British Museum blog

Meeting the Romans at the British Museum

Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge

In my job, I get the biggest kicks out of making ordinary things used by ordinary ancient Romans really SING. Go to any museum and the big objects always cry out for attention (no one is going to miss those massive marble sculptures). The tiny precious ones get their fair share of attention too: the exquisite cameos – sometimes managing to pack a whole story into less than a couple of square centimetres – attract crowds of admirers. I’m as big a fan of these as anyone.

But what I really like doing is turning the spotlight onto the ordinary objects that most people don’t notice – the things that you and I would have used if we’d been Roman.

I’ve just made a series of documentaries for BBC Two (“Meet the Romans…!”) and I’ve been trying to get a bit closer to the ordinary Romans than history books usually take us. It’s a series of programmes that features the bodyguards, the hairdressers, and the bakers, of ancient Rome – not the emperors, the orators and the other toffs. And in our search for the Roman (or woman) on the street, our first stop – after the museums of Italy itself was the British Museum.

We filmed a wonderful gladiator’s helmet from Pompeii, and I came as close as anyone has for the last couple of thousand years to trying it on (no, very right and proper, it’s not allowed). But we had just as much fun with some cheap little gladiator models… maybe the kind of things Roman kids played “toy gladiators” with – and with a handful of pretty ordinary Roman rings.

Ancient Romans didn’t have wedding rings in exactly the same way that we do. The woman didn’t get a ring, as a standard thing, when she got married. But you do find some rings that show the pair of clasped hands that are often a symbol of Roman marriage. They were probably a gift from husband to wife (or possibly vice versa) when they got married. But what emotions lay behind this. True romantic love? Maybe. But try thinking about them as a gift from a 30-plus year old man to a bride of (say) 13, as was often the case.

Gold finger-rings showing the ceremony of joining hands at a marriage

Gold finger-rings showing the ceremony of joining hands at a marriage

Something of the personal, ordinary Roman voice really comes out with another ring. It’s a nice, middle range ring (and I really mean, not especially posh). And written on it are three words in Latin “Te amo parum” – “I love you too little”. It’s an odd thing to put on a ring given from Roman man (I guess) to Roman sweetheart: “I don’t love you enough”.

But maybe the point of the words is: “I don’t love you enough because it would be impossible to love you as much as you deserve.” I like to think that it‘s a quirky, ordinary lover’s voice that takes us right into the heart of one bloke’s relationship with his girlfriend.. Or wife.

Professor Mary Beard presents Meet The Romans on BBC Two at 21.00 on Tuesdays from 17 April

Filed under: Collection, What's on

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. GK says:

    Rather than the negative “I don’t love you enough”, perhaps it was intended to be a more positive declaration such as “I can’t love you enough”. Maybe he loved her so much already, he could not love her more.


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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation Discover the remarkable relationship between the major ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece, unveiled in our monumental new exhibition #SunkenCities – announced today! 300 outstanding objects will be brought together in this blockbuster exhibition, including many Egyptian objects shown in the UK for the first time. Preserved and buried under the sea for over a thousand years, the stunning objects range from magnificent colossal statues to intricate gold jewellery. They tell stories of political power and popular belief, myth and migration, gods and kings. Journey through centuries of encounters between two celebrated cultures, meeting iconic historical figures such as Alexander the Great, Cleopatra, Hadrian and Antinous on the way.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation We are delighted to announce our first major exhibition on underwater archaeology! Submerged under the sea for over a thousand years, two lost cities of ancient Egypt were recently rediscovered. Their amazing discovery is transforming our understanding of the deep connections between the great ancient civilisations of Egypt and Greece.

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Christoph Gerigk © Franck Goddio/Hilti Foundation You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at


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