By Jane Hood
Icon Books (2014) h/b 224pp £12.99 (ISBN 9781848317307)
A miscellany that aims to shake the dust off the Greek and Roman worlds by bringing together funny, terrible and entertaining facts and stories, The Classics Magpie covers anything from interesting deaths or chariot racing to weightier topics like Eubulides’ ‘Heap’ paradox (when does a heap become a heap?).
The volume is divided into over 50 short sections, with the result that one’s interest is always sustained by the variety of information. From cover to cover we are treated to a constant stream of snippets. For sports’ lovers we learn that the charioteer Gaius Appuleius Diocles is said to have won 1,462 races and his winnings would have made him the most highly paid sportsman of all time, and that lead curse-charms studded with nails were thrown at a charioteer to interfere with his progress (much like a stage in the Tour de France in 2012.) With recent elections in mind it is appropriate to be reminded of a one-liner from Aristophanes’ Thesmophoriazusae that under every rock lurks a politician. Since the Greek government has now ruled out taking legal action to recover the Elgin Marbles, the sad story of Lord Elgin has a greater resonance.
Many of the facts chosen draw parallels with the modern world. The Hippocratic oath is printed in translation along with the Declaration of Geneva from 1948 which has striking similarities. A sex strike in 2014 by Ukrainian women entitled ‘Don’t give it to a Russian’ reminds us of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Catullus’ two line poem Odi et amo is linked to a verse of equal length by contemporary poet Wendy Cope.
If much of the book deals with less weighty topics, the more serious section on philosophy sheds light on Lucretius’ ethical curve, Lucilius’ desire to leave the rat race in Seneca letter 28, and Aristotle’s akrasia (weakness of will). There are series of quiz questions sprinkled throughout the book (with answers at the end) such as ‘What did the Roman use to get their washing white?’
Since the danger with any miscellany is that a random succession of facts can become repetitive, it is essential that the author stamp his or her personality onto the subject matter. The author succeeds by moulding many disparate elements together with a delicate and authoritative touch. Everyone will enjoy the story of Histiaeus, a Greek unhappy about serving the Persians, tattooing a slave’s head to deliver a secret message to his nephew Aristagoras, tyrant of Miletus, urging him to revolt.
This book is recommended for the general reader who wishes to get a more eclectic glimpse of the ancient world.
Liam Friel—Dame Allan’s, Newcastle-on-Tyne