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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In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
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Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum.
#lion #art #history #BritishMuseum Lions have perhaps been adopted as a symbol more than any other animal. They are seen as proud, fierce and magnificent – characteristics that made kings and countries want to associate themselves with these charismatic big cats. As well as being the national symbol of England and Scotland, the lion is in many ways the symbol of the British Museum. Lions guard both entrances to the building. At the Montague Place entrance are the languid lions carved by Sir George Frampton, and on the glass doors of the Main entrance are the cat-like beasts designed by the sculptor Alfred Stevens in 1852.
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We’ll be sharing more lovely lions this week! Share your photos using #mybritishmuseum and tagging @britishmuseum. Our next special exhibition will explore the remarkable story of Sicily. Discover an island with a cosmopolitan history and identity – a place where the unique mix of peoples gave rise to an extraordinary cultural flowering.
Norman Sicily was a centre of multiculturalism and its art reveals a unique mix of influences. The Norman kings invited Byzantine mosaicists from Constantinople to decorate their cathedrals and palaces. Spectacular golden mosaics can still be found in Roger II’s palace chapel and the cathedrals at Cefalù and Monreale. This mosaic, depicting the Virgin Mary, is all that remains of the extensive mosaics that once decorated Palermo Cathedral.
Book now for #SicilyExhibition, opening 21 April 2016 at britishmuseum.org/sicily 
Mosaic of the Madonna originally from Palermo Cathedral. Sicily, AD 1130–1189. © Museo Diocesano di Palermo.
#Sicily #Italy #art #mosaic #exhibition #BritishMuseum
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