Roman history made entertaining? Sexy even?
Cambridge Classics lecturer Professor Mary Beard has evidently done it, with her new program, Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, which premiered on BBC Two this week. The show, in three parts, promises and in-depth look at the Romans from the proletariat upwards and so far, appears to be a hit with viewers – all 1.9 million of them – and critics alike.
Beard introduces us to a Roman baker who made pots of money:
“Mary Beard. Now there’s a female role model,” tweeted author Andrea Gillies.
A truly multicultural city. It was very “entertaining,” said Isabel Mohan on The Telegraph. Beard pootled around Rome “on her bicycle” with “an infectious enthusiasm”, translated inscriptions into “modern and decidedly unstuffy terms” – “My babe from Carnuntum” being one; whilst “Mr Hot Sex” was another. Though Beard sometimes glossed over the “violence and political unrest,” Mohan claimed, the professor accurately emphasised that Rome was “the first truly multicultural city.”
A parent bird at the nest! There’s “no one else” that Lucy Mangan on The Guardian would rather meet the Romans with than the wonderful Professor Beard, who is among those beloved guides “so clearly, so comfortably and so thoroughly in command of their subject or specialism that they have nothing left to prove.” Such academics remind Mangan of “parent birds at the nest, regurgitating a lifetime’s work in soft, digestible pellets for the loudly cheeping audience eagerly craning their heads towards the screen.” Beard was on “top form.”
Let her speak for herself. Tom Sutcliffe on The Independent was less impressed with the BBC. The show exemplified “two current BBC vices”, he claimed: Making sure the talent is shoehorned into the title, “just in case we worry that we might be going to meet the Romans with someone we haven’t heard of”; and that “tediously repetitive teaser intro.” But, if you can get through that, you will get to the good stuff – “extended narrative and scholarly expertise.” Said Sutcliffe, “Note to the executive producer: why not just let her tell the story from the beginning? She’s really good at it. And you’re not.”
Pueri et puellae. Of all the reasons to love Beard, said Andrew Billen in The Times – “her gory locks, her little red raincoat, her abiding interest in sex” included – it’s her translations that win. She renders a racy line from Martial as “The Roman chick who has never had a Roman dick.” Her plan is to “undercut the pomposity” – and this she did. “Even if her point about Rome’s mix of cultures was slightly hard to grasp — a fellow historian unhelpfully told us that ‘there was cultural diversity but not a diversity of culture’ — this was such an original, vivid, citizen-level tour, you could practically hear the guys and puellae getting it together behind the pillars.”
What brings people together. If you’ve ever wondered what the “communal shitting habits” of the Romans were, said Jack Sharp on Channelhopping, then you’ll definitely find out from Beard. Beard’s presenting “does tend to grate at times,” but she manages to examine “the day to day workings of ancient Rome in a way that’s uniquely interesting and, dare I say, fun.” Noted Sharp, “The episode ends on a typically high-brow note, of course, as Mary reclines on a communal stone Roman toilet. ‘This is how we have to imagine the city,” she insists, “with everyone shitting together: tunics up, togas down, chatting as they went.’” And maybe, added Sharp, that’s why Rome was so diverse – all those people defecating together and having “a nice chat. It’s worth a think.”
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