BBC iPlayer: Treasures of Ancient Rome

If you’re missing Ancient Rome, art critic Alastair Sooke does exactly what it says on the tin of this BB4 documentary and guides you round the treasures of Ancient Rome, kicking off with Septimius Severus and Leptis Magna.

The great thing about Sooke is that he is bursting with enthusiasm – and, as an art critic rather than an historian, is delightfully unstuffy.

Wandering around the ruins of Leptis Magna in golden sunshine led by Sooke is an adventure in itself – no other tourists jostling to get a selfie: just lots of glorious ancient columns, the ruins of the basilica to pore over, fabulously detailed reliefs displaying impressive drill work that allows the hot African sun to produce startling chiaroscuro effects.

Leptis_Magna_Arch_of_Septimus_Severus by David Gunn Wikipedia
Arch of Septimius Severus, Leptis Magna, Libya (Image David Gunn, Wikipedia)

There is a stunning amphitheatre to enjoy – and the inscriptions of sponsors who refurbished the theatre show that Roman and Libyan culture both contributed to Severus’s aim of rivalling Rome itself.

Off to the Leptis Museum, we view the Gladiator Mosaic – a vast, bloody and belligerent work showing Roman enjoyment of a killer spectacle. It is beautifully detailed – the figures are virtually life-size and the expressive faces and foreshortening of the figures are both radically innovative techniques. Perspective did not really take off until the 14th century, when Florentine architect Fillipo Brunelleshi (1377-1446) became the first known artist to use linear perspective in a painting – later it became a feature of Renaissance art.

Although mosaics were not typical of Libyan art, they soon embraced and mastered the technique – as well as the genre of Roman frescoes, with their chubby putti and bare-breasted ladies. The Roman villa is still thought to be buried in Libya’s sands in abundance, says Sooke – demonstrating how far the Roman Empire spread out and how much it influenced the far corners of the world.

Funerary portrait of a boy, AD c.190-230, Antinoöpolis
Funerary portrait of a boy, AD c.190-230, Antinoöpolis (Image By Sailko Wikipedia)

It is not long before we are off to Egypt – and Antinoöpolis and Cairo. Under Roman influence, mummies were given faces – beautifully life-like paintings of the dead on their caskets. We visit the studio of an artist using the same techniques as Roman artists, which were not used again until the Renaissance.

A quick trip to Bath in the UK and the famous Roman baths – and then off to view the Mildenhall haul of silver. What they have in common is the image of Sulis.

Roman Baths, Bath UK
Roman Baths, Bath, UK (Image Andrew Dunn Wikipedia)

At last it’s time to whizz off to the Eternal City itself, speeding along in the back of a Fiat with Sooke to the Capitoline Museum and the gallery of emperors – a dour lot, but the varying styles of the busts also show the different styles of leadership: some soft and boyish, others glaring like a hungry shark.

I love a sarcophagus – I once wrote a paper on the decoration of the sarcophagi of the Medicis – and there is a spectacular one up for grabs under Sooke’s scrutiny. There is more beautiful drill work depicting the complete chaos of war between the Romans and Barbarians, as well as the honour essential to Roman culture and the importance of integrity in domestic life.

Grand Canal, Venice
Grand Canal, Venice (Image A. Meredith 2019)

If that were not enough, suddenly we are in Venice, gliding along the Grand Canal in the rain before docking at St Mark’s Square in search of tetrarchs stuck on the edge of the basilica, clinging to each other and far away from their original home in Istanbul. There are two senior emperors (Augustas) and two junior (Caesars) – the seniors have beards, the juniors are cleanshaven. Sooke thinks they are cute – they are certainly hugging it out as best they can in their porphyry flesh. The Fab Four tetrarchs sadly fell out, eventually.

We then visit a sculptor specialising in purple porphyry – the hardest stone in the world and a symbol of Roman power through its regal colour and ability to last a lifetime and beyond.

The Tetrarchs, Venice
The Tetrarchs, Venice (Image Nino Barbieri, Wikipedia)

In AD312 Constantine and Maxentius fought the Battle of Milvian Bridge, which was a bridge too far spanning the Tiber.

We are back at the Capitoline Museum almost immediately, looking up the vast nostrils of Constantine’s mighty bust, before enjoying a bucolic adventure (featuring stampeding sheep) on the Appian Way, like happy pilgrims sporting in a pastoral idyll.

Then it is down to the Catacombs – where I have yet dared to venture in Rome – to view the Christian burials, including the early Jewish resting places. Some of the walls are decorated – and there are, of course, more sarcophagi. We see an early image of Christ as a callow, beardless youth, rather than his hirsute, rock star older self. The art is touchingly naive and rather endearing – we are all God’s children, it seems, and that very doctrine changed the Roman Empire, Sooke tells us.

Emperor Constantine
Emperor Constantine, Capitoline Museum, Rome (Image A. Meredith 2018)

Constantine and his mother Helena were credited with converting Rome to Christianity.  For a while, the pagan gods survived living side-by-side with God. Sooke whisks us off to Ravenna – in the 5th century, the capital of the Western Roman Empire, governed intermittently by Galla Placidia, daughter of Emperor Theodosius 1. She was quite a character, it seems. Feast your eyes on the deliriously beautiful mosaics of the Mausoleum of Galla Placidia – domed roofs of lapis lazuli covered in gold that are spellbinding. Christian and Roman imagery melds – with a soupçon of Greek key borders in red and gold for good measure. We pop behind the scenes to the restoration department to discover how the pigment was fired in a furnace to produce the brilliant mosaics fashioned into saints, fires, stars and heaven itself.

Just down the pathway from the mausoleum is the Church of San Vitale – the Byzantine mosaics date from after the fall of the Roman Empire and are brilliantly coloured and still have echoes of Roman imagery and faces.

Aelia Galla Placidia Image by at Wikipedia
Aelia Galla Placidia (Image Wikipedia)

Sooke concludes the Romans gave us the “warts and all” Roman bust and “a passion for realism”.

His thesis is that Roman art bequeathed us the look of the face we now recognise in art – naturalistic and expressive.

Sooke has a beer and admits to feeling humble in the face of Roman art.

If watching him sipping beer in the nocturnal shadow of the Pantheon does not make you want to book a trip immediately to see some Roman treasures for yourself, nothing will.

Buon viaggio!


The Treasures of Ancient Rome is available on BBC iPlayer.


















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