Classics and pop culture / Reviews

BBC4’s “Treasures of Ancient Rome” – a review

Let no one say that Classics doesn’t get its fair share of TV documentaries! BBC4 is currently airing a three-parter written and presented by Alastair Sooke, who, in his day job, is an art critic for the Daily Telegraph. Episode one, which aired on Monday and is still on iplayer, opens with Sooke kayaking in front of the Pont du Gard. He’s on a mission, apparently: to debunk the idea that the Romans ‘didn’t “do” Art’.

It’s an odd way to begin. Within the fields of classics and art history, we’re all too familiar with the legacy of Winckelmann and the cult of the lost Greek original, and the fact that Roman art has historically been disparaged.  But it’s hardly academic consensus that the Romans ‘didn’t “do” Art’, let alone a prejudice deeply ingrained in the popular consciousness! It was an inauspicious opening, but once Sooke had got past the artificial controversy in a tea cup (presumably created for the press pack?) it was never mentioned again. and the episode turned out to be good fun, discussing Roman art from the Republican period (with a brief 10 minute nod to Augustus).

A large part of the episode focused on the craftsmanship behind the artworks, and this generated the most interesting parts of the episode. OK, hands up, I admit I massively enjoyed those bits of Time Team where, as a break from all the archaeology, Tony Robinson would be set to building a wattle-and-daub wall or an impossibly bearded man would demonstrate flint knapping. And ToAR takes a similar approach, visiting the Carrara marble quarry and a bronze sculptor’s studio, talking to contemporary artists like Antony Gormley, seeing how a Roman fresco painter would have made his paint (from powdered pigment and egg yolk, if you want to try it at home).  There are two beautiful time-capture sequences, where a bust of Cicero emerges from a block of Carrara marble, and the painted decoration on a head of Athena is recreated. We also get to see carbon-dating in action, at the lab where the Capitoline She-Wolf was shown to be younger by over a thousand years than its traditional dating.

Small car meets Roman pavement

Unfortunately ToAR suffers from coming quite closely on the heels of another series, Mary Beard’s Meet the Romansand it’s not quite in its predecessor’s league. At times the director seems to be almost parodying the style of MtR: generic shots of modern Romans going about their day-to-day business as the voice-over discusses their ancient predecessors, and a travel gimmick! Instead of MB’s bike, eminently suitable for pedalling up and down the Appian Way and around Rome’s narrow alleys, Sooke drives a vintage white Fiat 500, for no discernible reason.* Where Beard took us down the Appian Way on her bike to show us the funerary monuments, Sooke uses it as a route to reach Pompeii(!), and as he jokes, his Fiat nearly gives up on the bumpy Roman paving. (He appears in Pompeii sans Fiat, though I half expected to see him rev his way through the Forum.)

Sooke is an enthusiastic and informed presenter, and the episode works best when it plays to his strengths as an art critic; but when it comes to the history stuff, he is just a little… shaky. A few minutes could have been saved from *yawn* Pompeii’s alleged 35 brothels (the figure unquestioned here) and given to Augustus, who was squeezed in the 8 minutes at the end, and cast as a bad guy ‘secretly killing off the Republic’; the iconography of the Ara Pacis was discussed but not its purpose. And now I’m really nit-picking – and it would have made no difference to the non-classicist viewer – but we got “L” Junius Brutus, as J. Edgar Hoover, rather than Lucius Junius Brutus. Sooke has a tendency to make grand statements, exclaiming as he walks through the ruins how overwhelmed he is at the amount of art in Pompeii. Now, actually I’m sure most people’s impression when they visit Pompeii is ‘where’s all the stuff?’, most of it having been taken to the Museo Nazionale in Naples.

So, will I be watching episodes 2 and 3? Very likely yes. By focussing on the objects themselves, by and large, ToAR manages to bounce along rather more lightly than the poor white Fiat. (And the soundtrack gets an honourable mention, with echoes of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and less of the generic ethnic wailing women/flutes that have dogged TV and film about the ancient world since Gladiator). Perhaps in the later episodes I would like to hear a bit more about the market that generated the artworks, something Sooke mentions briefly in this episode: who commissioned them and how were they used? But seeing the art close up, or in the round, as the camera can do, is a real treat.

