Ask the Ancients: Astonishing Advice for Daily Dilemmas

Ask the Ancients: Astonishing Advice for Daily Dilemmas
Author: Sylvia Gray   Illustrator: Lydia Koller
Product Code: 8180
ISBN: 978-0-86516-818-3
Pages:  141
Availability: In stock
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How can I overcome stage fright?
What should I look for in a wife?
Is the world going downhill?

Ancient authorities from the Western classical tradition offer opinions on these and other burning questions. The advice is often astonishing-for its wisdom, its entertainment value, or its complete lack of concern for modern sensibilities. The author, who collected these fascinating tidbits as she worked her way through many of the extant classical sources, can't help but enter the discussion with her own thoughts as well.

Special Features

  • Twenty illustrations
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Review by: Carrie Sulosky Weaver, University of Pittsburgh - July 18, 2014

At a time when classics programs are disappearing, it is more important than ever to rekindle waning interest in the Greco-Roman world. In an effort to remedy this problem, classical scholars have turned their attention toward the production of publications that are clear and accessible to the general public (e.g., McKeown's A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities and its recent companion volume, A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities).1 Gray's book is an example of such a work. Drawing on ancient literary sources, the book offers a compilation of various Greco-Roman opinions on daily dilemmas, as well as on matters of greater consequence.

From contraceptive options to the possibility of life after death, this intriguing book covers a wide range of topics (52, to be precise) that are divided into 10 categories: Career and Workplace, Health and Beauty, Food and Fun, Lifestyles, Human Relations, Sociopolitical Issues, Government, Morals and Ethics, Metaphysical, and Ultimate Questions. An introduction, an index, and a bibliography are also included. The introduction provides an explanation of the origin of the book, and implies that the topics were initially selected at random and later grouped into categories. After reading excerpts from Livy in a college course, the author became interested in the stories and anecdotes of the ancients and the "universal aspects of [the] human experience that shone through [them]" (p. ix). She began to voraciously read Greco-Roman literature, and collected tidbits of advice and wisdom for a column she wrote in a local newspaper. This book is essentially an anthology of her newspaper columns.

The individual entries are organized like an advice column where questions are asked by fictitious inquirers and answered by the author through a series of anecdotes from ancient literary sources. For example, the category "Career and Workplace" includes six topics: attaining consensus; climbing the ladder; personal hygiene; maintaining sales morale; overcoming stage fright; and poetry as a career. Regarding the subject of "stage fright" (pp. 10-11), "Trembling Tremolo" asks "How can I overcome stage fright when I give a musical performance?" The author responds by telling the story of how Nero overcame his own bout of stage fright by "conscientious" preparation (e.g., improving his vocal prowess by lying down and singing with a lead weight on his chest), hiring fans, and controlling his audience (e.g., preventing anyone from leaving the theater until the end of the performance).

The book is most suitable for non-specialists or high school classrooms, but with slight changes it could appeal to a broader audience. In particular, the ancient references following each piece of advice would benefit from more precision and consistency, since some citations are very detailed ("Quintilian Institutes of Oratory 1.1.6" on p. 59), others only moderately specific ("Aristotle Nicomachean Ethics" on p. 93), and a few are rather vague ("Hesiod Theogony and Works and Days" on p. 91). Another oddity is the layout. Many pages contain a large blank field after each advice entry. One way to put those empty spaces to good use would be to include translated excerpts in them, along the lines of Aicher's Rome Alive, which features a similar organization (e.g., subject, commentary, relevant excerpts in translation).2 The inclusion of translated excerpts would serve to more effectively engage the reader and attract a wider audience.

Overall, Gray's compendium of Greco-Roman advice is an interesting, thought-provoking and widely accessible read, which succeeds in highlighting the similarities, differences, and absurdities that exist between the sensibilities of the ancients and those of our modern world.

