Only Connect? A Review of ‘Meet the Romans with Mary Beard’ 1/3 (Tuesdays, 9pm on BBC2)

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…


10 thoughts on “Only Connect? A Review of ‘Meet the Romans with Mary Beard’ 1/3 (Tuesdays, 9pm on BBC2)

  1. I’ve just watched it and I pretty much agree with you! All the cameos of ‘ordinary Romans’ were fantastic (I especially loved the baker’s tomb), as was the stuff about Monte Testaccio etc (would have loved to see more of Ostia!) – but it did end up feeling as though no-one had quite decided which programme to make, the one about the-practicalities-of-Rome-the-city or the one about peoples’-experiences-living-in-Rome, so they hedged their bets and went for both at once, with the results that the cameos never had time to be any more than cameos….and yes, it would have been nice to hear something of the other side of the story with the conquest of Jerusalem, etc! (that well-known ‘story with a fairy-tale ending’…) I suppose part of the problem is, there’s not going to be a lot of evidence about the people who came to Rome as slaves and died as slaves – or came to Rome as slaves, got freed, and promptly went back where they came from – so you can’t necessarily tell their stories in the same way (as least, not in as televisually-friendly a way). But there could have been more of an exploration of the tensions involved in this Romanisation (it seems to me that if Rome is that intolerant of difference, then putting Palmyrene or Hebrew or even to some extent Greek on your tombstone is quite definitely making some kind of statement of your membership of a different community instead/ as well – so then by contrast it becomes even more interesting that those three Jewish men had a completely traditionally Roman tombstone…)
    So anyway, I really enjoyed watching it – wonderful aerial shots of Rome and generally a lot of fun stuff to see – and like you, will be interested to see if the next two episodes redress the balance slightly!

    • Sorry it’s taken me so long to reply to this – I’ve been away etc. etc. excuses. Of course, I don’t have much to say, because I pretty much agree with you agreeing with me! What did you think about the second episode?

      • Sorry, it’s taken me even longer because I only just got round to watching the second episode – which I have to say felt a bit thin on content a lot of the time…I liked the part about the dentist’s shop in the Forum in particular, but most of the rest of the time it felt like there was an awful lot of ‘now we’re going to meet some REAL Romans’ and ‘there were poor people in Rome too, you know’ without all that much actually coming out of it except that, surprise surprise, Romans didn’t have running water in their apartments. Some things that I was quite interested in it would really have been nice to get more actual information about, like the map (where/when did it come from? do we know who had it made, and what for?) and that communal tomb (again, time period? what determined who was buried there? is this a common type of burial, or is this the only one?) I’m sure Roman archaeologists know these things, but most viewers aren’t Roman archaeologists! And in the end it still felt a bit too upbeat about everything – you might have fires and murders and people crammed into dark smelly insulae, but hey, aren’t Roman baths wonderful! Anyway, what did other people think – am I being unfair?

    • Hey Anna,
      This is actually a reply to your second comment, but for some reason it refuses to allow me to reply to that. I didn’t know whether you were saying that you felt people should be informed about certain things or whether you personally wanted to know, but thought I’d just reply anyway as I saw some of the things when I went on a BSR summer school.
      As I recall, the marble plan was originally in the Templum Pacis/Forum of Nerva bit of the Imperial Fora; I think it’s later than that part of the forum though (plus I kinda got it confused with Agrippa’s marble map of the Roman empire). They have bits of it up in a few sites around the city, I think, near where they were found. Some bits of it are in the ‘Auditorium of Maecenas’ near Termini; that’s actually run by a private company, but they do host concerts in there (which, running short of contacting them, is probably the best chance of seeing it…).
      As for the collective tomb, I think it’s a columbarium, and that people paid to be put in them, often in groups. One of the ones that we went into had the ancient equivalent of an orchestra, who had paid to be buried together. As for seeing them, the two that we visited were in the garden of an embassy (the Canadian, maybe?) and weren’t open to the public (I don’t know if you had to apply for a permit or whether they’d just been kind enough to let us in). In a way that was one of the good things about the programme, that it showed you things that are not very ‘open access’ (including Monte Testaccio).

      • Thanks James! I sort of meant both, really – I personally wanted to know and thought maybe other people would have as well! I’ve since found that there’s actually an online project about the map (from the same people who brought us ORBIS!) at (unfortunately not terribly user-friendly, at least for someone like me who just wants to browse the pictures!). Didn’t know any of that about the columbarium so thank you (this is making me really wish I’d done a BSR summer school). I totally agree that getting to see things like that and Monte Testaccio was a very good feature of the programme!

    • i don’t, but I imagine the BBC website will tell you (the first link in my post). And there’s always iPlayer…?

  2. Hi.. I hope you wanted me to reply. And first let me say that I am dead grateful for the constructive critique… and so… given that the author is always the best reviewer.

    My version is both crueller and more generous. Crueller? Well I think that too many people said “what she is saying is that Rome was a multicultural city just like London .. lefty stuff .. yawn yawn”. In fact we were trying to say that Rome was NOT like London in that respect.. but I guess we werent clear enough.

