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Meet The Romans - and not just the toffs

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Mary Beard Mary Beard | 09:40 UK time, Monday, 23 April 2012

Making Meet The Romans has been one of the most fun things I've ever done.

It's been extraordinarily hard work (don't think making a documentary series is very glam!) but it has let me share some of the things I do in my day job as a Cambridge classics professor with a much wider audience.

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Mary shows us an ancient Roman communal tomb

So, what do I try to get over to my students?

First that ordinary Romans are just as interesting as the toffs - the generals and emperors - and that there is still loads that we can find out about them.

They really come alive again if you take the trouble to listen to what they have to say.

Secondly that they were in some ways just like us.

I love the story of Allia Potestas, the ex-slave who was living with two blokes - the tombstone says that she was always up first and went to bed last (the woman doing the housework as ever).

And yet in some ways they were utterly different. Just think, for example, of all those communal loos.

That makes the Romans really interesting to try to get to know.

Mary Beard on the communal loos at Ostia near Rome in Meet the Romans

Mary Beard on the communal loo at Ostia near Rome in episode two

But it also shines the spotlight back on ourselves and on some of the things that we take for granted without much thinking about.

Your average ancient Roman would be gob-smacked for example at the way we separate our children off from the adult world, with their special food and clothes and books.

No turkey twizzlers in ancient Rome (and that's not just because the Romans didn't have turkeys)!

It's almost impossible to pick a favourite bit of the series.

But I don't think I shall ever forget unpacking the almost 100 teeth found in the drain of a dentist's shop in the Forum. Every one had clearly been extracted, and every one was rotten to the core. Just think of the pain.

And the ancient Roman bar-keeper who called himself Calidius Eroticus ('Mr Hot Sex') has made a pretty indelible impression too.

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Mary introduces us to a resident of ancient Rome - the baker

And what was I particularly sad didn't in the end make the cut? Again it's hard to say.

But I had really enjoyed going underground to explore Rome's Great Drain (it's still in use and we all had to be togged up in masks and germ-proof outfits).

And I learnt a lot when we actually made up some of the weird potions that the Romans recommended as contraceptives!

Mary Beard is the presenter of Meet The Romans.

Meet The Romans continues on Tuesday, 24 April at 9pm on BBC Two and BBC HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Brilliant first episode, looking forward to tomorrow night.

  • Comment number 2.

    Brilliant,more please. Especialy translating the Latin script which is fascinating.

  • Comment number 3.

    Superb production and Mary makes it easily understood, fantastic stuff Mary and thanks to the BBC too.

  • Comment number 4.

    I unexpectedly loved this woman. Clear, ordinary, but engaging and casually brilliant. Plus she looks ridiculous in a cycle helmet which is more or less exactly what I want from tv presenters! That... And knowing what they are talking about, of course! Marvellous- more Mary please.

  • Comment number 5.

    I love Mary Beard and thank God that a woman with a brain is still valued! It's all about credibility folks or else we have blond bimbos reading from scripts written by.......yes you guessed it..... Mary Beard!!!! I know what I want and I am an overweight Scottish Classicist!

  • Comment number 6.

    We need more of this type of programme. Interesting, witty and intelligent. Please Mary, do more!

  • Comment number 7.

    What a fantastic Prof. Make Rome clear to even a dumb person like me.

  • Comment number 8.

    Just watched 2nd episode. Surprised you tried to play tiddly-winks in what was clearly a MANCALA board cut into the stone pavement.
    The Roman Army "collected" betting games from all round the empire, and mancala or variations thereof were rife all over North Africa and the near and middle-east.

  • Comment number 9.

    Excellent programme, I love it! Ancient History is not appreciated enough by the younger generation. I only wish I can be like Mary when I'm older, she is definitely one of my idols!

  • Comment number 10.

    Wonderful programme. Wonderful presenter. Vicrollo beat me to the punch though! Surely, possibly, mustively, the carefully carved out dips in the slab are for the stone game 'Mancala' from Africa! Have only myself and Vicrollo read Bell's very important work on board games? And, in passing, the Falco novels of Lindsey Davis are quite good if you are interested in the Roman era...felicitas!

  • Comment number 11.

    Fantastic series. Mary Beard has really bought the Romans to life for me. She speaks in such an intelligent and witty way, which makes it easy for the average person relate. Even my boys (age 11 and 12) enjoyed it, especially the toilet scenes tonight and as they normally disappear when I watch history programmes, this is quite an achievment. Well done BBC and Mary.... more like this please.

  • Comment number 12.

