Between social networking/blogging and the relatively small group interested in Classics, it seems most Classical writers/reviewers know each other at least well enough to friend on Facebook or to become Twitter buddies. Thus it seemed unremarkable — except here I am remarking on it — for the dedication of Spartacus Wars, a new book by Barry Strauss, to be made in the names of Mithradates fan Adrienne Mayor and her mate, democracy expert Josiah Ober. (I suppose someone will write me challenging those characterizations, and that person will probably be right.) Mary Beard is highly respected, a Classical writer and a blogger, but to my knowledge, avoids online social networking.

One of Mary Beard’s signal contributions to the popular study of Classics is the idea of the dormouse test:

The best way to judge a modern recreation of ancient Rome – in film or fiction – is to apply the simple “dormouse test”. How long is it before the characters adopt an uncomfortably horizontal position in front of tables, usually festooned with grapes, and one says to another: “Can I pass you a dormouse?”

The basic rule of thumb is this: the longer you have to wait before this tasty little morsel appears on the recreated banquet, the more subtle the reconstruction is likely to be.
Apart from vomitoriums and orgies, what did the Romans do for us?

So when I had already come across the word “dormice” before turning the first page in Spartacus Wars, I assumed it was meant as a joke. It wasn’t, according to Barry Strauss.

The dormouse test is, however, only a rule of thumb, not ironclad. The book does, indeed, seem to be filled with careful, subtle reconstruction, since there is so little from which to determine what was going through Spartacus’ brain. The introduction, where the dormice appears, seems designed to show those who ordinarily might not be interested, why they should be.

As a gesture to non-Classicists, the dormice probably convey suitable ambience.

Irene Hahn has more on Dormice.


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