*OK, because it’s COOL. Honestly, I’m… not jealous… at all…


10 thoughts on “BBC4’s “Treasures of Ancient Rome” – a review

  1. Hmm! I wasn’t going to watch this, because the blurb on iPlayer made it sound like it was going to be awkward Bad Rambling about Verism, but how can I resist people making paint? I love that stuff. It’s like Playdays for the ancient world…

    • That’s good! I was a little worried after I posted the review that it was too negative – because I did enjoy watching the episode. But once I noticed the tropes it shared with Meet the Romans I couldn’t watch it in the same way. The shot of Modern Day Romans Walking Around is hilarious.

      (They don’t share a director, but it does share a director with Richard Miles’s Ancient Worlds. It makes me want to investigate documentary tropes now.)

      • Someone should do a documentary about how Roman modern Romans are – using shots of modern Romans…

  2. Oh dear… That was a bit too awkward for me with the feigned sense of discovery and LOOK IT’S SCIENCE, so I had to skip quite a lot. Tony Robinson really does make it look easy, doesn’t he? Still, I could have had a lot more of the artist blokes (even if I did feel sorry for the sculptor when his two month’s work got no more reaction than ‘… Oh.’) – and I did like the music a lot. It seemed strangely familiar on a number of occasions, but I’m not sure what from.

    • Yeah! The bit with the bronze sculptor was REALLY AWKWARD. Still, I’m not sure how I would react to seeing my head in bronze…

  3. The Alexander Mosaic – do you think the presenter ought to have mentioned that the moasic was a copy of a Greek original? Would that have made a difference to viewing it as a piece of original art-or as to show merely how good Romans were at making fine mosaics?

    • Yeah, it’s an interesting point isn’t it? Oddly enough, the thing I noticed at the time was that he didn’t mention that the Faun in the House was a modern replica…
      My personal feeling is that he was right, in the case of both the mosaic and the faun, not to get bogged down in the issue. The fact that the AM is probably a copy would have been a good way into a discussion about the prestige of the picture and the intentions of the house’s owners… but in a programme aimed at a general audience he just didn’t have time.

      Even with an academic hat on, I feel that worrying about the putative original is a bit of a red herring. Regardless of whether there is a phantom Greek painting lurking somewhere in the mosaic’s history, it’s still a phenomenal piece of art in its own right. More fruitful I think to consider it as a Roman creation in a Roman context (with it perhaps being a copy as just one aspect of that) than to worry overmuch about the provenance of the composition.

      Did you feel that he wrongly avoided the issue? It was a bit odd that, given that he decided to set up this ideological stance at the beginning (when it was already a debate that the general audience wasn’t really aware of), that he then didn’t mention the issue of Greek originals which played such a massive part in creating that idea about Roman art in the first place!

      • I entirely agree with your position on this matter. I suppose I haven’t given enough credit to the presenter having to make certain sacrifices over detail due to the fact it is only a 3 part series!
        Having said, I get rather confused as to what would constitute original Roman art. The AM as a mosaic is fine and beautiful (I love it) but as I have said before, how typical is it as an example of original Roman art? I liked the artist who reproduced the art using original paints-how would that be viewed as original art ?I admire his work in reproducing it-but it is a copy-The AM should be viewed in a similar way ie that Roman Mosaic work was spectacular- but describing the feelings, emotions and positions of the characters in the picture-well, they were there already in the original?

        I do hope you see what I mean and apologise for drifting about on the subject-but I just want to see what proper experts on the subject feel about it so that I too can form an opinion!

  4. I thought your review was very fair and I much enjoyed your comments/comparisons with MtR!
    In general, I wonder whether the grand statements about things expressed throughout the episode(s?) (‘It’s absolutely stunning’, ‘incredible!’, ‘amazing!’ etc) is somewhat characteristic to this kind of popularising series in BBC (i.e. you need to tell people who don’t know about stuff how they should react when they’re presented with this information? It might be, of course, that these statements are meant to give the viewer a chance to relax and take a step back from the ‘academic stuff’?). I remember it was fairly similar in another popular series, ‘The history of art in three colours’, where the presenter James Fox was often overwhelmed, had to sigh and confess how ‘amazing!’, ‘absolutely wonderful!’ the artworks/history of art/etc are.. And the same seems to apply to their overly dramatic and grand epic-like music selection.

    • Glad you enjoyed the review!

      Yeah I think you’re probably right, there’s an element of that. And there’s nothing wrong with the presenter being enthusiastic! It was just particularly striking that he was expressing his astonishment about the art at Pompeii while walking through the ruins without a fresco in sight. It didn’t make it very clear that all the precious stuff has been moved to Naples, and was a bit misleading if you hadn’t actually been to Pompeii. I was nitpicking though ;)

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