    Nonjudgmental and factual - a refreshing change. For a change I was not swearing my head off at the Anglo-Saxon bias of the presenter. Instead I was listening to the narrative. Well done and well presented.

  • Comment number 13.

    Mary Beard is superb, such passion for her subject. What I would give to accompany her on a walk Rome or Pompeii! Hopefully the BBC will commissioning more from her in the future.

  • Comment number 14.

    This series is brilliant, thought provoking, addictive and definitely made all the better by such a wonderful character as Mary Beard. She brings Rome to life as a city of people not just it's history. More please!!!

  • Comment number 15.

    Absolutely brilliant! Mary is just great! Engaging, interesting, very knowledgeable and funny. Well done BBC and Mary Beard for a great mini series, more please! I don't usually comment on programmes but this was just soooo good that I felt I had to.

  • Comment number 16.

    Loving this programme, its really 'general public' and although I am an academic I enjoy both the subject and style of presentaion. Mary Beard is wonderful, obviously enjoys the Romans and life! Good for Mary, well done again B.B.C. Thank you

  • Comment number 17.

    Was the site of the narrow Roman Streets (on the Celian Hill?) filmed beneath SS Giovanni e Paolo?

  • Comment number 18.

    What a fantastic program! The enthusiasm Mary effortlessly conveys about ordinary Romans is infectious and all too rare. Get here on the television more often!

  • Comment number 19.

    Thanks Mary the Romans are no more letters on a dusty page.I want to go to Rome

  • Comment number 20.

    Mary I think your Meet the Romans seris is absolutely fantastic. This is the way history should be, not toffs as you say but ordinary people in everyday life. You are a great presenter and I sincerely hope we have the opportunity to see much more of you on tv.

  • Comment number 21.

    This series is fascinating and Mary conveys her enthusiasm and knowledge really well - if I go to Rome I want Mary as a guide! so much more interesting learning about the 'ordinary' people. Hope we see more of Mary - please!

  • Comment number 22.

    We are loving this series - absolutely brilliant. Mary is a fantastic presenter, making the ordinary Roman life easy to understand for us ordinary folk.

  • Comment number 23.

    Really pleased that people have liked the programmes. Let me answer a couple of questions. Yes the narrow Roman streets in the last episode WERE under the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo (it's open to the public.. google "case romane al celio").
    On the board game... I know the mancala idea, and you may well be right. But having read vast amounts on all these different games, I came away a bit of a sceptic on being able to firmly identify any!

  • Comment number 24.

    Wonderful programme- terrific insight to the everyday activities / folk not normally seen on guided tours.Perfect presenter! JH

  • Comment number 25.

    This is a really fascinating series with a superb presenter in Mary Beard who tells it as it is and brings the people of Ancient Rome to life. There have been plenty of programmes on Emporers and the ruling class - but this is about the often forgotten ones. Oh that Mary had been our guide at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many thanks Mary - looking forward to the rest of the series.

  • Comment number 26.

    If MB follows this blog perhaps she might develop the Rome was not 'multi-cultural' as we know it or words to that effect, made in discussion with Greg Woolf.

    Could you point to some articles or texts to follow up this comment? I recognise there are several views here on Romanisation and Citizens and whilst agreeing it was not 'multi-cultural as 'we' know it but I am unsure as to the specific alternatives implied, from what I recall it seemed to imply an homogeneity of sorts. Thanks

  • Comment number 27.

    Excellent series, but I'm surprised Mary Beard didn't know what the water channel in the toilets was for. She must have visited Hadrian's Wall and seen the toilets at the Housesteads Roman Fort. The channel was for rinsing out one's bottom-wiping sponge.

  • Comment number 28.

    Great series from a 'REAL' expert rather than a dolly bird reading from a script.

    Senefelder, I think she knew that just just trying to get people thinking.

  • Comment number 29.

    @senefelder It is perfectly possible that it was as you say (likely maybe); but the truth is that these structures have been restored, often in such a way to obscure how such details work. So we really cant be certain (and yes den2, I was trying to get people thinking!)
    @davedevalle In someways I think that one might compare Rome's version of "multi-culturalism" more to the French than the British. But even that might over simplify a bit. I dont know of much specifically directed to what Greg Woolf and I were discussing. But there is some stuff in a collection of essays, Cosmopolis, ed by Woolf and Edwards

  • Comment number 30.

