So, what did we all think about Mary Beard’s new programme on Roman life – with special guest cameo from Martin Millett (et al.)? Tuesday’s instalment was the first in a series of three, so the BBC programme page informs us, and its focus was on the empire and what it brought into the city: “Mary asks not what the Romans did for us, but what the empire did for Rome.” Overall, I liked it, but I had some quibbles about the position analysis seemed to be starting from.
Harking back to her talk at Newnham back in January (which I mentioned in this post), this was definitely not an attempt to fake any reconstruction of Roman lives, but the adventure of MB on her bicycle down the Via Appia into the city, brushing into contact with the hundreds of lives immortalised on tomb inscriptions and other epigraphic material (mainly) before zooming on to some other exciting spot. On the whole I thought the material was fantastic (my favourite piece was the urn of Sellia the ‘aurivestrix’, though I think viewers without Latin were robbed of being able to get the brilliant bit of Latin metonymy, where aurum, gold, stands for ‘luxury’), and I did like the set-up of MB’s bicycle adventure, if only because it was a great excuse for beautiful shots of the Via Appia and fun footage of modern Rome.
As with the Pompeii programme from whenever it was, however, I found the narrative of the hour quite difficult to follow. Everything was dealt with quite quickly and even when broad, summarising ideas were introduced, they were often discarded or qualified in a way that meant it was hard to guess ahead of time which were going to be taken forward and which were not. When the programme started, I thought the Arch of Titus was going to be the central touchstone, but the specific background (and hook) of the Jewish War quickly faded to a more generalised discussion of imperial Rome, only to come back again as a brief mention when MB got to the Colosseum. Here, even, the idea that this was a massive monument to Roman conquest wasn’t really played up at all, with emphasis instead on the collectivising nature of being in the audience, even for women and slaves penned right up in the gods.
A lot of the points made in the programme were like this, where Roman conquest was taken as a given – or an inevitability – and because of that ‘becoming Roman’ also seemed somewhat inevitable as well, or at least the most advantageous outcome available to people. Slavery was rather blithely compared an apprenticeship, where a young person (or bloke, as seemed to be MB’s default imagined character, even when she looked at working women as well as men) might come from the provinces and be trained up in Romanness as well as a trade before they were freed by their master into society. In certain cases, I could sort of understand where that was coming from, but, as with quite a lot of the programme, it was also slightly as if post-colonialism had never happened. As immigrants came from all over the empire, were freed from slavery and found identity in their jobs rather than their birthplaces or family, it was almost as though their complicity in Rome’s consumption of their culture was enough to suggest they saw it as a value-neutral if not positive process, or even that it was.
To me, after all, there seemed to be some questions which the set-up introduced but which weren’t really addressed. What might the three Jewish men from the start of the programme have made of the Colosseum at its end, for example? What did it really mean when funerary inscriptions were written in Greek or in Arabic – was this only a reflection of the languages people were speaking, or evidence of defiance against the linguistic pressures of Latin? MB made it very clear at the start of the programme that she was not going to focus on the elite, but given the great wealth of material and the short space of time given to each piece, I found it hard to feel like I really got to know any of the ordinary Romans we were meant to be meeting. The lead character instead seemed to be Rome as a city, the great anthropomorphised ‘she’, why she needed people, why she needed resources, where she got them from and how she consumed them. This to me, whether consciously or not, seemed like a way to talk about the elite under another name – it was they, after all, who were at the centre of the system, controlling the conquest and overseeing the Romanisation of the empire’s inhabitants. Even as their lives were fleshed out and coloured in, the ordinary people still only had a rather passive role to play in the dynamics of MB’s argument.
I really enjoyed looking at everything MB showed us in the programme, especially Monte Testaccio and Ostia, which I think could have held the whole hour on their own – and I really, really enjoyed that it wasn’t reconstructions but real stuff, found by MB the intrepid adventurer – but I think the structure would have benefitted from some key characters and pieces, maybe, which could have been returned to and re-read as connections were drawn between the different areas of material. The linearity of it all left me feeling more like a tourist than a visitor, in the end.
Obviously, there’re two more episodes to go and this might all be undercut! I’ll definitely be watching, whatever. I also know from chatting to people there’s at least one person out there who doesn’t agree with me, so it would be nice to know what more people think…