Bloomsbury (2022) h/b 26p £14.99 (ISBN 9781399400978)

‘Welcome to Rome—as the Romans saw it’ is the breezy invitation on the blurb for this book, whose purpose is to offer us a quick trip through the ancient Roman world with an abundance of quotations from Latin (and a few from Greek). The pace is breathless and discursive: in three excited pages (pp.131-3) we go from the Roman calendar to Hellenisation to architecture to satire and then the suggested Roman origin of the text message. Nineteen chapters cover a lot of ground: Roman Britain, Roman sex and love, Latin jokes and insults, botanical terms in Latin, Romans at leisure, the Roman class system, Roman emperors, Roman gods, Christianity, the eruption of Vesuvius, Martial’s epigrams on festival presents, individual chapters dedicated to Horace (‘the sweetest poet of all’), Cicero (on growing old) and Seneca’s Stoic guide to life. The book ends with a Latin glossary of terms and phrases (including a fair few legal ones) still in use today in the UK, some of which repeat material from earlier in the book, and finally a quick guide to Roman numerals.

The theme of this book is the laudable proposition that Latin still exerts its influence over us and is still worth learning. The tone is light-hearted and its objective is to entertain at least as much as to educate. The text is interspersed with excellent cartoons and many monochrome pictures, and the speed with which topics are dealt with ensures that readers will not get bogged down with excess of detail.

This is, however, a mistake and ends up costing the book dear: corners are inevitably cut and the shallowness of the treatment of the topics covered is disappointing. The selection of topics lacks coherence and points made in one chapter would often sit better in another—Saufeia’s ‘humping contest’ (their translation) would belong better in the chapter on ‘sex’ than ‘true romance’, for example. Some Latin quotations are given full references, others none at all, the book has no index and (most surprisingly) no suggestions for further reading—indeed the only ‘secondary source’ quoted is Boris Johnson (twice). The topics appear to have been chosen for their instant appeal to readers rather than with any view to giving us a rounded view of the Roman world, with such hooks as ‘Sex: the Rudest poem in Latin’ (even though Catullus 16 is not even the rudest poem by Catullus, let alone other stronger contenders for this dubious honour). What might have been a very worthwhile chapter (in the light of the coronavirus pandemic with which the book opens) on the Stoic guide to life ends up being a desultory page and a half of six quotations from Seneca with no commentary or context. The urge to amuse has cost this book its chance to make a genuine case for why we ought to listen to the Romans, and even when discussing poetry there is often no interest in printing the verse as verse, no explanation of the metrical patterns and sound effects, and naïve assumptions that the poet is speaking in propria persona, that Virgil was simply Augustus’ ‘propagandist in chief’ (p.134) with Horace (p. 164) the emperor’s ‘poet laureate’. They clearly love Horace and yet (pp.213-4) quote dulce et decorum est from Odes 3.2.13 without any comment on its startling use of the adjective dulce. Their translations can be startingly brutal (e.g. ‘get a bloody move on!’ for carpe diem—again with no explanation of the context of Odes 1.11). Books such as William Fitzgerald’s How to Read a Latin Poem (if you can’t read Latin yet) which came out in 2013 from OUP show how this should be done and it is a great shame that these authors did not seek to emulate this method of delivering ancient literature to a wide audience.

There are far too many errors which copy-editing ought to have picked up: Virgil Aeneid 2.48 is misquoted on p. 237: (they omit quidquid id est before timeo), the Juvenal quotation on p.10 ought to read quis custodiet ipsos custodes (they omit ipsos), it is not St Augustine who says tolle lege but a disembodied voice speaking to him at Confessions 8.12 (just as it is not Petronius who says aquam foras vinum intro but Trimalchio), they wrongly ascribe (p.91) quid non ebrietas dissignat? to Horace’s Epodes when it comes from Epistles (1.5.16), the misprint volant for vomant totally ruins the point made by Seneca Cons. Helv. 10.3. On p.169 they carve up and misquote Plautus Trinummus 820-1 without explanation, and p.209 similarly misquotes and mistranslates Martial 14.26: its title is crines (hair) and not the non-existent Latin word pomatum, accendi should read accendit and it means ‘Chattic foam inflames German hair: you can be smarter with the hair of a captive’ and not the garbled paraphrase they offer instead. They quote (p.192) a short passage of the New Testament in Greek but omit to punctuate it. On p. 217 they quote Horace (nunc est bibendum) but say it is Virgil. And so on. A cynical reviewer might think that the authors of this book think they can get away with this sort of sloppiness as their target audience will not know or care about such details—and these same authors have the brass neck to chide Sir John Chilcot (p.135) for omitting a word from a line of Virgil.

They also allow themselves to offer overgeneralised and dubious judgements as facts. ‘The Romans… didn’t smile’ (p.74) is at odds with such passages as Virgil Aeneid 1.254, Juvenal 2.38, Ovid Amores 3.1.33 (see OLD s.v. subrideo). Romans, they tell us (p.54) did not recognise homosexuality, and any gay sex was all about power rather than pleasure—despite the abundant evidence to the contrary from poets such as their beloved Horace (Odes 4.1, anyone?), and writers such as Petronius. The book wears its political heart on its sleeve. ‘One classicist—a German, inevitably—bothered…’ (p.195) trots out the tired old image of German Altertumswissenschaft, while the same page snarls at the ‘alien hordes of The X-Factor’ (which has not graced our screens since 2018). I hope that the lawyers for Andrew Mitchell MP are sent a copy of this book as they may well have a legal opinion on the gratuitous slurs cast on their client on pages 125-6. Pope Benedict XVI, we are told (p.199) ‘single-handedly ended a battle fought by modernists for 40 years to end the Latin mass’—modernists no doubt such as that old rebel Pope Pope John XXIII and his papal successors—and statements such as ‘the old Latin rite is a splendid sight’ makes one wonder if they understand anything about Christian liturgy as practised all over the world. The reddest rag to the Classics for All bull is the airy remark (p.196) that ‘the last little outposts of pure Latin teaching in this country are grammar schools and public schools’ which trashes the abundant and excellent work going on in our comprehensive schools, not to mention the language courses which are hugely effective in our universities. Ironically, their remark appears on the same page as their own prep-school assertion that Latin word-order is always subject-object-verb (which is contradicted by many of their own quotations) and the fallacious statement that German verbs always go at the end.

Many of the connections to the Romans are tenuous. Do we need to be told (p.201) that Andrew Lloyd Webber had a hit with the Pie Jesu from the Latin requiem mass? Or that Fauré (who was the first composer to set this text as a movement in its own right) produced the most famous version of the piece? The book claims to give us ‘the best Latin lines ever’ but many of the bits of Latin quoted are less than momentous (Tacitus Histories 5.1, for instance, quoted on p. 148 (Caesar Titus delectus patre perdomandae Iudaeae) and where they allow themselves to print lengthy bits of translation they often pick out words to gloss in Latin if this allows them to point out English modern equivalents rather than because these are the best lines of the passage.

All in all, this book is a disappointment. What might have been a good opportunity to bring Latin to a wide audience has been thrown away by a lack of planning and a lack of attention to detail. Even the title turns out to be a blind alley: Caesar never uttered those words, as the authors admit on p. 129. The most useful chapter is that on Latin for Gardeners—genuinely informative and interesting and keeping to known facts with an eye for colour and detail. If the rest of the book had maintained this standard we might have had a volume which we could recommend to our friends and students. A pity.


John Godwin