Ask the Ancients: Astonishing Advice for Daily Dilemmas

by Sylvia Gray, illustrated by Lydia Koller, Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers 2014, Pb 132 pages, ISBN9780865168183 ($19.00).

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)