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2,500 Years in 30 Seconds

Cover of Pax Romana and Imperial Triumph
Covers of 30-Second Ancient Greece and 30-Second Ancient Rome
30-Second Ancient Greece 
30-Second Ancient Rome 

Both edited by Matthew Nicholls
Both by Ivy Press £14.99 each

Rome may be known as the City of Seven Hills, but the average ancient Roman would have been hard pressed to name them. In fact, the city has more than a dozen. That four of its largest – the Capitoline, Aventine, Quirinal and Viminal – were excluded from the ancient festival of the septimontium (celebrated by residents of the seven hills) has only added to the confusion. 

30-Second Rome and 30-Second Greece are full of such facts. There were three water clocks to the hour in ancient Rome, but just three minutes and 33 seconds to the page in each of these books. Edited by classicist Matthew Nicholls, this is ancient history for the short-of-attention-span digital generation, with the ‘most important achievements’ – from Greek architecture to Roman rhetoric – delivered in three-second, 30-second and three-minute summaries. 

The three-minute ‘excavations’ are shorter in length (and quicker to read) than the 30-second histories. The idea, presumably, is that three minutes are required to digest the more challenging ideas. In ‘Heroes and Demigods’, for instance, Patrick Finglass proceeds from Herakles and the Greek heroes to the imperial cult at Rome and pauses for his three minutes to describe the heroism associated with Cleomedes, a disgruntled Greek boxer. In 492 bc, Cleomedes of Astypalaea attacked a school, killing its children, then hid in a chest in a sanctuary of Athena. When local people opened the chest, they found it was empty. The oracle at Delphi proclaimed Cleomedes ‘the last of the heroes’ and told the Astypaleans that they should worship him. 

Across both books, some of the short summaries are more informative than others. In three seconds, for example, we can learn either that ‘the Greeks’ impact on the world of mathematics can still be felt today’, or that ‘When Rome destroyed Carthage in 146 bc Mago’s agricultural treatise was the only expression of Carthaginian culture that the Roman senate deemed worth saving.’ 

The second example comes from Annalisa Marzano’s illuminating page on Roman agriculture. The olive trees of Puglia, she writes, are probably direct descendants of those planted in the Roman period. While the Romans under the Republic could trade an amphora of wine for a slave from one of the Celtic tribes, their richest profits at home derived from the ‘Mediterranean triad’: grain, grapes and olives. Emma Aston’s account of Greek agriculture is necessarily more generalised (how else to cover the numerous city-states?), perhaps underplaying the didactic quality of Hesiod’s Works and Days in stating that the poet dwelled ‘more on [farming’s] virtue than its methods’.

The challenges of describing ‘Astrology and Divination’ or ‘Christianity’ in a single page are obvious. While Nigel Rodgers’ Ancient Rome (2006), aimed at a similar readership, provides a fuller survey of the history through timelines and double page spreads, there are some nuanced sections in Matthew Nicholls’ books. Suspicion of communion, of men and women consuming Christ’s ‘body’ and ‘blood’, might have caused some Romans to fear that Christians were cannibals, Ailsa Hunt stresses, but equally significant was the fact that early Christians worshipped in the privacy of their homes. For all some Romans could tell, these secretive citizens were atheists. When the fear of divine retribution for disparaging the Roman gods was as severe as it was, the threat felt from the ‘non-believers’ is understandable. 

While many tombstones echo that picture, portraying the Romans as a pious and god-fearing people, others playfully challenge that idea. Readers will enjoy Ailsa Hunt’s account of the afterlife, which segues naturally from mischievous tombstones bearing the letters NF F NS NC (non fui, fui, non sum, non curo: ‘I didn’t exist, I existed, I don’t exist, I don’t care’) to Epicureanism and Lucretius’ Symmetry Argument: if we were not troubled by not existing before we were born, then why should we fear our lack of being after death? 

Despite a few stylistic oddities (‘the Roman Empire still imposes on to the modern world…’), these books are clearly and accessibly written and, above all, fun. Facing pages are winsomely illustrated with colourful montages of Classical art, inscriptions and contemporary illustration. The browsing classicist, frustrated by the absence of captions or lists of figures, may linger here and test her recall of the portrait busts of the Roman emperors.  

Daisy Dunn

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