on 12 October 2012
One of the most frustrating things about writing novels set more than 2,000 years ago is the dearth of details about ordinary life. All too often, the ancient texts that survive (Pliny, Plutarch, Livy et al) are rich on the detail of wars, politics and important men of the time. It's understandable that such historians didn't linger on the minutiae of what went on in their own houses, or in the streets of the cities in which they lived - if writing a history of the here and now, what 21st century writer would think to comment on the wonders of the flushing toilet, or the various recycling bins that we all have to deal with each week before our rubbish is picked up by the council? The ancient historians probably didn't comment on such things because a) they were boring and b) they were an understood part of life at the time. There was no need to mention them. Fast forward 2,000 years, however, to a time in which many of us long to know the exact details of day-to-day Roman life and one is left feeling very frustrated.
So when a book such as this comes along, it is to be welcomed with open arms. The author is Keeper of Archaeology at Tyne & Wear Archives and Museum, so she knows her onions. She has collected together what information remains about the supply of water, fuel and items such as wool, details about the cleaning of houses and clothes, sanitary facilities or the lack of them, and waste disposal. Best of all, she has compared what we know of Roman times to studies of societies in the world today who still largely live in this manner. The extrapolations made are naturally theory, not fact, but they make a lot of sense. The book is short but well-written and full of interesting diagrams and photos. There is a decent bibliography at the back as well. In short, this would make an excellent addition to the bookshelf of anyone interested in ancient Rome. Thoroughly recommended.
Ben Kane, author of Spartacus: The Gladiator.