Spot the must-see in 458BC

A Classic Greek holiday via time-machine: Simon Goldhill strolls the agora and wishes you were here

October 23, 2008

The late and much-lamented Keith Hopkins, in his book A World Full of Gods, imagined time travellers returning to ancient Rome as a historiographical exercise. What would it feel like, he wanted to know, to be there? And what would ancient history look like if you could build in not just the smells, sights and sounds of encountering the ancient city, but also the sheer bafflement that would inevitably overcome even a skilled ancient historian faced by the brute - or lovely - reality of the world of study?

Philip Matyszak imagines a tour guide to ancient Athens in the 5th century BC, but it is very much an exercise in packaging rather than historiography. Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day is a neat conceit. What would a tour guide to the past, that foreign country, look like? Where one could imagine such a project as a brilliant satire - both on ancient history and on the genre of the tour guide - Matyszak puts together a very short introduction to ancient Athens, full of the most traditional facts and errors, in the form of a snappy guidebook.

It has "Getting about" and "Where to stay" sections, and it lists and describes the leading monuments with the bland over-excitement of many a Baedeker ("Must-see sights"). It has nicely constructed inset boxes, often headed "Peri Athenon" ("About Athens"), which list odd facts ("No other Greek god or goddess has a major city bearing their name"); completely off-the-wall sentences ("Research has failed to determine whether Hermione, daughter of Helen of Troy, was surnamed Oikostos (ie, 'Granger')"); or basic information packaged as odd facts ("Burial within the city walls is forbidden").

The text is also studded with quotations from classical authorities. The section on marriage, for example, sweetly highlights the famous remark attributed to Hipponax of Ephesus: "On two days a wife makes her husband happy - the day he marries her, and the day he buries her."

It is well illustrated in black and white and colour: the quality of reproduction is particularly good, and the selection intelligently made.

According to the publicity, the book is aimed at tourists, armchair travellers and history buffs. It's probably better to think of giving it to an intelligent 13-year-old who is beginning to get a buzz out of studying Classics. Or put it in the guest room. Most of what is offered is bright and breezy, with a good sense of fun, and in places (on cock-fighting, say, or the agora) a real sense of what a tourist might make of the oddity of the city bursting into sudden cultural prominence and wild excitement at this moment in its history.

Where I was disappointed was in its failure really to get to grips with what it promises, "to experience the city as a tourist would". There is an irreverent depiction of Socrates as pot-bellied and ugly, but no sense of why meeting him made Athenians so baffled and upset. This is surely an opportunity missed. So too it might have been interesting to imagine a tourist's response to the gym as a pick-up site.

Like all tourist guides, there are the occasional fibs, misrepresentations and fantasies, which it would be churlish to hold against the volume as a whole. The idea that "attempting to have sex with a statue" was a lasting problem in the ancient world, or that those who cast spells were mainly women, or that Aeschylus really did die because a tortoise was dropped on his head, are the sort of stories that are fun to put under the aegis of a guidebook, as long as one doesn't just want critical history.

Ancient Athens on Five Drachmas a Day

By Philip Matyszak

Thames & Hudson 160pp, £12.95

ISBN 9780500051573

Published 29 September 2008

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