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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Construction of St Peter’s Basilica began #onthisday in 1506. It was completed 120 years later. This print by Giuseppe Vasi was made in 1774
#print #art #history #Rome #Italy Happy 134th birthday @natural_history_museum! Here’s the British Museum before the natural history collection moved to South Kensington
#giraffe #history #BritishMuseum #museum Most Greek sculpture that survives from antiquity is carved from white marble, of which the Mediterranean has many natural sources. A relationship has often been assumed between the pure white of freshly cut marble and the idealism of Greek art. In fact, the opposite is true. Colour was intrinsic to ancient ideas of beauty. For centuries this has been a subject of fascination and controversy. The great Italian Renaissance sculptor Michelangelo revived the Greek idea of the human body but denied the use of colour. This was partly due to negative associations with the painted saints of the medieval period. During the European Enlightenment of the 1750s onwards, and increasingly into our own time, the preferred aesthetic was a truth to materials. Painting and gilding were seen as unnecessary and undesirable.

Sculpture in antiquity was often adorned not only with colour but also with different materials. The Greek marble statue of an archer reconstructed here was drilled and fitted with metal attachments. The figure originally held a bronze bow and arrow and a quiver was fixed to his left hip by a metal dowel. Individual locks of hair were made of lead. The colourful design of the man’s knitted all-in-one garment, often worn by peoples from the east, is clearly seen weathered into the marble surface under controlled lighting.

You can see this wonderful object in our exhibition #DefiningBeauty, until 5 July 2015.
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Plaster cast of archer with reconstructed paint, based on a Greek original of about 490–480 BC, from the Temple of Aphaia at Aigina. Staatliche Antikensammlung und Glyptothek, Munich. Uta Uta Tjangala's masterpiece Yumari is a highlight of‪ #IndigenousAustralia, opening a week today
#exhibition #art #history #BritishMuseum #Australia #museum Hans Sloane's collection also ended up as the basis of the @natural_history_museum and the @britishlibrary!
To make more room for the increasing collections held by the British Museum, the natural history collections were moved to a new building in South Kensington in the 1880s. This eventually became the Natural History Museum. These images show some of the natural history specimens on display, including giraffes and a mastodon!
In 1997, the library departments left the Museum to be re-housed at the new British Library in St Pancras.
#history #BritishMuseum #collection #animals #books Hans Sloane's encyclopaedic collection became the cornerstone of the British Museum.
This drawer was once part of the materia medica - a sort of pharmaceutical cabinet - in the collection of Sloane. The cabinet had several drawers, each carefully constructed to keep out destructive insects. Some drawers had small compartments like this example, others contained glazed boxes with seeds, fruit, bark, roots, gums and resins inside. Each had a label written by Sloane with a catalogue number. The botanical or medicinal name of the subtance, where it came from and who collected it were then recorded in his catalogues of his collection.
As Sloane's interest in natural history grew along with his income, he was able to widen the scope of his collection from being primarily medical to being more encyclopaedic, representing the widest possible variety of substances and artefacts for his own reference and for others to consult.
© 2003 The Natural History Museum @natural_history_museum 
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