1. McKeown, J.C. A Cabinet of Roman Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the World's Greatest Empire. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010; McKeown, J.C. A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
2. Aicher, Peter J. Rome Alive: A Source-Guide to the Ancient City, Vol. 1. Mundelein, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc., 2004.

—Carrie L. Sulosky Weaver, University of Pittsburgh
Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.07.09

Review by: Alfred Reitermayer, Euroclassica Newsletter - January 15, 2015

The title is the motto: a both funny and instructive guide through human dilemmas by Ancient Greek and Roman authors.

Sylvia Gray's booklet of Greek and Roman opinions comments on timeless questions about human weaknesses and social rituals: you find guidelines for Career and Workplace, Health and Beauty, Food and Fun up to Ultimate questions. The 52 chapters are not so recommendable because of the deep academic philological education of the author—she is a columnist (maybe an advantage, because of her sense for the essential in a text)—but due to her deep respect for "the universal aspects of human experience in the Western classical tradition", as she writes in the introduction (pp. ix-x)

One can see that she—fascinated by a charismatic teacher in a classical history course—freely immersed herself in the richness of e.g. Homer's and Cicero's texts. Once she was "determined to read everything extant from antiquity" (p. ix) (a bigger undertaking than she had ever imagined), she began to teach history and to write an Ask the Ancients column.

Now she has selected titbits of obviously translated excerpts —see the annex with all the translations she used mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries (not a bad idea).

The compendium is not the first Greco-Roman guide to human essentials, BUT it sounds fresh: G. has a lively dialogue with the opinions, in a way I know from Marcel Reich Ranicky, when he dealt with German authors in "Lauter Verrisse" and "Lauter Lobreden".

G. is not addicted to ancient authors, but seriously scans the texts for their effectiveness in the past and present. When she is dealing with "Where could I go to increase my chances of meeting available women?" a classicist would expect Ovid's "ars amatoria" and "amores" as an advisor, but Gray suggests Pausanias, an observant, scholarly, religious man who does not strike one as a sophisticated seducer of women. Pausanias suggests as a meeting point a nice sea resort, today's Patras, with a sanctuary to Aphrodite with a sacred grove by the sea "a delightful place for idling in the summer". Secondly, Pausanias suggests Patras, because there were twice as many women there as men, and "if ever women belonged to Aphrodite, they do. Pausanias's GUIDE TO GREECE 7.21)". Gray considers the effectiveness of Pausanias's advice for the present days: "Patras, as it is now called, is a bustling city of 150,000 and reputedly has a lovely walkway along the quay. But even if it is not on your next vacation itinerary, you may still put to use the principles Pausanias mentioned. First, choose a place where women "idle", preferably at a sea resort where there are rides you can enjoy (parasailing?). Secondly, do a bit of statistical research on the ratio between women and men before making definite plans for this potential spot (Caribbean cruises might be a good alternative). (Men: don't go to Alaska!)" (p. 31).

G. intends not to teach scholars with her book, but to motivate the student "who desires to imbibe further" (p. x) It is impressive how in two pages Silvia Gray can create a psychograph of the warlord Caesar and modern managers, who want to motivate their discouraged troops (Maintaining Sales Morale pp. 8–9); this is ironic and thought-provoking at the same time.

She climbs the summit of austerity together with Horace, when she answers the question "Should I save for the future or spend now?" with Horace's "most essential guideline: Vixi - I have lived", meaning "Save or spend? Enjoy your life, whatever Fortune brings your way"(p. 29).

The booklet is suitable for non-specialists or high school teachers attracted by Classical programs, but could also seduce classicists to refresh their Canon: Soranus (p. 21) or Oxyrhynchus papyrus 744 (p. 71) are not really well-known.

One may ask translated excerpts to be included or more precise citation, but the author does, where absolutely necessary (p. 71) and cuts them out, where internet research can be done easily (Pausanias, Caesar etc.). The booklet itself is well balanced: Lebensweisheit und Witz with a punch line. I would like to read more of the same.

—Alfred Reitermayer (Austria)

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