Meet the Romans with Mary Beard – BBC 4


According to Mary Beard, who’s always so infectiously enthusiastic about Ancient Rome, the reason that the city, the centre and capital of a great Empire, flourished in the first century AD was that people bonded during visits to the Colosseum and the public toilets.  I’m not quite getting the toilet thing, but I can’t wait until I can bond with 78,000 other people at Old Trafford again.  And watching enslaved prisoners of war being paraded through the city in chains was a great time to try to pick up a new girlfriend or boyfriend.  Also, it was a brilliant time to be a baker.  This was far more interesting than Caesar’s Gallic Wars, which I was forced to read when I was in the Sixth Form … although, being minus Caecilius & co, it wasn’t as good as the Cambridge Latin Course 😉 .

This was originally shown in 2012, but I can’t remember whether or not I watched it the first time round.  The general idea was that Rome was “the great blender”.  People came there from all over, either by force as captives from newly-conquered territories or by choice in the hope that the streets of the city were paved with gold.  Mary didn’t seem too bothered by the fact that they’d been slaves, and kept pointing out what great opportunities they had, and showing us a lot of tombstones of people who’d been brought from other parts of the Empire as slaves but had then been freed and done well for themselves.  As she said, they all seemed very keen on having their jobs mentioned on their tombstones – and Rome was one of very few places at that time where people actually had specialist jobs.

We also heard a lot about all the food brought in from different parts of the Empire … a bit like Britain in late Victorian and Edwardian times.  A lot of it came from other parts of Italy rather than from far and wide, though, especially olive oil and grain.  It’s a favourite point of hers, and an extremely good one – that Rome needed the Empire to keep going, so it was all kind of self-perpetuating.

Another favourite point of hers is ethnic diversity, but, as she kept saying, there were no “quarters” in Ancient Rome, where particular groups lived.  It was all about becoming Roman – and, preferably, eventually being able to say “Civis Romanus sum”.

And, once you were a Roman citizen, you could go to the Colosseum.  Yay!  Although, if you were female, you could only sit in a certain area.  And, if you were a bottom of the pecking order type citizen, you could only sit up in the gods, whilst the Roman equivalent of the prawn sandwich brigade got the seats with the best views.  But, as long as you were there, you could watch the gladiators, and bask in the feeling that you were a civilised Roman and they weren’t.  And so all the Romans bonded.  Alternatively, you could bond by gossiping in the public toilets.  Well, men could, anyway.  I’m not sure when gossiping in toilets became a female thing rather than a male thing, but never mind.

I can’t say that this was the greatest historical documentary I’ve ever seen, people’s job titles being engraved on their tombstones not actually being all that fascinating, but it wasn’t bad, and I’ll be watching the two other episodes in this series.  Mary Beard reminds me of one of those teachers who are so into their subject that they just can’t even conceive of the fact that someone else might not find it interesting: she just looks so fascinated by all of it!  And, this not being school, if someone’s watching a programme on Ancient Rome then the chances are that they do find it interesting.  So go Mary.  And what a great lockdown mate she’d be, because she’d tell you that having long grey hair was actually the way to go!