How similar are London and ancient Rome?

By Ed Davey
BBC News, London

  • Published
Statue of Augustus
Image caption,
Meet the Romans drew two million viewers

A place of staggering wealth and grinding poverty.

A society nourished by unbridled immigration - whose inhabitants lived cheek by jowl in high-rise flats.

An urban environment riven by looting and mob violence.

Londoners watching Professor Mary Beard's invocation of Rome's cosmopolitan but troubled society in the BBC's Meet the Romans may have experienced a rather hair-raising sensation: that this was all a bit familiar.

"There are both some extraordinary similarities and some quite startling differences," Professor Beard observes.

This, surely, is the secret of the enduring fascination with Rome, at once so familiar and so otherworldly.

So as the series draws to a close, the BBC asked Professor Beard to tease out the similarities and differences between the two cities.


"London has bought into a liberal view of multiculturalism and respect for other cultures," says Professor Beard.

"Our version is to celebrate ethnic traditions - we want a Chinatown full of Chinese restaurants and Chinese banners.

"But a Roman would simply not have understood the idea of respecting another culture."

Image caption,
Both Rome and London attracted large numbers of migrants

And yet Rome sucked in millions of migrants.

"There were lots of other cultures in Rome," says Professor Beard. "But no Roman I know ever wrote, 'Oh, I had this really good Egyptian meal last night'.

"Romanness trumps everything and other cultures were expected to adopt it."

The only foreign imports celebrated by Romans were gods, simply thrown into the pantheon.

Professor Beard says: "The one place where modern London finds real difficulty in multiculturalism is religion.

"But that's the one place where the Romans do accept the outside world."

Yet Rome was no utopia. Like modern London it was not immune to...

Racism and prejudice

"There are some really appalling examples from ancient Rome," says Professor Beard. "Not of extreme racism, but really grumpy curmudgeonly old men.

"Juvenal, the Roman poet, talks about the Tiber getting all polluted by the Syrian river Orontes, which is his way of criticising foreign influence.

"You have to have a trade off.

"Rome is a city that needs immigrants, just like London needs them."

And many of those migrants would have expected...

Streets paved with gold?

Image caption,
Dick Whittington came to London to seek his fortune

In Rome, penniless migrants were in theory able to end their lives stinking rich.

Professor Beard says: "That is really like modern London - a lot of migrants did very well.

"Of course, there are a lot of poor migrants who struggle in both ancient Rome and London.

"But both cities offer opportunities, the sense that anyone can make it."

Yet with so many people moving in, there was intense pressure on...


"Everybody thinks of Rome as being full of palatial villas where all the toffs live," says Professor Beard.

"But most people are packed into multi-storey accomodation - they lived in flats without gardens, as do Londoners."

Yet there are differences.

Image caption,
Most Romans lived in high rise tenement blocks

"We have the idea that a penthouse at the top is very desirable," explains Professor Beard. "In Rome it was the reverse.

"And ancient Rome was not zoned like London is.

"You don't have that huge division between Mayfair and Brixton - you couldn't make a Monopoly board for Rome."

So would Romans have couched the situation in the same language as Londoners, with talk of a 'housing crisis'?

"Definitely," says Profesor Beard. "One of tombstones we looked at for the programme says, 'At least I am not in hoc to the rent collector any more'.

"You get this hugely similar urban sense of humour at all the difficulties of urban life."

And what is one of the most cliched criticisms of London life?


"You get these little glimpses of Romans realising the irony of the situation they are in," says Professor Beard.

Image caption,
You can get "little glimpses" of Romans' innermost thoughts, Professor Beard says

"Although they live on top of each other many barely know each others' names.

"There's a nice bit of Roman poetry in which the writer says he could lean out of his home and shake hands with the guy who lives across the street - but they've never met.

"It definitely could have been a lonely place, just as London can be."

Anonymous, perhaps. But, just maybe, the...

Centre of the world?

"Both London and Rome have thought of themselves as the centre of the world," says Professor Beard.

"In London you have the Greenwich Meridian, so literally you have people seeing it as the place where measurement of the world's time starts.

"And in the Forum at Rome you have the golden milestone, which gave the distances to all the cities in the empire.

"Rome really was the centre of the world in its day."

Just as London's financial district is aguably the centre of the world's...


"Was there a City of Rome, like there is a City of London?" asks Professor Beard.

Image caption,
Unlike Rome, London is a centre of world finance

"It's a matter of huge debate.

"The ancient economy was much less specialised.

"You don't have banks as we know them.

"You don't have specialised credit arrangments - how they bought houses God only knows."

But in some respects the economies were very similar. Both sucked in food and resources from the periphery, producing little apart from services.

"Rome is a consumption city," explains Professor Beard. "It can't support itself."

Looting and rioting

"Looting and rioting and mugging are not just our problems," says Professor Beard. "We share them with ancient Rome.

Image caption,
A depressingly familiar sight - for Londoners and Romans

"During the Great Fire of Rome, in the Emperor Nero's time, they had a fire brigade - just about.

"But according to one ancient writer, rather than fighting the flames they took part in the looting."

Yet there is no doubting which is the safer city.

"Rome is fundamentally much more dangerous than London," says Professor Beard.

"There is no-one to report a crime to."

All of which makes Rome seem a rather bleak place to live - were it not for the...


"In both ancient Rome and London the streetlife is terribly important," says Professor Beard. "Streets are the key.

Image caption,
London's streetlife is terribly important

"You have people flogging things in markets, all the hustle and bustle.

"There is an awful and frightening side to Roman streetlife - but also a liberating one.

"There is a level of spontaneity perhaps missing from London's streets."

She adds: "In London you're constantly being watched. If you jump into a fountain someone will be there to tell you off, unless it's New Year's Eve.

"But perhaps in that respect Rome was closer to a big third world city today - vast, scary, huge numbers of deaths - but still enormously, edgily fun.

"It's is exactly what attracts us to cities like that today."

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