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’24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There’, by Philip Matyszak – book review

24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of the People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Edgar Allan Poe once declared that the great was Greece, and the grandeur was Rome. Rome was not built a day, and it lasted from Before Christ to His After for one thousand years. All roads led to Rome, and foreigners, colonials, and slaves from the foes all wanted to become the proud citizens of the Roman Empire. So, what then was it like living in Rome at its glorious prime? 24 Hours in Ancient Rome: A Day in the Life of People Who Lived There by Philip Matyszak comes and carries off the reader in a time coach to Rome’s grandeur and invites to the daily lives of people there with magic of words.

In terms of residential mode, there were more apartment buildings than villas and detached houses in Rome. Apartments called Insulas had 3 or 4 floors with no bathrooms, which means the residents dumped their bodily wastes in buckets out of their windows to the ground any time of day or night when unfortunate passer-byes would have unpleasant surprise showers from above. The apartment residents were city dwellers whose livelihood was arranged from a fish-stroll attendant to a nightguard, an unlicensed independent prostitute, and primarily others diligent and savvy waiting their time and luck to come.

Rome was a practical society with shrewd politicians and powerful merchants/tradespeople. For instance, baking was a highly respectful and lucrative trade because not many people had well-equipped kitchens to cook or bake at home. Bakers had their representatives in the Senate who would lobby for the increase in the price of bread. Still, the Senate often rejected the proposal because the Senate knew that keeping the price low would maintain social stability lest the mass should not cause riots for a change of living cost.

On the other hand, unless they were aristocratic or wealthy mercantile families, women had not many choices of working with desirable pay or respect. They worked in shops or stalls densely concentrated outside the walls of Circus Maximus for long, arduous hours, wrestling between the demands placed upon their tasks at work and home without due respect. Slave women’s employment was mainly hairdressing and doing domestic chores. It was less rewarding and more demanding, contingent upon the mercy of their lustful masters and the whims and caprice of their mistresses, who often inflicted cruel punishment on their slaves if they irked their temper and nerves on a bad day.

Rome was undoubtedly splendid in its dominance and influence consummate with the longevity, but only a few privileged basked in the sunshine of grandeur. Matyszak puts together tesserae in the mosaic of ordinary Ancient Roman lives in this leisurely entertaining and academically stimulating narrative of his part-fictional and part-actual characters. It becomes each vignette comprising a collective story of human life that still rings true to our modern life. Matyszak is an unlikely, uncommon historian whose erudition and humor put him on the same pedestal as renowned historians, such as Tacitus, Plutarch, Herodotus, and Paul Johnson. His narrative styles are engagingly knowledgeable but surprisingly personable, collapsing a great divide of time between the people of the past and the present reader.

Rome was no fun when you had none. Nevertheless, for all that’s worth, Rome was a great city rich in ethnic and cultural diversity. The energy of urbanity made Rome all the more vivacious and vibrant, bustling with businesses and people, and created opportunities for better lives. It is no surprise that Poe thought highly of Rome.



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