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Classical Journal On-Line <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 17 Jul 2009 12:50:51 -0500
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Ancient Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day: Where to eat, drink and meet a 
philosopher—your guide to the cradle of Western culture. By PHILIP 
MATYSZAK. London: Thames & Hudson, 2008. Pp. 135. Paper, $18.95. ISBN 

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Previously published CJ Online reviews are at 

CJ Forum Online Exclusive 2009.07.03

A companion to the author’s Ancient Rome on 5 Denarii a Day, this book 
presents itself as a guidebook to ancient Athens as it would have appeared 
to a visitor just before the start of the Peloponnesian War. As Matyszak 
(M.) explains in an Author’s Note, “[This date] was chosen for this 
book, as it marks both the peak of Athenian splendour, and the point just 
before a certain innocence was lost” (p. 129). In this panorama of the 
past, Perikles is the current charismatic leader, Aristophanes is a young 
man marveling at life in the big city, the finishing touches are being 
placed on the Stoa of Zeus Eleutherios, and the Parthenon looms over the 
city in its full-color glory.

Appropriately for a guidebook, the first chapter is entitled “Getting 
There,” and it takes the reader on a brief tour of Thermopylae, Delphi, 
Marathon and their environs. Before we reach Athens itself, we are also 
offered a vivid portrait of life in Piraeus, Athens’ main port. The place 
“has a bustling, hard-edged feel, and not a little squalor,” but the 
high proportion of metics (non-Athenian-born residents) “helps to make 
Piraeus a more lively, tolerant and cosmopolitan place than the main city 
four miles to the northeast” (pp. 23–4). Subsequent chapters are 
devoted to Athenian pastimes, activities, important persons, religion, 
rites of passage and must-see sights. Throughout, there are abundant 
illustrations taken from vase paintings, coins and sculptures, and plates 
that contain handsome full color reconstructions of the city’s major 
monuments. The illustrations include a handy guide to vase shapes and to 
the orders of architecture: Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Aeolic—the 
latter “with leaves artistically peeling off” (p. 118). No guide book 
would be complete without a list of useful phrases, and this one is no 
exception; if you have ever wanted to say, “How much is that?” in 
classical Greek, you will learn how here. (There are also more erudite 
utterances, such as observations on the merits of Sophocles vs. Aeschylus.)

This is a book of considerable learning; M. acknowledges the assistance of 
John Camp, the author of The Athenian Agora and The Archaeology of Athens. 
There are amusing and interesting facts on every page, some of them likely 
unknown even to many classicists. Did you know, for example, that at the 
vegetable stall “you can get your lentils fresh or ready-stewed” (p. 
54)? Although other information will probably be familiar to specialists 
and even general readers, it is pleasant to receive such a wealth of it in 
a compact form. Nowhere else will you find a detailed account of the 
Eleusinian Mysteries within pages of a description of hoplite armor.

The one drawback to the chatty guidebook style is the lack of footnotes, 
and the pedant in me did occasionally want to see a specific citation of an 
ancient source. Is everything M. narrates genuinely factual, or does he 
sometimes repeat tales uncritically? There seems to be little classical 
evidence, for example, that Socrates’ wife Xanthippe practiced slapstick 
violence upon her henpecked husband, as described on pages 59–60. 
(Socrates is the target of considerable ridicule in this book, as is 

But these are minor flaws. Overall, this is an excellent resource for 
anyone desiring an overview of ancient Greek daily life and many important 
events of its pre-Peloponnesian War history. The final pages contain a 
gloriously lyrical description of the Acropolis at dawn, filling the reader 
with both longing to be there and sorrow at the knowledge of the 
destruction to come.

Townsend Harris High School

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