Book Reviews at roman history books and more…
How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition
by Vicki Leòn
“… To limn a culture, history should attempt to capture the human stories, to squeeze the meaning from cascades of events instead of one thing in isolation. Rather than focus on the elite figures, I tend to stare a the messy, muddy, exhilarating, exasperating mass of humanity of long ago. As a result, within these pages you won't find separate entries on much written about aristocrats such as Plato and Aristotle; instead you'll get a sense of their characters what they desired, what they loathed, what drove them crazy—through their interactions with other seekers.
“To give you the true flavor of those times, I've salted this whole brew with little-known facts, Herodotean digressions, and absurdities, once firmly believed yet so outrageous that I could not have made them up. It's an iconoclastic mix, yeasty with names and deeds and beliefs you won't have heard much about. Meteorite worship; bean taboos; bizarre beliefs about women and their powers over hydrocarbons; it's all here.
“To the Greeks and Romans, the veil between the world of the living and the dead, seen and unseen, was silk-thin. So here you'll also find a cornucopia of the stories they told and retold about ghosts, monsters, and other marvels.”
So describes the author her aims. Be ready for a lot of astounding facts! Readers who liked Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World will love this book. The stories take you from Athens & Attica to Greece & the Greek Islands to Asia Minor & the Middle East to Rome & Environs, and thereafter to Italy & Sicily and Egypt, Carthage & North Africa – from about 700 BC to 300 AD. They cover the range of physical science, then considered a “philosophy,” medicine, architecture, time keeping, astronomy, astrology & superstition, divination, religion … you name it.
A random opening of a page gets you to the chapter “Philosophical Fava Phobia” and, surprisingly to the unaware reader, to Pythagoras. The accompanying drawing is titled Decoding the Great Bean Taboo (and much else) of Pythagoras.
After the introduction, which among others things declares Thales of Miletus the first Greek scientist, we start off with a brief biography of Socrates, describing him and his enemies in a nutshell. But did you know that he was married twice, had a couple of children and loved to dance, and was a war veteran who saved Xenophon's life?
Want to know about the origin of enthusiasm? You've come to the right place. The first learned botanist who classified plants and knew about hand-pollination on the one hand and sexual reproduction of plants on the other? The causes of Ancient deforestation? Find them here.
We all know about Archimedes, the “Geekiest Greek,” also listed under “Early Googling,” but did you know about “Mad for More than Gadgets" Heron of Alexandria who lived in the early 1st century AD? He was an “early Edison … hooked on inventing things, dreaming up wild ideas and seeing them through,” such as sophisticated machines, the diopter, or a device for cutting screw threads into wood, and finally the prototype for a steam turbine engine called the aeophile. This one never caught on though. We learn that the business of frankincense and myrrh constituted an ancient OPEC. Cynic philosophers are present, as are Seneca and Diogenes (The citizen Who Barked at the World), and Lucretius is seen Channeling Epicurus and company. You can guess who was the “Grinch who stole Saturnalia” … I could go on and on …
Women are not forgotten either: The Naturals at Philosophy” number over 65, we are told. And all of them Greeks. The Romans don't come off too well in the originality sector, they are more known for practical architecture and engineering, lead poisoning and deadly cosmetics, it seems. And spectacles. And divination as in “Divination A-Z, wide open to interpretation,” and they were lightning freaks: “Sealskin—Don't Leave Without It.”
Finally, as to “mellifying a corpse," I don't want to give the story away, it's too delicious!
The author, who professes to be “besotted by the Greeks and Romans of long ago,” captivates the reader's interest in her inimitable and tongue-in-cheek way, and the illustrations and their captions are funny and inspired.
Miss Leòn has done a tremendous amount of research and the resulting range of information is excellent. She grants the Greco-Roman legacy providing her with “an embarrassment of riches” and gives credits to modern source books and other works. A special mention goes to Bill Thayer's website LacusCurtius, a favorite of mine too. There are a couple of needed corrections which hopefully make it into the second edition.© 2010 Irene B. Hahn
Vicki León, Historical Detective (a blog)
How to Mellify a Corpse: And Other Human Stories
of Ancient Science & Superstition
by Vicki Leòn
Walker & Company (July 6, 2010)
Language: English #
Working IX to V: Orgy Planners, Funeral Clowns and Other Prized Professions of the Ancient World
by Vicki Leon
Walker & Company 2007
Articles & Essays by group members & friends
Roman History Reading Group