remedies for innocent people's ailments in all future ages should be sought through the sufferings of just a few criminals” (Celsus On Medicine Proem 26). [p. 77]

Romans on Making Friends Through Diplomacy:
Cats were regarded as sacred in Egypt. In the mid-1st century B.C., the historian Diodorus Siculus was an eyewitness when an Egyptian mob lynched a member of a Roman embassy who had accidentally killed a cat (The Library 1.83). [p. 121]

Romans on Treating Alcoholism:
People who drink wine in which eels have been drowned lose their appetite for drinking wine” (St. Isidore Etymologies 12.6.41). [p. 151]

Roman Graffiti:
Apollinaris medicus Titi Imp. hic cacavit bene” (“Apollinaris, physician to the emperor Titus, had a fine shit here”) (Corpus of Latin Inscriptions 4.10619, a graffito in the Casa della Gemma in Herculaneum). [pg 186]

Romans on being Scrooge McDuck:
By the end, Caligula had developed a passion for handling money; he would often walk barefoot over huge heaps of gold coin poured out in a large open space, and sometimes he even lay down and wallowed in them (Suetonius, Life of Caligula 42). [pg. 217]
If that isn't enough to pique your interest in this very entertaining book, then just consider the sorts of interesting things you might learn! Because this book is filled with stuff like I've given above, and the author has provided below. I highly recommend this book, and plan to seek out his other book about the Greeks.

Disclosure: This book was a gift from a friend. All opinions are my own.

Synopsis: Here is a whimsical and captivating collection of odd facts, strange beliefs, outlandish opinions, and other highly amusing trivia of the ancient Romans. We tend to think of the Romans as a pragmatic people with a ruthlessly efficient army, an exemplary legal system, and a precise and elegant language. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities shows that the Romans were equally capable of bizarre superstitions, logic-defying customs, and often hilariously derisive views of their fellow Romans and non-Romans.

Classicist J. C. McKeown has organized the entries in this entertaining volume around major themes—The Army, Women, Religion and Superstition, Family Life, Medicine, Slaves, Spectacles—allowing for quick browsing or more deliberate consumption. Among the book's many gems are:
Romans on urban living
The satirist Juvenal lists "fires, falling buildings, and poets reciting in August as hazards to life in Rome." 

On enhanced interrogation
"If we are obliged to take evidence from an arena-fighter or some other such person, his testimony is not to be believed unless given under torture." (Justinian) 

On dreams
Dreaming of eating books "foretells advantage to teachers, lecturers, and anyone who earns his livelihood from books, but for everyone else it means sudden death" 

On food
"When people unwittingly eat human flesh, served by unscrupulous restaurant owners and other such people, the similarity to pork is often noted." (Galen) 

On marriage
In ancient Rome a marriage could be arranged even when the parties were absent, so long as they knew of the arrangement, "or agreed to it subsequently." 

On health care
Pliny caustically described medical bills as a "down payment on death," and Martial quipped that "Diaulus used to be a doctor, now he's a mortician. He does as a mortician what he did as a doctor."
For anyone seeking an inglorious glimpse at the underside of the greatest empire in history, A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities offers endless delights.

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  1. Truly fascinating, thanks for reviewing and posting this, Katy! :-)

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read this rather long review. I hope you were amused by it... :-)

  2. Sounds brilliant. Thanks for the heads up.


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