SMELL AND THE ANCIENT SENSES

by Mark Bradley

Routledge (2015) p/b 210pp £22.99 (ISBN 9781844656424)

This collection of essays aims to explore community life in the ancient world through the lens of smell. According to the editor, smell is in fact taken as a ‘restricted’ paradigm to understand ancient societies and cultures. Many ancient sources depict Rome as a potpourri of pungent smells (Juvenal, Martial), a festival of sensory extravagance (Horace, Livy, Apuleius) or offensive odours (Petronius), but ancient smells and scents, like smells in our modern world, were situated in the mind and used as a moral index of purity or danger; immorality or power, as symptom of the presence of vice or of the divine.

The twelve essays in this collection cover a vast range of sources and geographical areas of the Greco-Roman world, from ancient medicine and philosophy to botany, from literary sources to archaeology, from the epistemology of odours according to the Presocratics to Christians of Late Antiquity. It is impossible here to give a full overview of the many stimulating and interesting ideas found in the individual contributions; however, I would like to single out a handful of essays as a representation of the quality of research collated in this slim booklet.

Shane Butler explores the literary evolution of one of the most famous scents in antiquity, the amaracine (sweet marjoram) and illustrates how this scent became among the educated elite a ‘literary window’ to exemplify women tout court. David Potter examines the olfactory experience of Roman dining, its social message, and underlines the fact that the Roman elite, despite common opinion, ate in their houses not only in their dining rooms but also standing up while walking in their peristylia and eating light lunch snacks – wherever they happened to find themselves. Olga Koloski-Ostrow studies the archaeological evidence of urban smells in the daily life of Rome, Pompeii and Ostia and explains how ancient dwellers’ preoccupation was to remove smells rather than aiming at urban sanitation. According to her, the urban streets of Roman towns were a ‘stinking mess’.

The broader message gathered from these essays is that smells, then as now in our modern world, were culturally ‘packaged’ and marked as either positive manifestation of the upper class or negative, olfactory presence of the lower class. In other words, let me smell you and I will tell who you are, where you come from.

The editor has done a fine job here: readers will find an updated rich bibliography on the subject of synaesthesia; there are frequent, helpful cross-references with only a few, inevitable repetitions. This book will appeal to those whose interests are in anthropology and sociology, philosophy and ancient medicine, archaeology and Roman urban life.

Dr Roberto Chiappiniello—St Mary’s, Calne

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