Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Rome Alive

Lately I've been reading Rome Alive by Peter J. Aicher. It claims to be "a source-guide to the ancient city," but its benefits go well beyond researching a visit to Rome. The book consists of two volumes. Volume I is the guide and includes maps, summaries, and English translations of the Latin and Greek sources for most of the ancient Roman monuments. Volume II includes the same maps as the first volume, and provides the original language text for the sources quoted in the first book.

As I said before, this book is beneficial not only for the traveler, but for others as well. I would recommend Rome Alive to anyone who teaches Latin (even Greek) or ancient Roman history. The supplementary volume II is an excellent resource for teachers who want to give their students the opportunity to dig out facts and do simplified research from the original language. Aicher's writing style is easy to read and gives the reader such clear and interesting information that it is hard to put the book down! The more I read, the more I wanted to continue. His source translations are also beautifully rendered, consistent with the tone and intention of each author.

Rome Alive begins with an overview map, which highlights the areas covered by the smaller maps throughout the book. This overview map is helpful for visualizing Rome and its major divisions. It is according to these divisions that Aicher divides his book into chapters. Each chapter opens with a numbered map encompassing the monuments to be discussed within, and the sources are numbered in correspondence to the numbered location on the map. Aicher not only explains the locations of the ancient sites in relation to each other, but also in relation to what stands in Rome today, both on the maps and in his summaries. Additional maps are provided as needed throughout the chapter, again numbered for easy reference to the source texts. Many of the maps in volume I are also duplicated in volume II. This facilitates reading by providing visual context for the explained monument.

Peter Aicher includes not only a plethora of maps and illustrations, but of photos of Rome as well. Each picture seems to have been carefully chosen and placed, for each adds to the reader's understanding as he progresses through the book. For a visitor to Rome, these pictures would leave no question in his mind as to whether he were indeed glimpsing the remains of what the ancient Romans described in the sources given. I personally appreciate Aicher's including clear pictures of the aqueducts' channels; despite all of the ancient description I'd read, I did not have a clear idea until seeing the included photo. After reading the sources, referencing the maps, and studying the pictures, I am amazed at how much deeper my understanding of the technology and architecture of Rome is.

As each new site is introduced, Peter Aicher begins with a summary of the information about the location. These summaries are short and easy to read, but give the reader a skeletal understanding of the site, which is fleshed out as the reader works his way through the sources. Aicher's summaries are true to the sources, and it is here that he addresses the socio-political issues that often impacted the inception or destruction of Roman buildings. It is in these summaries, also, that he addresses discrepancies in the sources.

The sources included in Rome Alive are the real reason I am so enthusiastic about this book. The real meat of the book is found in these. Aicher has sifted through mounds of primary sources and extracted just the right amount of the most pertinent information for each of the sites he covers. Because he references not only the author and work but also the line numbers for each source, it is not difficult to look up the complete source elsewhere for greater context of the excerpt. Aicher has translated the sources wonderfully, rendering them into easily read idiomatic English. An example of his careful translation can be seen in the rhyme of this excerpt from Suetonius' Nero (39.2):

Nero proved surprisingly tolerant towards those who made him the target of their witticisms and verse-lampoons. There were many of these in circulation, in Greek as well as in Latin. The following about the Golden House is one example:

Rome is now a private home,
It's time to emigrate -
Assuming other lands exist
When they finish this estate.

While the sources in volume I have been translated into English, I can't begin to express how easy it is to cross-reference them with their original language text using volume II. Because each source in volume I is numbered (according to the monument number on the maps) and the corresponding Latin or Greek source is given the same numbering in volume II, checking the original text is extremely simple. This is my favorite aspect of the set - and what makes these books such an amazing resource for teachers and students alike.

As a visitor's guide to Rome, some of the most valuable references Peter Aicher includes in Rome Alive are his translations of the monuments' inscriptions. When I visited Rome, I wished I knew what the monuments said. Later, when I had learned Latin, I tried to decipher the inscriptions but found the abbreviations difficult. Peter Aicher has included not only the text of the inscription (with the lengthened forms of the abbreviated words in parentheses), but the translations of the inscriptions as well. Understanding the inscriptions on the monuments makes viewing them more interesting and fulfilling. Having read the history of the monuments, understanding why they were built, and how they impacted the Romans' lives will make a visit to ancient Rome more memorable and substantial.

For anyone interested in learning about Rome or her language, I recommend Rome Alive. For anyone who teaches Latin or Roman history using primary sources, this book is a must-have.

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