It may not quite be a gladiatorial contest, but the battle of words between Professor Mary Beard and hapless TV critic A.A. Gill is as one-sided as any confrontation witnessed in the Colosseum.
Beard’s BBC2 mini-series Meet The Romans reaches its second episode tonight, following an opener which concentrated on the lives and deaths of the man in the street rather than the Emperors in their palaces.
Her down-to-earth approach, carried forward from the lecture theatre at Cambridge University to the small screen is what makes her such a hit. But in his review Gill foolishly demonstrated his preference for style over substance and chose to concentrate on attacking Beard’s appearance rather than assessing the entertaining way in which she shares her encyclopaedic knowledge of the subject.
I have been fortunate enough to have first-hand experience of Beard as a superior tour guide (pictured above), during a cruise on board Voyages To Antiquity’s Aegean Odyssey. I joined her on a tour of Herculaneum – where she was determined to track down a cess pit from which countless clues to Roman diet had been unearthed – and Pompeii, where we eventually gave up on the local guide and struck out on our own to investigate brothel and bath house.
Her enthusiasm is infectious and overwhelming; it’s not just that she knows her subject from back to front and top to bottom, she also enjoys sharing that knowledge and does so in a way anyone – even dim old me – can follow with interest.
Even better – for me – was the opportunity to continue the discussions back on the ship, late into the night over a glass or three of whisky. I suspect that if Gill had ever shared that experience, and watched as the surprisingly lithe professor took to the dance floor at some time in the early hours, he might reconsider his opinion.
Voyages To Antiquity are hoping Mary will be back on board Aegean Odyssey for a third time this summer, but they tell me she is still trying to find a few free days in her busy diary.
Tonight, Meet The Romans: Streetlife, uncovers the dirt, crime, sex and slum conditions beneath Rome’s marbled thoroughfares. BBC2, 9.00 pm.