“Latin is a language/dead as dead can be/First it killed the Romans/and now it’s killing me.”
You might think it would be career suicide for a teacher to share that rhyme with a bunch of 14-year-olds in their first ever Latin class, as mine did. But it’s just an example of how, refreshingly, most classicists defy the norm.
For the last three weeks it’s been Cambridge University professor Mary Beard proudly flying the flag for ancient Rome – and for non-conformism.
The doggerel above is fresh in my mind but my memory of Latin phrases, Catullus’s poetry and the snippets we picked up at school about life in ancient Rome isn’t so clear. So it was a joy to tag along with Beard as she brought long-dead characters and forgotten customs roaring back to life.
Beard has fundamentally changed the way I think about the Romans. By paying close attention to the crumbling ruins most tourists ignore on the way to the sexier “sights”, and by looking past the marble busts of emperors to the memorial stones of ordinary citizens, she re-created the city as your average Roman experienced it.
It’s been a fascinating insight into the ancient tenements, slums, bars and back alleys, conjuring up the dirt, the smell and the crush of the metropolis. It was a world away from the marble, mosaics and columns of the villas and palaces we’re familiar with.
Voices, undulled by age, called out to us from beyond the grave. Who wouldn’t have enjoyed a drink with Glyconis? Who wouldn’t want to find out whether bar-keeper Calidius Eroticus - “Mr Hot Sex” - was worthy of the name?
The biggest personality of all, though, was Beard herself. She may have fallen foul of Sunday Times critic AA Gill’s infuriatingly narrow feminine ideal, but her fans wouldn’t change her for the world.
Her enthusiasm for her subject was infectious - whether she was swinging her feet girlishly as she perched on a communal lavatory, or hushing her voice in awe as she gently handled a cradle once rocked by an ancient Roman parent or wet nurse.
The way Beard drew parallels with modern life ensured an immediate emotional connection across the millennia. I was so jealous of the world that opened up to her as she translated Latin inscriptions, I’ve resolved to revisit the language soon.
And when I next visit Rome, I won’t be quite so fast to head for the Colosseum or the Palatine Hill. Mary Beard has shown me it’s the hidden treasures that can reveal the most about the city’s past.