I came late to Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Channel 4’s attempt to build a Roman villa using only authentic Roman methods seems to offer all the entertainment value of Grand Designs, Auf Wiedersehen Pet and Time Team rolled into one.
Last night’s episode was in some ways less about the villa than about the total collapse and reconstruction of the team’s morale. I had missed the moment where the archaeologist banned the use of wheelbarrows (‘no evidence for Roman use’), but Channel 4 replayed it so we could see how the builders manfully refrained from punching the archaeologist on the nose.
This week the team of six were still lugging everything around the site in buckets as the summer days grew hotter. The plasterer went down with sunstroke. The carpenter and the plumber argued as they failed to build the sort of Roman-style cart that would have solved their transport problem. The archaeologist told them to work faster. Cries of ‘Give them some more slaves!’ and ‘What about a donkey?’ were heard from the Downie sofa. Futile, of course.
Just as the team seemed to be reaching breaking-point, the archaeologist had a bright idea that could be summed up in a phrase familiar to every writer: show, don’t tell. So off they all went to Ephesus.
Amongst the sunlit ruins, a transformation took place. We saw the quality of Roman construction through the eyes of modern builders, who could appreciate both the skills and the time that must have been required. The archaeologist no longer looked like an harassed slave-driver, but a man delighted to share his vision. There was a magical moment when their host poured water over a mosaic and it sprang to life in all its original colours. There were several less than magical moments on the massage couches as the team ‘enjoyed’ the full bath-house experience.
Back in Wroxeter, fortune smiled upon the newly-enthused and massaged builders. The authentic Roman cart was finally made to work, then banned on Health and Safety grounds, so wheelbarrows were permitted after all. Several slaves turned up in the shape of (mostly female) volunteers. And wonder of wonders, there was a donkey.
Next week, we’ll see them lifting massive timber frames into place without the use of modern equipment. What could possibly go wrong?