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Meet The Romans Presented by Mary Beard As Seen On BBC2 [DVD]
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We still live in the shadow of ancient Rome - a city at the heart of a vast empire that stretched from the North of England to Afghanistan, dominating the West for over 700 years. This fascinating history series, as seen on the BBC and presented by Professor Mary Beard, puts aside the stories of emperors and armies, guts and gore, to meet the real Romans living at the heart of it all. Episode 1 In episode 1 Mary asks not what the Romans did for us, but what the empire did for Rome. She rides the Via Appia, climbs up to the top seats of the Colosseum, takes a boat to Rome's port Ostia and takes us into the bowels of Monte Testaccio. She also meets some extraordinary Romans: Baricha, Zabda and Achiba, three prisoners of war who became Roman citizens; and Pupius Amicus, the purple dye seller making imperial dye from shellfish imported from Tunisia. This is Rome from the bottom up. Episode 2 In episode 2, Mary descends into the city streets to discover the dirt, crime, sex and slum conditions in the world's first high-rise city. This Rome is not the marble Rome we know, but a vast, messy metropolis with little urban planning, where most Romans lived in high-rise apartment blocks with little space, light, or even sanitation. Forced outdoors into the city streets, she reveals where they went to hang out, get drunk, have sex and get clean. Episode 3 In this final episode, Mary delves even deeper into ordinary Roman life by going behind the closed doors of their homes. She meets an extraordinary cast of characters - drunken housewives, teenage brides, bullied children and runaway slaves - and paints a more dynamic, lusty picture of Roman family life. Finally, Mary paints a more nuanced picture of Roman slavery and asks why if it was such a brutal institution did many Romans choose to be buried with their servants - living cheek by jowl in death, as in life.
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She goes into an insula and shows how the higher up in one the size of the rooms got smaller. Ostia , Pompeii and Herculaneum feature. She visits the Colosseum and the Capitoline Museum which is where the ordinary tourist can visit. The one place that not many people know, is the hill/mountain made up completely of oil amphorae, as the jars would become rancid and could not be used again. This is Monte Testaccio and there are archaelogists from Spain putting together the amphorae. Most of the Rome's olive oil came from Spain and North Africa. She is shown the bones of both a 16 year-old boy and a 6 year-old boy showing damage. Both worked in a fullonica if I remember correctly. This would a fuller's yard and with lifting clothes and especially treading them for hours, would damage young bones. I recomment this to people who hope to visit Rome, or have any interest in the ancient world. I don't know if people could get into all the places Mary visited though. However she is one brave woman for cycling around Rome.
Much of the info and interpretation comes from grave-markers which described the lives, hardships and happiness of the man in the street. MB can get a bit gushy as she translates from the Latin, but some of the stories are truly remarkable, like the boy who was worked to death by his parents; the man who lived in fear of the rent collector, and all the people who enjoyed a spot too much indulgence at the baths and in wine and sex. Speaking of which, there are quite a few sexual references and a couple of graphic illustrations (including a reconstruction of one which Victorian prudes had all but eradicated).
MB's exploration of the first high-rise tenement buildings is fascinating, and really helped to illustrate that Rome wasn't just a city of gleaming marble temples. Most of its buildings were workaday functional homes, kiosks and workshops - and they were all jumbled in together, not neatly organised like modern cities. There's one particular sequence filmed in astonishingly well-reserved segments of original Roman streets; tiny alleys, really, flanked with claustrophobic tall buildings. Together with her expert guests MB really emphasises the muck and the stench and the cramped conditions - it's radically different to the Hollywood presentation of posh blokes in togas. Mary Beard's Rome is a chaotic and dangerous place, where `home' was just a bedroom where you slept alongside half a dozen other people. All life went on in the streets, shops, eateries and baths, without any real form of policing (apart from when there was a big match on at the coliseum, and then the legions were despatched to keep order so folk could go watch without their homes being looted...)
Overall, MB presents an engaging selection of seemingly random snippets which build up to a surprisingly complete picture over all three episodes. She even uncovers a couple of Roman jokes which translate pretty well to modern times (although she needs to work on her delivery). The films don't restrict themsevles to the city of Rome, either; plenty of evidence comes from other sites as far apart as the British Museum, Ostia and Herculaneum. The charcoal remains of home furniture, preserved by Pompeii's ashen outburst, are both rare and revealing.
The filming leans towards the current trend of soft-focus blurry boundaries, an over-used effect -- but these programmes aren't afflicted by a shrieking soundtrack of pointless helicopter shots. It's all much mroe down to earth! And where music is used.... it's appropriate.
Mary Beard isn't the world's most glam presenter - if you care about such things -- but instead she speaks directly and with great understanding on a fascinating subject. These three hours gave me plenty to mull over, as well as a greater understanding of this period of history.
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Mary Beard has a relaxed way of presenting so it's a joy to watch.Read more