    Otherwise, I think that your critiques are good, but may be not fit for purpose. Remember that this is a series of 3 hour programmes on BBC 2 (nor BBC 4). My aims were pretty clear.. this is just a few:
    1) To show people that there was another Rome to get to know beyond the filmic upper classes

    2) To show that you COULD get to know those people — even if it meant getting face to face with some Latin (perhaps the bravest thing we did was look at some Latin as it really was)

    3) To show HOW people start to make sense of the ancient world from the evidence there is, without pretending that there aren’t problems

    4) To introduce people (engagingly) to some of the big controversies of the ancient world, eg how many children were exposed, how does that affect the emotional affect between kids and parents etc

    5) To show people sides of the ancient world most people dont know exist (only a handful of experts know about Monte Testaccio)

    Generally I think the idea was to show people HOW they might discover a different Rome. And the idea was not to be wrong, I am pretty unmoved by ‘post colonialism” in this context, because I think we were making an already unfamiliar point about multicuturalism.

    On slavery, we were trying to shake people out of their comfort zone, There is plenty of rough stuff in ep. 3.

    • Hi! It’s really nice to have your reply; this was more my reflections than anything else and I had no idea if you would have time to deal with it on top of all the other business going on with the programme, so I wasn’t expecting anything – though I imagined you might read it.

      I think you definitely made it clear that Rome was different in the way it dealt with mass immigration from London today, to start with your first point, but, from what I was watching, it seemed to me like there would have been fruitful comparison to draw from London of the mid/early twentieth century or the Victorian period – ie. when it too was the capital of an empire. I see now that it was a point about difference, but I kept wondering why you were using ‘new’ London as a point of reference rather than the more recent past, where similar issues came into play. I don’t think it would have been above your audience to get more deeply into that stuff, since (just for example) the BBC season on mixed-race Britain got into a lot of it quite recently, not to mention all the lived experience still around. Today we might be conscious of difference when we go to an Indian restaurant or Yo! Sushi (although, given the number of curries made up for the British market and things like ‘fusion sushi’ and green tea ice cream, it’s a fairly engineered difference), but what about when we wear pyjamas or use shampoo, or buy a beach towel with a pseudo-tribal print on it? I tend to understand post-colonialism as being conscious about how modern colonialism shapes and impacts today’s society; your modern London, it seemed to me, was enitrely a twenty-first century place, while your Rome was to be understood as somewhere entirely foreign, which I actually thought came across somewhat more comforting than not.

      As for your aims, I can see how you fulfilled them (and I completely agree about showing people Ostia, even if I have a feeling I first came across Monte Testaccio in the Rough Guide to Rome – then was miffed that there seemed to be no way for visitors to see it). In the series’ final realisation, however, I’m not sure it really comes across as a ‘how to’ programme so much as a documentary about the normal people of Rome, where you are taking us to meet them rather than showing us how to do it ourselves. Most viewers, after all, are not going to be able to read any tombstones that they seek out on the Via Appia. I had no real handle on where you were in Rome at any one time, apart from when you were in Trastavere and when I managed to catch the name of the museum you were in (which didn’t mean much to me as a museum illiterate). As a TV viewer I sort of expect ‘how to disover nice bits in Rome’ to be on a level of Indiana Jones-style red lines on a map; as a documentary, even on BBC2(!), I was hungry for it to provide a deeper, if only tentatively suggested, story about the Rome and the people you were showing me.

  3. Hey Fran,
    I really enjoyed the series, but I thought you raised some good points (despite this being an incredibly late response!). I think your point about epitaphs and the like being written in Greek or Arabic is especially intriguing, since there seems to have been some conceptions that the attention paid to these inscriptions and the reading of them lent them a ‘voice’ and some kind of vicarious life for the small time that the passerby stood there. So surely you’d want as many people to read the inscription as possible and therefore put it in Latin (in the West, at least, and especially in Italy; in the rest of the empire Greek would probably be preferable, I guess)? Putting it in Greek and Arabic may mean that you only want to live vicariously through a certain set of people with whom you identify; you don’t want any old person identifying with you.
    Having said that, I’m not really on side with the post-colonialism criticism. For many people, their ideas and knowledge about empire and slavery are very bound up with early-modern and modern instances of these, rather than the ancient, which we as Classicists are probably more familiar with than the modern ones in an intellectual sense. I think in some ways the programme seemed to be designed to present a radically different form and conception of slavery from the one that is more familiar to most people, and by doing so to show that, while both forms of slavery should be rejected, the reasons why we reject the more recent formulation of slavery do not all fit the ancient form of slavery. In fact, I thought the programme was quite good in simply trying to show the ‘otherness’ at times of certain cultural concepts in Rome from talking to non-Classicists; perhaps being familiar with these things, it doesn’t always hit us.
    My view of the treatment of the inscriptions is similar to yours to some extent, in that there were so many it sometimes lacked investment, though I think this was probably wiser for a mass audience and that it’s only Classicists who would prefer a rigorous and thorough analysis of the inscriptions. Having said that, it did seem that a few were taken at surface value: Julius Timotheus for instance being killed with all of his seven alumni is a bit fishy for random mass murder? If alumnus means ‘foster-child’ then seven is quite a lot; then all of them are killed? It seems to me that Julius Timotheus might have had a gang killed by rivals, and that alumni is a fudge by relatives who are painting him in a better light. Also, the ‘threesome’ of the liberta Allia Potestas was with iuvenes… are these youths taking advantage of an older woman of lower social status in a period of ludus/otium that they’ll be let off the hook for later? An odd detail not mentioned in the programme (understandably, I might add) was that they compare themselves to Orestes and Pylades- not exactly ideal for a relationship with a woman; are they boasting that they (accidentally) killed her with too much young, energetic sex? Perhaps that’s too ‘literary’ a reading. Then again it was probably a good decision to exclude details that would lead to endless humming and hawing, that might dilute the programme. At least it got me as a literature student thinking about inscriptions that I would probably never have seen otherwise.

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