September 2009

Melissa A. Barton

nonfiction

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela, translated by Gregory Conti

Author Alberto Angela hosts two of Italy’s most popular science shows, Superquark and Ulisse, so it is not surprising that A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome feels like a cinematic tour through the apartments and streets of ancient Rome. Gregory Conti’s lively translation takes the reader on a vivid journey through a single day in the capital city of the Roman Empire under the rule of the emperor Trajan in 115 C.E. 

The book is divided into chapters that correspond to different times of the day, interspersed with “Curiosity” chapters, which expand in a more straightforward manner on some of the more interesting or complicated aspect of Roman life. While the book is intended to be read chronologically, the clear chapter titles and table of contents allow the reader to skip ahead to read about specific parts of Roman life that interest him or her the most, such as food, gladiatorial games, or sex.

Much of the daily account is written as a narrative, almost fictional in style, putting the reader on the streets of Rome as an observer. However, Angela also elaborates on this narrative with additional information, often drawing parallels to aspects of modern life that are similar -- markets in the Middle East, the cultural melting pot of New York -- or pointing out how Roman civilization formed the foundation of the modern Western way of life. The most compelling part of the book is the narrative:

In the pale light of dawn we can see two motionless human figures: little bronze statues decorating the corners of the garden. Two putti, chubby baby boys, each holding a duck… Suddenly, after two noisy spurts of spray, a thin stream of water comes gushing out of one of the ducks’ beaks… Now a bony hand shuts the spigot hidden among the bushes. It’s the hand of a slave who has been checking to see that the water pipes are in working order. He’s tall, lanky, dark-skinned, with black, curly hair. He’s almost certainly Middle Eastern or North African. Now he’s going around picking up fallen leaves and dead flowers. He must be the gardener.

Not only does Angela’s information come from archaeological evidence as well as textual accounts, but many of the scenarios he uses to illustrate life in Rome are based on specific archaeological finds. For example, in the chapter on sex, he describes a scene of a young woman with her lover, based on a mirror back with an erotic design. The chapter on Roman names describes a soldier reuniting with his brother, and then notes that he will die in three years and his father and brother will commission a gravestone for him -- a gravestone found by archaeologists in 1979. The use of archaeological evidence as the basis for these scenes gives them a weight and realism that purely fictional scenes might lack. 

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome presents a remarkable overview of daily life in Rome during the height of the Empire, weaving facts into an elegant narrative that both conveys mundane details like the Roman love of fish sauce and brings home that the civilization that gave rise to much of the Western way of life was founded on slavery to an astonishing degree.   

The unusual presentation and engaging writing ensure that the information will remain with the reader. Luca Tarlazzi’s beautiful pencil drawings visually illustrate aspects of Roman life that are difficult to describe purely verbally. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome is an excellent introduction to the daily life of Roman, likely to inspire further interest in Roman history for the reader.  

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela, translated by Gregory Conti
Europa Editions
ISBN: 978-1933372716
384 Pages