Release your Inner Roman
Marcus Sidonius Falx with Jerry Toner
Profile Books
240pp
Hardback, £14.99

There is nothing new about looking to the ancients for advice on how to behave. Writers have been drawing from our intellectual ancestors for centuries, and this book, following on from How to Manage your Slaves (2014) offers a refreshing revival of this tradition. If you want to know how to find a suitable wife, what career path you should follow, and how to be happy and healthy, then who better to turn to than those sage Romans? Readers of Release your Inner Roman will be guided by their own fictitious knowledgeable Roman, Marcus Sidonius Falx, in a whole range of matters of life and death.

The material that comprises the book is drawn from a wide range of ancient sources and offers insight into Roman society and views. Each chapter of Falx's guidance is followed by a short commentary by Jerry Toner (Fellow and Director of Studies of Classics at Churchill College, Cambridge) introducing a bit of the relevant historical context, including dates and some facts and figures, and briefly discussing the textual references made by Falx. Among the many writers (of both prose and verse works) paraphrased or alluded to by Falx are Cicero, Livy, Seneca, Virgil and Horace. Part of the fun of reading this light-hearted book is spotting the references along the way before getting to the commentary.

So, how can we be more Roman? First, there are certain qualities we must possess as good or 'highly heroic' Romans. These include determination, courage, discipline, and the ability to conquer our emotions – also essential for military success. Falx cites famous figures who exemplify such attributes from Rome's legendary history, such as Mucius Scaevola and Cloelia, heroes of the 508 BC war against Clusium, and from the Julio-Claudian dynasty, notably Julius Caesar and 'blessed Claudius', who was able to make tough decisions to survive family plots against him and have his wife executed.

Falx also offers career advice, suggesting jobs that are suitable for each stratum of society. And on finances in general he gives some sound guidance: 'do not spend more than you have coming in', and 'when investing, only put money into what you understand'. His top tip for dinner parties – 'too little wine is bound to breed resentment' – is as sensible today as it would have been 2000 years ago.

On matters of the heart, we come across the insightful advice 'you should make sure that your fiancée enters the relationship with a positive frame of mind' as well as magic spells and potions from Egypt, and tips for the female reader on how to style her hair, cover her spots, smell pleasant, and on how to be a good wife ('if there is one golden rule, it is that wives should be submissive'). For a husband wanting to embark on an extramarital affair, he should (based on Ovid's Ars Amatoria) head to the theatre or circus to hunt down a suitable girl for a quick fling.

It is of course entirely appropriate to see Ovid making an appearance in this book. Not only are some of the pearls of wisdom Ovidian, but the very concept of a jocular Roman self-help book is itself rather reminiscent of the poet's mock-didactic works (such as Ars Amatoria and Remedia Amoris) that are alluded to in the text.

Many Roman practices such as slavery and wife-beating are abhorrent, so should we really strive to release our inner Romans? Probably not, but the book does reveal a range of views from Roman authors in an entertaining way and is still well worth reading. It is certainly quite a feat to synthesise so much material into something so fresh. Toner is to be commended for this clever and enjoyable introduction to the Roman way of life. Ovid would approve.
Lucia Marchini

 

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