We can’t get enough of the Romans, it seems – and why not? They feature in Key Stage 2 of the National Curriculum but their role in British (and Western European) history and culture is pervasive.
This week saw not one but two offerings from the BBC on the same night, both presented by the incomparable Mary Beard, who has become something of a cult in her own right. Erudite but never boring, humorous without ever sacrificing historical accuracy, she is the presenter of choice for programmes on the classical world (and soon to be the face of the TV version of ‘Front Row’).
One of her Twitter followers used the hashtag “#worththelicencefee” of her programme on Julius Caesar, broadcast on BBC1 on Monday 12th February (repeated on Sunday BBC1 1130pm and available on iPlayer.)
‘Julius Caesar Revealed’ starts in a delivery room where Professor Beard points out that a C-section is named after Caesar (who almost certainly was not born by this method) and that many modern allusions refer to him (e.g. “crossing the Rubicon”). He, like another powerful leader two millennia later, was a “master of the comb-over” and there are several other, more serious parallels to be drawn with modern political premiers, such as the creation of myths that reinforce their power. At Caesar’s time the influence of the Roman Empire stretched from North Africa to southern France and across to Spain. It was there that the 33-year-old Caesar is said to have come face-to-face with a statue of Alexander the Great, and to have wept because he had not achieved the level of power that Alexander had won for himself by the same age. Was this the turning point in Caesar’s life when ambition kicked in and he set his sights on imperial purple – but instead took the first step towards his destiny on the Ides of March? Clips from the programme are available on the programme’s webpage including a reading of Caesar’s eye-witness account of the inhabitants of Britain (and it’s good news for Kent) which is the first we have on record.
Switching channels to BBC4 at the end of Julius Caesar Revisited, viewers segue seamlessly into ‘Mary Beard’s Ultimate Roman Empire without Limit’ BBC4 10pm.
The first of four programmes (and welcome repeats from 2016), it begins with Prof. Beard asking how could “a small ordinary town in the middle of Italy become the centre of an empire stretching from the fringes of the Sahara to the damp moorlands of northern Britain, Spain to Israel, the Nile to the Rhine”.
We know that if anybody in the 21st century has a clue, it’s going to be her.
Five clips from the programmes are available on the webpage.