Roman holiday

<strong>Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day</strong>

Philip Matyszak <em>Thames & Hudson, 139pp, £1

When the average tourist thinks of visiting Rome, it is the Michelangelo-adorned Vatican, Fellini-inspired frolics in the Trevi fountain and streets lined with Gucci, Prada and gelato shops that spring to mind – all populated by outrageously beautiful Italians sporting oversized sunglasses

and jeans so tight that they threaten the fertility of the most virile among them.

Not so for Philip Matyszak, a Roman history scholar based at Cambridge University. His guide to the Eternal City takes readers back to 200AD, when the Roman empire was in full swing and the vita wasn’t quite as dolce as it is today. It is a Rome of slavery and strict law and order, where entertainment consists of scrambling for a seat in the Colosseum to watch gladiators be pulled apart. That’s not to say it was all grim. Next to the cesspits, grand aqueducts and temples flourish, a wide array of foodstuffs is readily available and leisure pursuits are highly valued.

Matyszak illuminates everyday Roman life with quotations, illustrations and photographs. But the travel-guide tone sits uneasily with the almanac-inspired content, and one can’t help but wish that the initially attractive idea of framing it as an ancient Rough Guide had been rejected.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, New Leader, New Danger