    I whole heartedly agree with all the above comments about Mary. This morning it seems some personage has written in a newspaper that TV does not need presenters who look like Mary......RUBBISH!!!!! What we need is MORE presenters like Mary who love their subjects and infect others with their enthusiasm. Who cares if Mary looks like any woman you would meet walking down the street and not some underfed overmade up twenty year old with silicon enhancements. I want to hear what Mary has to SAY not what she looks like and by the way I think she looks great because her eyes are filled with that love of life and the sheer joy she takes in talking about something she loves and I also agree with her in that it is much more interesting to learn about REAL people and not just the rich and famous. I want more like this. Maybe if we had people like Mary in our schools history would actually mean something to young people.

  • Comment number 31.

    Brilliant programme - reflected exactly my impression of Rome on a recent visit.
    A couple of suggestions:
    1. Could the programme website provide a list of featured locations, giving the names of the sites such that they can be identified in a guidebook on or the web? For example, where were the multi-storey tombs?
    2. I suggest that the website lists some recommended guidebooks for exploring the sites. For example, in Rome (at the bookshop at Argentina) I found the excellent "Rome - An Oxford Archaelogical Guide" by Amanda Claridge, which lists pretty much every one of the huge number of sites, and which, while academically accurate, is very readable. Armed with the book, you can identify the remains that you come across as you roam the streets. The MIchelin guide is also not bad, but the regular tourist guidebooks just can't list everything.

    As Mary describes, many of the most fascinating sites are those off the beaten tourist track. So near the crowds at the Trevi Fountain is Roman block of flats that you can visit in the basement of a modern office block (at Cinema Trevi), where we were almost the only visitors. And the book gives you all the detail on the big sites - eg revealing that the Pantheon held the record for the largest concrete span in the world until 1958, when a larger oe was built in Paris.

  • Comment number 32.

    A wonderful and illuminating series and brilliantly presented.

    I wondered how much in common the lives of the ordinary Romans had in common with the people of large Third World cities? Having worked in various developing countries, it seemed to me that the day-to-day lives of the lower income Romans had a lot in common with the who lived in favelas and similar in Manila, Mexico City - or even Lagos. Of course, 2,000 years ago Rome was the cultural leader in the non-Chinese world, which makes a difference, but maybe not that much.

    Looking forward with great anticipation to the third (and sadly last) episode.

  • Comment number 33.

    Wonderful series,we've just come back from the maratona di roma and passed by those housing blocks by the viatorio emanuelle my colleagues were cursing me cause it is up a hill (day after the marathon),my daughter wants Mary to do the Tudors next??

  • Comment number 34.

    Meet the Romans and Prof Beard are brill! However, the 2nd programme did not give the name of the ancient roman communal tomb (columbarium) Prof Beard visited - can anyone help on this? - I would love to see it next time I'm in Rome!

  • Comment number 35.

    Mary, you are great - you say that the Romans are talking to us down through the ages but that's only because you brought them back to life! Fantastic programmes, thank you!

  • Comment number 36.

    I concure with everything that most people have said her, the programmes have been fascinating and absorbing and the presentation first rate, far from dry and dusty, these programmes have bought life to a long dead culture and I am far more intersted in the lives of ordinary people than I am about the emperors and generals.

    "She must have visited Hadrian's Wall and seen the toilets at the Housesteads Roman Fort. The channel was for rinsing out one's bottom-wiping sponge."

    If that it true then that is absolutely gross. It would mean that the persona sitting at the end of the channel would be rinsing his or her sponge out in water contaminated by all those sitting above.

  • Comment number 37.

    Mary, if I had my time again, I would wish to come back as one of your classics students. The way you put over the facts is fascinating, fun and so effortlessly presented, that it gives me the greatest pleasure to watch and learn. Other projects in the pipeline from you I hope!!

  • Comment number 38.

    1st episode. Lusitania is where Portugal is not Spain
    Iberic Peninsula which includes Portugal and Spain, not only Spain please lady get your facts right

  • Comment number 39.

    Why did you seem so disgusted that a Roman marriage of a girl aged 12 should have been consummated? In England, the age of consent was 12 or 13 until 1885. Less than 1000 years ago, girls were married as soon as they reached puberty. We now use 16 as our line in the sand, but it is purely arbitary and was selected without any rhyme or reason ... wasn't it?

  • Comment number 40.

    Wow I absolutley loved that series and also loved the engaging way Mary Beard told the Roman tales of past. I want more, more please do another there must be so much more to tell don't stop xx

  • Comment number 41.

    Just wanted to feed back about the programme: Excellent telly and brilliant presenting from Prof Mary Beard - lively, engaging and accessable. Perfect. More please.

  • Comment number 42.

