Credit: BBCMemento mori: Mary Beard at the tomb of Sulpicius Maximus
“There’s still a sort of I, Claudius vision of the ancient world,” says Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, “with very specific exceptions - gladiators are in a class of their own. They are the glamorous excluded other, and fulfil the same function in contemporary culture as they did then. But by and large, if you ask people to think of Rome, it will be marble columns, people lying down, scantily clad, eating grapes and drinking industrial quantities of Falernian wine, guys in the forum being a bit boring, clad in togas and holding their hands up. Or it will be soldiers going out and conquering the poor bloody natives.”
“It’s always larger than life - the sex is bigger than ours, the nakedness is bigger than ours, the luxury is bigger than ours. It’s a magnifying-glass vision of the ancient world.”
For her new three-part television series, Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (which began this week and continues on BBC2 on Tuesday evenings), she was determined to put the emphasis elsewhere. She wanted to play down what she calls “the blokeish side” of antiquity and “to challenge the preconception that the only people we can know about are the rich, the generals. Most Romans lived in high-rise apartment blocks, but thousands of tourists walk past the one just outside the Capitoline every day without realising. And many tombstones are very vivid in telling the stories of ordinary people’s lives.”
Filmed largely during vacations over a period of six weeks, the programmes were recorded extempore rather than scripted, trading immediacy for the risk of a howler slipping through.
“The important thing,” in Beard’s view, “is say things which are not wrong. With the ancient world, there aren’t going to be many agreed right answers. If you get hung up on what’s right, you’ll never be able to say anything.
“I want to share the excitement of what we know about ancient Rome, but also all the questions of how we know what we know. One strand of popularising Classics I don’t like is where the public are assumed not to want to worry their little heads with the problems. But people like to see the workings, how we know what we know.”
The series makes much use of neglected but often publicly accessible corners of Rome and Pompeii, most memorably the communal lavatory where Beard offers us a cheerful vision of “everyone shitting together, tunics up, togas up, trousers down, chatting as they went”. She uncovers the stories behind the amulets left with exposed children; an ingeniously jointed and fashionably coiffed ivory doll; the slave’s collar bearing the words “Bring me back to my master and you’ll get a solidus”; the “sofa-bed”, tiny wicker basket and single surviving cradle, found at Herculaneum with a skeleton, leaves and fragments of fabric. There is also an object Beard imagines “every woman will recognise as a speculum, though it went into bodies which were understood quite differently from ours”.
Rather more surprising is the focus on tombstones. One of the driest and dustiest monuments of classical scholarship is the Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum, a series of volumes bringing together the thousands of inscriptions from the Roman world known in the late 19th century. It can’t have been much fun to compile, but the sheer drudgery has a created an extraordinary resource, full of fascinating insights into social history as well as poignant and startling individual vignettes.
Many inhabitants of the world’s first cosmopolitan consumer city identified themselves on their tombs by profession - as pearl-seller, goldsmith, purple dyer or female fishmonger - although Beard also finds an example where the deceased calls himself the Latin equivalent of “Mr Hot Sex”. Another is devoted to a 16-year-old girl thrown into the Tiber by her husband, a third to a former gladiator (“an Egyptian dressing up as a Thracian warrior and then retiring as a suburban Roman”).
Most striking of all is a funerary inscription to a woman which disconcertingly starts talking about her snow-white breasts, small nipples and skills as a depilator - before explaining that she spent her life with two men as part of a harmonious ménage à trois.
There are also, of course, many tombstones celebrating long marriages never darkened by a single quarrel that Beard suggests would be absurd to take at face value, adding “I don’t think it’s qualitatively different working out what’s going on in the ancient world and working out what’s going on in the house up the road. Do you believe what they are telling you? No, but it’s all you’ve got.”
Beard calls herself “one of the world’s keenest classicists”. She first became interested by going to the British Museum and then developed a passion for Romano-British archaeology, “partly as a way of escaping Mum and Dad over the summer”, and remains grateful that she is operating within a wide-ranging discipline that has given her “the chance to write about Ciceronian speech, smutty wall paintings, Roman laughter, images of emperors in Renaissance and later art, the Parthenon, the Triumph. It is a subject which has retained its own interdisciplinarity.”
Long concerned to get beyond the “elitist image” of the Classics as “done by toffs about toffs and for toffs”, Beard has been highly successful in making the ancient world seem interesting and important both through television and in books such as The Colosseum, The Parthenon, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town and The Roman Triumph, which combine rigorous attempts to reconstruct the past with shrewd analysis of how it is constantly being reimagined to satisfy the needs of different generations. But although the programmes acknowledge that ancient Rome “is still all around us - in our roads, laws and architecture”, they avoid making any claims for its particular interest or value. With the Classics widely seen to be under threat, don’t we need something more?
“One side of me thinks that classicists have always moaned about being under threat,” Beard replies. “People were saying it was dying out in 1880, and probably in 1780 too. It is, by definition, a slightly nostalgic subject which has always seen a need to defend itself. It has got a thriving community of communicators which depends on having always felt slightly threatened. It would be stupid and ostrich-like, particularly now, to be complacent about any arts discipline, but when I go round talking, I don’t notice a lack of interest in the Classics.”
Furthermore, she adds, “all the humanities tend to lose out” when they start competing about which is most valuable, since “in reality they are supportive of one another. Some of the most interesting stuff going on now is thinking cross-culturally about the nature of imperialism and comparing, for example, its Roman and Chinese forms. The point about universities is in the name: you study one subject in the context of other people studying other subjects.”
In the meantime, Beard - who defines herself not as “a television presenter” but as “a professor of bloody Classics, who does a bit of telly” - will be happy if her programmes “demonstrate that we are still interested in ancient Rome, as I think we are, that we can talk about it other than to a niche market of the already converted, and that it can still mean something”.