Kate Chisholm

The ties that bound us

Plus: slow radio gets really slow with Meditations from a Monastery and how a female director shook up Nollywood

Only Neil MacGregor could do it — take us in a single thread from a blackened copper coin, about the size of a 10p piece, dating from Rome in about 200 AD, to a packed music hall in London during the first world war. In his new 30-part series for Radio 4, Living with the Gods, the former director of the British Museum looks at the ways in which societies come together through shared rituals and beliefs and how these rituals are developed and used to make sense of our place in a universe beyond human comprehension. One side of the coin shows a fire burning within the Temple of Vesta, dedicated to the Roman goddess of fire, and surrounded by the Vestal Virgins, whose job it was to keep the flames alight, to protect the ‘hearth’, or the focus of Rome’s power. On the other side, a portrait not of the emperor but of his consort Empress Julia Domna.

In a rare example of women exercising their power outside the home, Rome’s future was dependent on the fire-preserving abilities of these virgins. If the fire did go out, it was thought that something bad would happen to Rome; and the virgins deemed responsible were buried alive. It’s that history, MacGregor argues persuasively, via Elizabeth I’s portrait as a Vestal Virgin and that of Marie Antoinette, too, which led to Ivor Novello’s popular song, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. The hearth was the seat of domestic security, kept burning by the women of the house, and Novello, you could say, was harking back to the Vestal Virgins as he attempted to boost morale in 1914.

In another thread in the same programme we were given a Persian coin, this time of shiny gold, and from 275 AD.

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