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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