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The Mute Stones Speak: The Story of Archaeology in Italy

by Paul MacKendrick
369 pages, Biography/History
Reviewed by Jenny

A simple, reliable, and enchanting look at ancient Rome’s architecture through the years.

Plot

For centuries ancient civilizations were left to founder in the dust as succeeding generations built upon the old foundations, carving out new cultures, heedless of the past. But gradually an interest in the old world returned, and MacKendrick in his little book takes the reader step-by-step through the silent mysteries, brutalities, even the beauties, of ancient life in Italy from the Etruscan League to the civilization of Christianity rising up out of Rome’s old ashes.

Morality

Not often an issue, the author does point out at times the shortcomings of previous archaeologists, especially the over-zealous reading into the landscapes things for which there is not enough proof. Whether this was for prestige or simply men being too eager to find ancient settlements is not always easy to tell.

For the most part MacKendrick refrains from judging the characters of antiquity. In the context of economy, he looks with some disparagement upon the extravagance of baroque styles, but in an attempt to remain unbiased and read history as it comes, the author is silent on the matter of morality.

Spiritual Content

Many of the cultures revolved around their temples and sites of worship. Because of this many of these structures have been found and examined to piece together dead societies. Deities and their roles in the lives of their worshippers are mentioned. There are plenty of references to the old Greco-Roman myths, of course, and the symbolism of theses stories were frequently used in political propaganda as well as religious rites.

While it is a difficult from the writing to tell if the author himself was a Christian, there are lines to be picked out that are clearly scriptural which reveals a good understanding by the author of biblical texts and the author readily divides time up by the advent of Christ. Toward the end he devotes an entire chapter on the interrelations of the growing Church and Rome which is at once fascinating and enlightening.

Violence

There is remarkably little violence to be touched upon. A few figures were adamant about hunting and sports, and their subsequent art depicts the killing and ensnaring of animals. The arenas for public spectacles are studied. Naturally Pompeii has a chapter, but MacKendrick devotes his time more to bringing the past to life than studying the dead bodies the past left behind.

He does dwell briefly on the suicide of Antinous, Hadrian’s consort: the grief-stricken emperor had the area of Antinous’ death reconstructed in his own home and the following works of architecture displayed a morbidly intense longing for death.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Jugs of wine are uncovered in cellars and gardens; alcoholic beverages were very common in that age.

Sexual Content

Early nineteenth century excavation is likened more to rape than science in that artifacts were discovered almost solely to be bought off by the wealthy. The historical rape of Lucrece (not Shakespeare’s play) is mentioned, as well as the possibly disturbing, though brief, descriptions of statues of fertility gods and goddesses; also, there is a plethora of statues scantily or closely clad, if clad at all, and mentions of more erotic paintings — these are mostly described in passing and will not be found so much in actual photography within the book. However, there is one painting, rather blurred, that the author takes the time to describe in more detail, chiefly for its artistic value: marriage, fertility, and orgy are displayed. Graffiti advertises prostitutes in places.

The reader should be cautioned concerning the chapter on Hadrian’s architecture. The emperor was known for his homosexual bent and inferred schizophrenia, and while the author deals delicately with the topic, these aspects of Hadrian so impacted his architectural design that they must be touched on at least lightly.

Crude or Profane Language or Content

The author is very respectful of Christianity, though his tone on both Christian views and pagan are largely ambivalent. For crude behaviour, see Sexual Content.

Conclusion

Engaging and exciting, detailed and yet not overbearing, Paul MacKendrick unfolds an entire civilization by looking at the stones it left behind. Not looking at dead structures, he brings ancient Rome to life, charting its course from a meager little grouping of huts in the shadow of the Etruscan League to the thriving, extravagant hub of the world, to nothing more than an outlying city on the frontiers of the new Byzantine Empire. From the beginning to the end, never missing a beat, never growing tiresome, he takes the reader. This book is perfect for anyone interested in a brief and lively look at Roman history. Between these covers, Paul MacKendrick drums up the unsung praises of the cultures that helped shape the world.

Fun Score: 5
Values Score: 4
Written for Age: adult

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