Anyone thinking that history of the ancient Greeks and Romans is dull should try How to Mellify a Corpse and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition by Vicki Leon. In this illustrated collection of short essays, Leon intimately examines ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and their thoughts without either glorifying or belittling them. While she seems to get a kick out of telling when they totally misunderstood natural processes, she also likes pointing out when they were two thousand years ahead of everyone else in discovery and understanding.
"Mellify" is not in the American Heritage Dictionary, but "mellifluous" is. The latter means "flowing with sweetness or honey." Honey was the only sweetener that the Greeks and Romans regularly used. They also used it to treat burns and wounds and to embalm bodies, including that of Alexander the Great. In an essay near the end of the book, Leon tells how the ancients were able to make good use of the honey without ever really understanding it or the bees that made it.
Many centuries of Greeks and Romans, who were spread around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, had no word "science," and most of their observations were made by philosophers not employing scientific method, so they were bound to make mistakes. They did not, however, seem to be too bothered by mystery. Looking back, it is rather remarkable how advanced they were in math, astronomy, and physics. There seem to have been quite a few philosophers who figured out that the earth circled the sun. Democritis and Leucippus even proposed that all matter is made of atoms, but they had no equipment with which to prove their theory. They probably did not even feel the need to prove it.
Leon makes learning about the ancients fun. In her accounts, she often throws in humorous asides. When describing how a slave given an education reacted, she writes, "The young slave took to it like feta to Greek salad." She also relates ancient science and culture to the modern times: lead was the plastic of its day, temples were tourist attractions, and Romans had their own battle re-enactors. With much fascinating information within, How to Mellify a Course is a book to enjoy a little at a time.
Leon, Vicki. How to Mellify a Corpse and Other Human Stories of Ancient Science & Superstition. Walker & Company, 2010. ISBN 9780802717023