British comedienne and classics lover Haynes (The Great Escape, 2007) presents a wonderfully whimsical yet instructional view of Greco-Roman history.
The author fuses educational narrative and jocular commentary to guide the reader through aspects of ancient life still of interest today: politics, law, philosophy, religion, the role of women, the urban-rural dichotomy, entertainment and money, among others. The idea that the past bears upon the present often becomes a meaningless abstraction, but Haynes offers practical examples of this aphorism with welcome wit and a wink. Classics scholars are unlikely to learn anything new—the author clearly writes for a general audience—but they will surely chuckle at her candid accounts of celebrated ancients, especially “Rome's most articulate grouch, Juvenal.” Haynes sets the record straight on topics as diverse as the nature of gladiatorial salutes and the unexpected origin of “Who watches the watchmen?”, while providing illuminating context for controversial issues, like slavery and Roman views on Christians and Jews. She adds personality to simplistically clichéd historical figures such as Plato, Cicero and Nero. Her writing is speculative at times, necessarily so given the nature of her sources—ancient writers can be frustratingly biased and limited in scope. On rare occasions, the author takes it too far—e.g., her confidence in the solution to Socrates’ enigmatic last words. But such examples are limited, and most often Haynes' more unsubstantiated ideas are inquisitively phrased and constructively provocative.
Will have readers grabbing for the classics.