“In this world nothing can be said to be certain,” American polymath and founding father Benjamin Franklin once noted, “except death and taxes.”

Twas ever thus. Throw in sex and you’ve most bases covered, as radio proved this week.

Let’s start with taxes. They played a big part in the first episode of Mary Beard’s returning series Being Roman on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning. Beard was taking a look at the life of Gaius Julius Alpinus Classicianus, the Procurator - or financial officer - of the province of Britain in the wake of Boudicca’s rebellion which had burnt London and other Roman cities to the ground.

When Classicianus arrived - his predecessor having promptly scarpered back to Gaul when the rebellion started - the Roman Governor Suetonius Paulinus was busy putting Britons to the sword in retaliation. The problem with that approach is that if you’re slaying all your subjects no one is going to be able to give you any money. Which was the point of Classicianus being there.

In short, as Beard summarised, “it’s all about the taxes.”

Beard’s pre-eminence as a Roman scholar has much to do with her ability to humanise a world now two millennia distant. And that is once more on display in Being Roman. Even more so in fact in the second episode of the series which is already online at BBC Sounds.


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Whilst the first episode had the thrill of battle to power it along and offset the fiduciary elements, episode two had a potential murder. A death on the Nile, in fact.

The Roman upper crust were big on travel, it seems. And no one more so than the Emperor Hadrian who spent more time on the road than he ever did in Rome. In 130 CE he was off up the Nile with his wife Sabina and his male teenage lover Antinous to see the Great Pyramid of Giza and the Colossi of Memnon, the two mammoth statues that, ancients believed, would sing to you in the morning. (If you were lucky, and Hadrian was).

There were as many as 5000 people on the trip. You wouldn’t want to be catering for that number, would you? But Beard concentrated on the Emperor, his wife, his lover and his wife’s friend, the poet Julia Balbilla, who may or may not have been in love with Sabina herself.

That’s the sex box ticked, then. And as for death, well, like any good cruise story there’s a possible murder at the heart of it. Because at some point on the journey Antinous ends up in the Nile and drowns. But did he fall or was he pushed?

There is no evidence either way. What is clear is that Hadrian was very taken with Antinous. There are more Roman statues of the young man in existence than any other Roman historical figure other than Emperor Augustus and Hadrian himself, Beard pointed out.

She can’t quite see the appeal herself. “For my taste he’s a bit too soft and pouty,” she said of the young man captured in stone. “But he’s certainly instantly recognisable.”

Did Sabina have any issues with Hadrian’s affections for another? It seems not, but any budding Agatha Christie might have fun with all of this. Beard certainly does.

The Herald: Marlene DietrichMarlene Dietrich (Image: free)

The role gossip has to play in historiography was also in evidence in Radio 3’s The Essay slot this week. The subject was Marlene Dietrich. On Wednesday the Berlin historian Karin Wieland examined the star’s relationship with her native Germany which she had fled as the Nazis rose to power. On Thursday, it was Paul Morley’s turn to look at Dietrich’s 1960s performance of Pete Seeger’s anti-war song Where Have All the Flowers Gone.

But on Tuesday veteran film critic David Thomson chose to discuss the German star’s relationship, onscreen and off, with the director Josef von Sternberg.

Thomson has always been a waspish and at times frankly lubricious critical voice. And he has an ear for gossip. So it proved here. Did Dietrich have an affair with her director Josef von Sternberg? The director said otherwise, though his wife sued the actress for alienating the affections of her husband.

And Dietrich certainly had form in this area, Thomson pointed out.

“Von Sternberg would turn looking at Marlene into an elaborate cult inspired by more and more artifice,” the critic argued. “For a few years Marlene remained in awe of him, yet amused at how he had to witness all her other lovers.”

Listen Out For

The Man Who Fell to Earth, Radio 4, Sunday

Christopher Eccleston may have told the Radio Times this week that he doesn’t like sci-fi, but here he is heading up this radio dramatisation of Walter Tevis’s classic novel opposite Harry Treadaway as Thomas Newton, the part made famous by David Bowie in Nic Roeg’s film of the same name.