Monday, October 14, 2019

A Review: A Week in the Life of a Greco-Roman Woman by Holly Beers

The book is well organized by the 7 days of the week so I could see from the start that the Greco-Roman woman was actually going to live a week in my presence.  I love history and more information always helps me to visualize the setting.  The book begins with a prologue where the Ephesian woman Anthia is assisting her friend who is giving birth.  Not what I wanted to read in the morning just after breakfast!   But this leads to Wednesday where we follow her activities in the agora, at home, and elsewhere.  It reads almost like a novel.  

Life is difficult with too little food but abundant water that freely flows from Roman sources, but there’s no punching a time card and much time for conversation.   Wives, however were treated like slaves.  They were punished for infractions and expected to be obedient to their husbands and possibly also male members of their household.  Many women were far younger than their husbands and the average life expectancy was less than half of what we expect in our society, 40’s for men, thirties for women.  The book contains helpful boxed descriptions of cultural practices as well as photos of items and buildings of that time.

The author presents her material in a more entertaining way than reading a textbook, but most importantly she expends some effort on not imposing her American culture or views on her subject. As a result, I was able to do the same, but not without profound sadness for the way Greco-Roman women were treated.  However, I also experienced gratitude for my own 21st century American culture that almost gives Caucasian women equal status with men.  Anthia is a real Ephesian 1st century woman who lives in a culture that is vastly different from ours, but which bears similarities to our immigrant culture:  families living together in a small area, sharing food, all members looking for work to keep rent paid and food on the table, performing manual labor, and living hand to mouth with no other support.

The book follows Anthia’s daily tasks as well as problems she experiences with her pregnancy, sometimes abruptly skipping from one scene to another.  There’s a lot about pregnancy and it appears to be the predominant thought and function of women.  In Anthia’s ventures into the Agora (rarely without being accompanied by her husband in the first half of the book, often alone in the 2nd half) she catches snatches of Paul’s (the Apostle) debates and wonders about what she hears.  She also hears about him through bits of conversation on the streets, in the baths, and witnesses Paul’s handkerchief healing a neighbor boy.  Halfway through the book there is less about pregnancy and we’re given a glimpse into the state of Roman society and the difference Jesus made in societal relations.

The book reads like a novel with historical notes, although sometimes the information is given in the text through thought or dialogue.   However, the writing was poor and contained wrong words, anachronistic words, and problems with sentence construction. The anachronisms include the name “Andrew” (should be Andreas) which stood out as not being like the other Greek or Roman names.  Paul (should be Paulus) has a “mantra” (an 18th century Sanskrit word.)  Other words also don’t fit the time period, such as “kin.”  The author has braziers “sitting next to each other” as though they were people, “emitting both light and the delicious smel [sic] of cooking meat.” Brazier is an English word, so why not use one of the Latin words arulam or caminum?  Other Latin/Greek words are used and explained.  Later, we find “gawkers were sitting on animals.”

Even the healing prayer Anthia experiences is not like the contemporaneous encounters in the Gospels and Acts where a person is healed when Jesus, Paul, Peter, or others listen to the Spirit and obey.   e.g. “Rise, take up your mat, and walk”.  Rather, the women in this book pray by “imploring Jesus to heal her. . .  and agreed to continue to pray for her.”  The 1st century Ephesian church was not so far removed from the time of Acts and the Gospels that it would have done things differently.  In fact, this imploring appears to be what people of the time did to idols, imploring those gods, such as Artemis, to change their situation.

All in all, the book presents an uneven and somewhat tedious experience (I was so bored by the halfway point that I stopped reading it for a week). Biblical scenes are presented with color and insight, but there are awkward sentences, overused words, wrong words, and anachronistic words.  These are all things that could be fixed and since I have read a pre-publication copy, I hope they are remedied.  The book would be better as non-fiction or as a well-written novel.  The combination of both simply does not work.

NOTE: A much better written book (which, at this time, I have not completed reading) is A Week In The Life of Corinth by Ben Witherington III.