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



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".

Twitter: queenchristina_

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