Did you know that Ancient Romans lived in structures – insulae – similar to our own apartment buildings? Only few could afford a domus – the Roman houses we see in movies.
Did you also know that the Roman Forum was fairly preserved, marble and gold included, until the Renaissance, when Pope Julius II decided to renovate Rome and used the forum to harvest the needed materials? Marble and travertine were grounded in big furnaces and then remolded into bricks.
To state the obvious – I love historical fiction. Usually I would say that the emphasis is on historical, but in this case I want to put it on fiction. I read and enjoy historical publications, articles online, and non-fiction as well, but I consume it in a different way.
Fiction vs. Non-fiction
Fictional accounts of historical events, when backed up by thorough research and relevant themes, are more powerful and actually more successful in creating lasting knowledge of a particular period. An emotional attachment to the fate of a historical figure or people means also reading more on that topic. Most recently I got so hooked up on the Borgias that I read five books about them one after the other, each new account further fueling my interest.
So – imagine my surprise, when… a non-fictional and rather naively written book about daily life in Ancient Rome sent me walking its streets, smelling, feeling, hearing.
Simple but not simplistic
The author is an Italian paleontologist – Alberto Angela – and while I do not doubt his scholarly credentials, it is obvious from the first pages, that he did not intend to write a scholarly book. In fact, it takes profound knowledge of the subject to be able to write in such an accessible way, while imbuing the dry historical fact with the color and emotion of human experience.
The book is literally a daily account, starting from the first hours of morning and ending in the first hours of the night and walks the reader along the steps an average Roman citizen would take in their average day – starting with temples and breakfast, then dressing up, going to the market, watching the executions in the Colosseum, going to the baths, then returning to the Colosseum for the culminating spectacle – the gladiatorial combat. It is indeed an adventure as close to first person as spectators two thousand years away could get.
Based on a true story
It takes a sentence or two to be transported to the glorious time of Trajan, described in the book. The everyday bustle of the streets, not as different from today as we might think, is intertwined with the magnificence of Roman architecture. Angela does not cherry-pick the scenery he wishes to narrate for the reader. From the dangerous filthy alleys of the Subura and the workings of Cloaca Maxima to the splendor of The Baths of Trajan and the imposing Colosseum, his calm and informed narrative engulfs and amazes.
A real treat for any fan of history or just Ancient Rome, because it is as badass as it gets.