Mary Beard is Everywhere!

This is one of those posts that has been on the backburner for a while because things just kept coming up, both on my side of the keyboard and Mary Beard’s, so I better get this out before it becomes a book unto itself. In any event, obviously in conjunction with her very interesting (from what I’ve seen, despite the fact that BBC’s iPlayer doesn’t have it here in Canada even if you pay the subscription fee) documentary series Meet the Romans, Mary Beard has been all over the interwebs talking about all sorts of interesting things. We’ll excerpt them below:

An item in the BBC commenting on the tombstone and inscription of a lad named Quintus Sulpicius Maximus (this is just the incipit; the original article also includes a photo of the monument and a video link or two):

In 94 AD young Quintus Sulpicius Maximus died.

A Roman lad who lived just 11 years, five months and 12 days, he had recently taken part in a grown-up poetry competition, a sort of Rome’s Got Talent. He had composed and performed a long poem in Greek.

And, though he hadn’t actually won, everyone agreed that he had done amazingly well for his age. The sad thing was that only a few months later he dropped down dead.

We know this because his tombstone still survives, put up by his grieving mum and dad. There’s a little statue of him in the middle, dressed up in his toga, and his poem is carved all over the stone – so everyone would know how brilliant it was.

How had he died? As his parents explain, he had collapsed from too much hard work.
Continue reading the main story

So was little Sulpicius a prodigy, snatched by death from a waiting public? Or was he the victim of some very pushy parents – like all those modern kids drilled by their dad in maths, so they can grab the headlines by getting an A-level when they are six.

Who knows? But my bet is that this is a nasty case of the “pushy parent syndrome”. In fact, this Roman family reminds us of one universal lesson of parenting – it’s a good idea to give the kids a break from time to time.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on Sulpicius’ mum and dad. Even more than we do today, ordinary Romans invested in their children.

The grieving couple who put up this memorial to their child were ex-slaves. Freed by their owner, they now had to fend for themselves. A celebrity poet in the family would certainly have done wonders for their finances.

And at a less glamorous level, in a world without pensions or social security, they really needed some children to look after them in old age. Not too many of them though, or else – almost as expensive 2,000 years ago as they are now – they’d eat them out of house and home.

This was a calculation that most Romans found hard to get right. There was no such thing in the ancient world as reliable family planning. […]

Then we had a short excerpt from the second episode, just dripping with social history goodness:

In another video, she was talking about gladiators and was showing off (and almost donning … pun intended) a very nice helmet:

She did a History Extra Podcast for BBC Magazine (her segment is at the beginning after all the intro fluff) …

In another video, she shows us some items found in Herculaneum:

Then she did an interview with the Staffordshire Sentinel about Roman bathing and the like:

“THE Romans are dead,” says Mary Beard, above, “but they can still speak to us.”

A bit like the Liberal Democrats.

A world away from Russell Crowe and Frankie Howerd, Professor Beard’s series aims to show us what life for the average Roman was really like. “There’s an old saying,” she said. “If you want

to understand a culture, look to its lavatories.”

It’s to be hoped she never sees the ones at Hanley bus station.

“For ordinary Romans,” she explained, sat in, and on, a Roman communal toilet, “what we do in private used to be a far more public affair, everyone sitting together, tunics up, togas up, trousers down, chatting as they went.” Our street are thinking of doing the same. We’ve just got to square it with Severn Trent.

The reason Romans had communal lavatories was because they did everything – eat, wash, toilet themselves – outside the house. They only came home to sleep. In many ways they set the template for the modern teenager.

After a hard day watching a lion consume an ill-favoured eunuch, the public baths were another favoured destination. “Most Romans,” said Beard, “went to the public baths to wash and let it all hang out.” Good fun until you trap something in a cubicle door.

“Some baths were the size of small towns,” she continued. “Not just places to sweat and steam, but with stalls for food and maybe a bit of sex on the side.” You don’t get that at Dimensions.

“These were rough noisy places,” she went on, “full of grunting gym goers, men getting their armpits plucked, and loitering thieves.”

It will be similar at this summer’s Olympic Village.

“The baths were a great social leveller,” said Beard. “Imagine, everybody’s here in the nude. It’s then that the poor man aged 20 with a great body can turn the tables on the 60-year-old Roman plutocrat with the paunch and the hernia.”

You might not be 20, but you can get a similar feeling by stripping to the waist and walking past an old people’s home.

Unlike the British, a race who are generally happy with a bag of Maltesers and Countdown, the Romans were a people who revelled in luxury. “Baths, wine and sex ruin your body,” said one, “but they’re what makes life worth living.”

Although doing all three at once can be tricky if you’re at the tap end.

After a soak, meanwhile, a Roman would often fancy refreshment. “The ancient Roman bar,” revealed Beard, “ranged from seedy dens and strip joints to modern gastro pubs.”

Now that’s what I call a Cultural Quarter.

Now despite all this amazing information and clearly professional presentation, some proto-shallow-hallish-spawn-of-the-tanning-salon/critic-who’s-so-posh-he-doesn’t-even-have-a-first-name-but-just-a -pair-of-dittoed-initials took Dr Beard to task for not meeting his aesthetic standards, apparently (I have not been able to find AA Gill’s original column, by the way) … the responses from others have been swift:

… to name but three. Dr Beard herself wrote a lengthy piece in the Daily Mail, which culminated in an invitation:

[…] First, I’d like to invite him to a tutorial in my study at Cambridge and ask him to justify and substantiate his opinions. We could talk them through. Possibly then he would learn a little about the crass assumptions he’s making and why they don’t amount to anything more.

Next, for my Roman-style revenge on Gill, I’d force him to watch each of my programmes from start to finish. And to ensure he did so with appropriate diligence, I’d ask Clare to be on hand to enforce the penalty.

And as Gill is also a food critic —and I’m certain there is a veritable battalion of angry chefs and restaurateurs who would gladly volunteer to help with this bit — I’d force-feed him, like a goose destined for pate de foie gras, his least favourite dishes, while he sat and learned about the Romans.

And then we’d talk about them — and I mean about their substance, not just about my lack of lipgloss.

I do wonder, if he met me face to face, would he be prepared to reiterate the insults he has heaped on me in print? Somehow I doubt if he would have the guts.

I am often asked to review books in newspapers and I always make it a rule never to write anything critical in a review that I would not be prepared to repeat to the author face-to-face — a basic tenet of responsible journalism.

And I ask only one thing of anyone who chooses to condemn me for not quite living up to the stereotype Botoxed blonde Gill seems to want me to become: see my programmes for yourself and decide if it is worth investing your time in watching me, even with my grey hair, double chin and wrinkles.

… well done Dr Beard … on all of the above.

This Day in Ancient History: ante diem vi kalendas maias

Marcus Aurelius, emperor over the last generat...
Marcus Aurelius, emperor over the last generation of classicists and himself a classicist. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)