We are still living in Rome. After the eminent, emeritus Mary Beard lectured us for two incredibly insightful hours, I realised just how true that was.
Strewn amongst the circle of chairs at the London rehearsal rooms, with thick copies of her book about the ancient city of SPQR – Senātus Populus que Rōmānus – on our laps, Mary Beard imparted a world of knowledge on us about the unique and selective language in Shakespeare’s Rome plays.
As a member of the uninitiated, having never had an in-depth historical education, Mary’s lecture truly fascinated me. My east-end plebeian Catholic school days are long over and mostly forgotten. When I look at the abbreviation SPQR, I instantly liken the Q to an O, see the spelling SPOR and then imagine SPORES. Now that sounds more like me. A spore citizen, intrinsically located and involved in the growth of Rome; or more appropriately perhaps, modern day London.
Our earlier monuments are styled in neoclassical honour, sporting Doric columns like the Monument to the Great Fire of London, caryatids like St Pancras New Church, or pediments like the British Museum. They were built to appease whatever gods may favour such glorious efforts. But these days, the very same gods are offered more delectable delights like the Gherkin or the Cheesegrater; they can call on men with walkie-talkies standing aloft atop of the Shard, like a Vulcan overlooking the metropolis and its mortal subjects.
Mary said she would spare the academic talk and give us the barebones of her knowledge. Nonetheless, the bones were big enough for an emperor’s feast. She charged the room’s most creative minds with details of gastronomic proportions – literally and metaphorically. Surprisingly, her expert knowledge filled some with a surprising dullness. Those of us who harboured colourful ideas in our minds were debunked by Mary, and our ideas slowly dissolved away; but it was the ablution we all needed. She dusted away the cobwebs, dispelling our self-made myths about life in Ancient Rome and replaced them with new dynamics and enlightening viewpoints.
Though the bowler hats are long gone from the brows of senators and umbrella swords are still an essential sport for the assailing elements at hand, London is very Roman. Mary allowed us to re-evaluate the facts of Plutarch and the stories of William Shakespeare that have, and still are, cropping up throughout history.
Ah Londinium, it was no more than an extension of Rome. What has really changed? Mary Beard has convinced me that we’re still living in Rome – if not physically, then in other various forms and dimensions.
By Anthony Ofoegbu, who will play Trebonius in Julius Caesar and Diomedes in Antony & Cleopatra.