Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit – BBC 2


Word PressStupid title (sounds like a computer game), but an interesting programme.  I did start wondering if there was some sort of political agenda to it, but I don’t think that’s Mary Beard’s style: all the talk about refugees and asylum seekers and single currencies and so on was presumably there to try to make it seem relevant to today!

Much of this first episode was about the idea that Rome was created by its Empire rather than the other way round.  Mary Beard argued that Rome didn’t set out to build an Empire, but that it just sort of happened.  You could probably say that about Britain as well, whereas I don’t think you could about, say, Castile/Spain and Portugal.  The argument was that, whilst other city-states just went raiding and trading, Rome brought other places into its Empire, and gave their people the chance to become citizens of Rome.  I’m not 100% convinced about the first part – there were Carthaginian settlements in Spain (we all know the Barca story, even if it isn’t true!) and Greek settlements in all sorts of places – but the point about Rome incorporating places into its empire and the better-off classes, at least, having the chance to become Roman citizens is certainly very interesting.

So too was the point about Rome effectively grabbing bits of other people’s cultures!  How many Greek sculptures ended up in Rome?!  And then there was the point about the “alternative” myth of Rome’s founding, i.e. the Aeneid.  I’m not sure that it actually is an “alternative” myth, because the idea of the story is that Romulus and Remus were descended from Aeneas, so it’s more of an add-on myth, but what Mary was saying was that Rome, at the time of Virgil when it was close to the height of its power, was coming up with a founding myth involving a foreign prince.  Am I the only person who doesn’t get this obsession with being descended from the Trojans?!  You get it in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “history” of Britain as well.  I know the Trojans were supposed to be very hard-working and very honourable and all the rest of it, but, come on, fancy falling for that story about the horse!  Anyone could have seen that it was a trick!

Anyway.  The main thrust of this programme seemed to be that Rome a) didn’t actually set out to become a mighty Empire and b) incorporated other cultures rather than just conquering them.   I’m not sure that this really is “myth-busting” because I think we knew that anyway, but it was a well-presented programme and made good watching.

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