    Thanks Mary for a brilliant series. Roman history is fascinating but you brought a completely new and exciting persepctive to me. I find it just amazing that we can see housing blocks and understand how they might have lived.. not to mention who the ordinary Roman people were. I do hope you get to do a second series.

  • Comment number 43.

    We have watched this programme with Mary Beard with great enjoyment not only for the content, but for Mary's great presentation! Here's hoping the BBC will have future programmes with this amazing lady making history come to life!

  • Comment number 44.

    Thank you for wonderful programme, you are a great presenter.

  • Comment number 45.

    Brilliant presentation, marvellous humour, fresh approach, fantastic. Let's have more of Mary Beard as a presenter ... she is refreshing and engaging. Brilliant.

  • Comment number 46.

    Mary Beard- accessible, fun...utterly brilliant!!

  • Comment number 47.

    Brilliant series. Mary Beard is a star. Thanks.

  • Comment number 48.

    Loved the series. Thank you Mary.

  • Comment number 49.

    Just finished watching Part 3. This was a totally absorbing programme, I wish Mary had been my guide when I visited. Hopefully this could be made into an educational DVD and made available to Classics Departments in schools where Latin is studied.
    Absorbing and interesting.

  • Comment number 50.

    Please, can we have another (longer?) series from Mary. Superb.

  • Comment number 51.

    Why has this series been taken of the IPlayer. I was half way through watching episode 2.

  • Comment number 52.

    this is amazing!!!! 3 episodes is not enough, make more!!!!

  • Comment number 53.

    I agree with David Shenfield who wrote:
    "Why has this series been taken of the IPlayer. I was half way through watching episode 2".
    Unfortunately so was I!
    The real annoying thing is, there is never any explanation as to why this happens or never any advanced notice, which leaves viewers really frustrated.
    The same thing happened with series 1 of 'The Killing'.
    Come on BBC get your act together!
    On a plus note this is one of the best documentaries I have seen in ages, Beared's delivery is intelligent and entertaining. She needs a second series, and when she does please keep it on iplayer for at last a week!

  • Comment number 54.

    Hi everyone

    Thanks again for all your comments.

    Karen #34 and js27kr #31 - sorry for the late reply, we are working on getting a list of locations but until then the communal tomb featured in episode two is called the Colombari della Vigna Codini and is in Rome.

    David Shenfield #51 and adrian somerfield #53 – really sorry you didn’t get a chance to watch the full series on iPlayer. Unfortunately the iPlayer team are usually only able to keep programmes up on the site for an average of seven days after broadcast.
    It’s repeated this Sunday on BBC HD at 10pm if you or anyone you know has access to this channel – I really hope you manage to catch the rest and if not sorry you missed the end of the show.

    Thanks everyone

    Eliza Kessler
    BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 55.

    I only managed to watch ONE episode of this brilliant series - I was totally occupied with the local election campaign. Mary Beard is a wonderful presenter - some of the best TV I've seen in years. I was hoping to catch up tonight and was devastated to find you haven't put the 3 programmes on i-player. Shame on you, BBC!

  • Comment number 56.

    With regard to Eliza Kessler's helpful comments, I recall that 'Upstairs Downstairs ' was recently retained on i-player for very much longer than 7 days. But 'The Kennedys' was blocked after a very short i-player season. There seems to be a bias operating on which types of programme are kept available (even though I loved 'Upstairs Downstairs'!)

  • Comment number 57.

    I, too, was disappointed not to be able to watch the 2nd and 3rd episodes on i-player, since I was abroad when they were aired. PLEASE could the controllers consider a reprise on i-player of all 3 episodes of this highly enjoyable and educational series? I enjoyed the first episode so much that I would gladly buy a DVD of the whole set if I could, but being a pensioner (older than Mary Beard but delighted she has had such good reviews) I would financially prefer to watch them on i-player as I've paid my licence fee and my broadband ISP already.
    I'm a member of our county archaeological society and specialise in Roman (just been digging up remnants of the Fosse Way) so value Mary Beard's appealing portrayal of ordinary Roman citizens enormously. This series should be available to all schools when teaching history!

  • Comment number 58.

    I'm afraid I narrowly missed this first time round, so mine's another vote to please repeat it soon, or return it to iPlayer. On a related note, I wish This World programmes were kept online for a bit longer as the ones I've seen have been very good, but don't seem to be available anywhere else - seems a shame when so much work has gone into them.

  • Comment number 59.

    Dear all

    Thanks again for your comments and just to let you know a list of the places visited in the programme is now listed on the Meet The Romans programme page under Locations:


    Many thanks

    BBC TV blog


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