Reflections on Episode 1 of Mary Beard’s ‘Meet the Romans’

For my birthday 10 months ago, my in-laws gave me The Romans Box Set, presented by Mary Beard. This morning I watched the first episode of Meet the Romans (which I’ve mentioned before).* I have a few reflections that follow my viewing of this documentary.

First, Monte Testaccio is amazing. I think it was the most startling new thing I learned about in the episode. Monte Testaccio is a hill made entirely out of broken olive oil pots. No joke. Olive oil seeps into the terracotta and thus these jars, amphorae, etc., are useless after the oil is gone. And would go rancid. So the Romans would break them up into bits and discard them on this heap that became an actual hill. Here it is:

Photo from rometour.org

Photo from archaeospain.com

These potsherds apparently come largely from Spain. Very cool.

Instead of looking at the classic Monty Python, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?‘, Prof Beard was looking at what the Empire did for Rome. Thus — olive oil from Spain. Indeed, the Empire supplied Rome, with goods coming from around the Roman world, from Spanish olive oil to Tyrian (modern Lebanon) purple dye.

A salutary move Prof Beard makes in this documentary is to seek to present a balanced view of the Roman Empire and the Roman system. She observes that the Romans were not a master race out to conquer and tame the world, but in fact a bunch of people of diverse origins who become Roman.

Previously, say a century ago, the Romans were viewed as a bunch of British aristocrats in togas out to civilise the world. More recently, they have been viewed through post-colonial eyes as simply an exploitative system out to grab whatever they can. This is not to deny the exploitative elements of Roman rule — they are real — but to see the subtleties such a view ignores in its attempts to be current and its inability to see ancient empire as a phenomenon distinct from modern European empire/colonialism.

Beard avoids these two extremes. As a good scholar should.

What made a Roman, despite the official and powerful draw of tradition, was ever changing and ever shifting. The empire contributed to this, as people from everywhere came to the city. Some came as slaves, some as immigrants, some as gladiators. Some became citizens. They have left behind their mark in tombstones found throughout the archaeology of the city.

This image of Romans assimilating new persons and peoples, of Roman culture, while not being interested in diversity, still being subtly changed by contact with cultural diversity, is vital to unravelling the course of Roman culture, and it is part of the heart of Roman success as an empire. I cannot help but think of Romulus’ legendary band of brigands stealing themselves wives, or the more historical process of people like Cicero and Pliny the Younger becoming as Roman as anyone.

One of the powerful facts Greg Woolf demonstrates in his book Rome: An Empire’s Story is that Rome’s is about the only ancient empire that goes from a conquest mode and settles down to some form of lasting stability. This is a good point — Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue in Daniel 2 may see the Medes and Persians as lesser than the Babylonians, but this staying power of Roman imperium must surely make Rome greater (feet of clay notwithstanding).

I don’t recall (sorry!) if Woolf makes this point, but is it not this changeability that makes Rome successful? Rather than keeping foreigners at a distance, as a city like Athens did, Rome made citizenship attainable and desirable. This meant that the composition of its citizenry was always changing, and an ‘ancient’ family of Late Antiquity may not have even been around before Augustus. It meant that Hadrian from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa could become Emperor. It meant that, despite Augustine’s uneasiness about his own African accent, Augustine and Tertullian are about as Roman as it gets. It meant that fifth-century Berbers identified themselves Romans in the face of an occupying force of Vandals.

The story of Rome, its impact on the world, and the world’s impact on Rome is a fascinating one. I am glad for scholars like Mary Beard who are able to bring it to a wider audience, bringing knowledge and interest down from the ivory tower and into our televisions and living rooms.

*The set also includes Caligula and Pompeii: LIfe & Death in a Roman Town.

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