Friday, 27 April 2012

Mary Beard on the Romans

When some new author or television presenter boasts that he or she will show us Antiquity as never before, usually there are two possibilities: one, that they're a crackpot; two, that they're about to present information that classicists have known for yonks but which the general public might still find surprising.  Mary Beard's new series on the Romans comes the closest I've ever seen to delivering on the initial promise. I'd seen a lot of the stuff she was presenting the other night, but some of it was delightfully new.

I've walked past that building next to the white marble wedding cake of the Victor Emanuel monument; I knew from the bricks it was ancient, but I hadn't realized it was an insula--a Roman apartment block.  I knew that the ground floor of an insula was the best place to live, and that the higher up you went the more uncomfortable it got--Juvenal had told me that--but I hadn't realized how small the upper rooms were.  Dr. Beard lay down on the dusty floor to show how little space the tenants must have had, and then suggested that whole families might have shared it--that perhaps a Roman woman had given birth there. With that image she brought a whole world to life.

Wonderful woman. Some of the commentators on the series have remarked on how great it is to see a middle-aged woman who isn't glamourous and who evidently cares much more about her subject than about her looks and her clothing, presenting a prime-time television series.  Yes.  It is is.  It's also great to see a proper classicist on the screen--particularly one from Newnham, my old college (Yay!) Dr Beard is heavily reliant on  epigraphy, which is one of the least glamourous--or at least, least televisual--of disciplines. In any museum the inscriptions are usually stacked up along the walls or in the basement, while the glamourous objects--statues, jewellery, weapons--take pride of place in the glass cases in the middle of the room.  Deciphering the things takes time and effort.  Usually they're fragmentary; always they're written without breaks between the words and often with unfamiliar letter forms or abbreviations.  They are not exciting things to look at.  I like them, but usually I skim them, picking up whatever I can get easily and abandoning the rest.

Of course, inscriptions tell you all sorts of things that objects can't: people's names, their occupations, what they cared about, how they died.  Scholars have been using them for years and years, but even to other scholars Inscriptiones Graecae Selectae is mostly dry as dust. It is to Mary Beard's credit that she can sift through this information and find just the bit that will connect to a wide audience and make the people come alive.  Oh, she exaggerates and sometimes over-eggs the pudding, but better eggy pudding than dust!  It's to the BBC's credit, too, that they've trusted her to make the stones speak, even if they do resort to gimmicks occasionally.

I don't want television much.  Actually, I suppose this is the only series I've watched this year.  Pity there aren't more like it!

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