Christina Patterson: Lashings of sex, booze and bling – it's an everyday story of ancient Rome

 

Share

He called himself "Mr Hot Sex". He lived in a ménage à trois. He lived, according to a woman with long grey hair and a very big smile, in the biggest immigrant community in the world. He lived, she said, in a city of a million people. He lived 2,000 years ago, in Rome.

The woman was an English academic called Mary Beard. The man was one of the "forgotten voices" she was trying to recapture in her new series, Meet the Romans. He sounded, from his name, which didn't sound like the names of any of the people I studied in Latin, very like the man who said that "wine and sex ruin your body". But who added, or perhaps it was Mary Beard who added, that they're "what makes life really worth living".

"Mr Hot Sex" didn't bother to say what he did for a living. Plenty of other people did. The mule driver, for example, and the chariot racer, and the accounts manager, and the overcoat maker, and the female fishmonger, and the upmarket clothes maker, were all keen to tell the world about their jobs. And so was the baker. Boy, was the baker keen. He built a massive tomb, and covered it with scenes from bakery life. "This," he said, in very big letters, just in case it wasn't clear, "is the monument of the baker."

The Romans, said Mary Beard, had tombstones that mentioned what they did for a living because, in a "global city", they wanted to mark themselves out from the crowd. We might, she said, not know much about their individual stories, but we do have some idea of how they lived.

We know, she explained, that many of them lived in new apartment blocks that would have made parts of Rome feel "a bit like Dubai". We know that they didn't eat local, home-grown food, but relied on imports from abroad. We know that they tasted exotic foods like peppers, lemons and cherries, and that cooking had "gone from a mere function to a high art". We know they liked fashion, and luxury goods. We know, in other words, that the Romans were like the residents of any other big, bustling, multicultural capital whose people were struggling to survive, and thrive.

We don't just know this because she told us. We know it because, as she strode around the Roman forum, and cycled down the Via Appia, and peered at tombstones, and translated their inscriptions, she showed us the evidence. As she pounded dough baked to a Roman recipe, she quoted the texts that told us about the free rations given to all Roman citizens, because emperors knew that "a hungry populace" was "dangerous". In an ancient piazza near Ostia, she swept pine needles off mosaics advertising companies importing goods from abroad. And she tried on, or almost tried on, a real gladiator's helmet. It was, she explained, even in Roman times, "a sort of fancy dress".

It was, of course, charming, this gentle journey through ancient history, where the smiles were as bright as the sun in the sky. The plump professor in the patterned jumper, who marched Mary Beard round ancient Rome's immigrant quarter, Trastevere, looked so quaint you wanted to stick him in a museum. The young baker who watched her pound the dough looked so surprised by her thumping, and grinning, and arm waving, you felt he needed a hug.

But it was much, much more than charming. To see a woman who doesn't just know everything there is to know about her subject, because she's a proper scholar, who has studied it for years, but who can actually bring it alive to people who know nothing about it, isn't just charming. And to see a woman who's definitely over 40, and isn't wearing fancy clothes, or very high heels, or even make-up, and who seems to think it's OK to go on telly and not look like a dolly bird, isn't just refreshing. It makes you think about the kind of diet you're usually fed.

It makes you think, for example, of all the people on TV who talk about the kind of house they want to live in, or the kind of car they want to drive, or how thin they want to be, or how young they want to look. It makes you think about how they want to be an "apprentice" to a very grumpy man, or about how they want to sing in front of a man with very white teeth and a very big ego. It makes you feel that these people talk about these things as if they're the first person in the world to ever think of them. It makes you think they think they're the first person to have ever lived.

It makes you realise, in a way that feels quite strange, but also feels quite good, that we're all just a speck in a story that started long before we were born, and will carry on long after we're gone. It makes you realise that there's no thought you could have that no one had before. And that what this means is that you're not alone.

It also makes you realise, when you see a thing like this, that you can get sick of circuses, and that sometimes what you long for is good, old, plain, nourishing bread.

A summer of poetry and parties

As someone who has, in previous jobs, hosted more poetry readings than I've probably cooked hot dinners, I don't envy the organisers of this summer's Poetry Parnassus. In a gorgeously ambitious attempt to make poetry part of the Olympics, the Southbank Centre is trying to bring together poets from each of the 204 nations taking part. So far, 23 are missing. "We're looking," said its curator, Simon Armitage, this week, "for people who are good."

I hope he's feeling energetic. Poets make journalists look like Methodists when it comes to booze and parties. "The strongest stay the longest!" said a Slovenian poet to me once, at a post-poetry party I thought would never end. "It depends," I heard myself saying, just a little bit coldly, "on what time they have to get up."

The odd couple in Beijing

The story of Neil Heywood, the British businessman who died in China last year, gets weirder every day. He used, apparently, to drive round Beijing in a Jaguar with the number plate 007. He was also, apparently, helping the wife of one of China's most powerful politicians to transfer millions of pounds abroad. Some have suggested they were having an affair. Others say they weren't. Heywood, said a friend this week, hitting another strange note in this surreally strange tale, quite often "talked about his wife". He was, she said – and she wasn't talking about a pet rabbit – "fond of her".

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

Twitter: queenchristina_

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 Teacher Required in Grays

£21000 - £40000 per annum + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: Key Stage 2 tea...

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Kylie has helped to boost viewing figures for the talent show  

When an Aussie calls you a ‘bastard’, you know you’ve arrived

Howard Jacobson
The number of schools converting to academies in the primary sector has now overtaken those in the secondary sector – 2,299 to 1,884 (Getty)  

In its headlong rush to make a profit, our education system is in danger of ignoring its main purpose

Janet Street-Porter
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee