Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day: A Review

Jeremy J. Baer

Phillip “Maty” Matyszak has a doctorate in Roman history from St John’s College, Oxford, and has authored numerous books on the history and politics of Rome.  However, in Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day, the good doctor leaves behind the Eternal City to concentrate on that other beloved town of Western Civilization.    He provides a light hearted yet informative read on Athens and its landmarks, both physical and social.

As one might expect, the book is similar in scope to Matyszak’s Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day.  Rather than the standard dry academic format, the book’s conceit is that is written from the perspective of a narrator who serves as tour guide to a living, breathing ancient city.  The time frame is a generation after the Persian Wars and just prior to the start of the wars with Sparta, though the omniscient narrator has knowledge of events in both the near and distant futures.  The period was chosen because it offered a glimpse of Athenian culture near the height of its golden era, but before (as the author states) a “certain innocence was lost” through the later greed and depravations of an empire destined to be overthrown.

Part I starts the travel to Athens at Thermopylae, passes through the Oracle at Delphi to the neighborhoods of Attica and the battle site of Marathon.   Part II details the Pireaus, Athens large imperial port and its resident aliens (metics) who provide an amazing cosmopolitan atmosphere. In Part III we finally arrive at the city, with advice on how to get about, where to stay, and a brief overview of Athenian society.

Part IV offers the traveler a sketch of Athenian pastimes.  Noted is the Academy – in this time period known more for athletic than intellectual pursuits.  Also included are a view of taverns and cock fighting, as well as a guide to Athenian currency.  Part V, entitled “Meet the Athenians” , presents a brief look at some of the notable Athenian personalities at the time.  Statesmen, intellectuals, and literati are included.

We are treated to a day in the life of a typical Athene in part VI.  A morning is spent in throws of the city’s peculiar democratic system, the afternoon in the theater, and the evening provides us with a drinking symposium.  The city’s main public deities as well as some of its private cults and superstitions are highlighted in Part VII.  Part VIII delves into important life events, such as marriage, funerals and military service.   Part IX takes the reader on a walkabout through the city’s landmarks, including the council chamber  and market place.     An appendix to the book concludes with some humorous tourist phrases in Attic Greek.

A variety of illustrations and stunning color photographs are included to good effect.  With almost each page one is also treated to quotes from primary sources relevant to the topic being discussed. Side bars also provide interesting “fun facts”  on a given subject.  The book itself is small and easy to carry about, the ideal companion on a flight or train ride.

Matyszak writes intelligently yet clearly for the general reader, and his quirky sense of humor will greatly endear many to the subject at hand.  There is a surprising amount of information crammed into such a little book. Even though I consider myself fairly knowledgeable in the classics, I learned some new things (did you know that “obscene” originated from the Greek word for offstage, where sex and violence in a Greek drama took place so as not to offend the audience?).  In short, this inexpensive book is a treat to read for both diehard classics buffs and more casual students of history.


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