A recent evening off gave me the chance to catch up on some history TV that I’d missed this week. Top of the list for me, as a devoted lover of all things Rome, was the latest offering from BBC4: Simon Sebag Montefiore’s Rome: a History of the Eternal City.
If you’re not up to date with historical biographies in your local Waterstone’s, it doesn’t take long to get to know the presenter. As his website is eager to inform you, Sebag Montefiore is a celebrated biographer of Stalin and Catherine the Great (his website even includes a tab named ‘Critical Acclaim’ (http://www.simonsebagmontefiore.com/index.aspx). In this series, Sebag Montefiore looks to build upon his well-received account of the city of Jerusalem (Jerusalem: the Biography) by offering an abridged history of another of the Western world’s most history-heavy locations: the city of Rome.
As a presenter, Sebag Montefiore is convincing enough. He adopts the well-worn middle-class-classicist persona, (the Telegraph called him a ‘natural raconteur’), appears complete with Panama hat and slacks, and backs this image up by his utter revulsion at the thought of venturing into ancient Roman sewer systems. (Panama) hats off to him for climbing into the dingy sewers, leading to some spectacular interaction with one of Rome’s understandably less well-known ancient landmarks.
Sebag Montefiore packages his three-part series as a history of the city of Rome, as viewed through and reflected in the various religious beliefs and practices observed within its walls. He takes us around some of Rome’s best-known monuments, offering up lashings architectural grandeur (with especially heavy servings of those ever-present columns for which Rome is perhaps most famous).
Although Sebag Montefiore ouches on ever stage of Roman urban history and tries to ensure that nothing is left out, this is perhaps the biggest problem with this first episode. Sebag Montefiore’s ostensible focus on the history of religion offers him an opportunity to consider a highly interesting aspect of ancient history that is certainly under-explored in modern broadcasting. Instead, what actually appears here is a fairly shallow exploration of only some of Rome’s religious history. While Sebag Montefiore names a great deal Roman deities, we are never informed of exactly who these Gods were or the various roles which they may be seen to have served. Similarly, although he notes a distinction between Christianity and Paganism, viewers must make their own inferences on exactly what types of beliefs this paganism entailed, and why Romans followed these beliefs.
I did enjoy this episode, but not really for what it taught me about the role of religions in Roman history. The strengths of this series appear to lie in Sebag Montefiore’s likeable and authoritative air, rather than the depth of his analysis. Although I couldn’t help thinking that Sebag Montefiore is perhaps missing a trick here, I’ll still look forward to episode two with relish, if more for how it looks, rather than what it says.
Episode two airs on Wednesday 12 December at 21:00 (GMT) on BBC Four. For a preview, see: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/0/20627618
UK-based viewers can watch the first episode via BBCi Player, at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01p65l8/Rome_A_History_of_the_Eternal_City_Episode_1/