Mary Beard

Classicist, Cambridge don and trustee of the British Museum discusses flamingo-brain feasts, gender surgery in antiquity and her new book Emperor of Rome with Helen Brown
Award-winning author Mary Beard’s new book is a reminder that empires built emperors, not the other way around. PHOTO: ROBIN CORMACK

“Ancient Rome is quite a safe space for men who want to enjoy a bit of a macho fantasy,” grins Mary Beard. “I think that’s fine. It was a long time ago and the sword-waving machismo is mixed up with loftier ideas of history and strategy. If those men had any idea what a Roman battle was really like, I doubt any of them would want to be there!”

The nation’s best loved classicist is clearly tickled by the TikTok trend inviting young women to ask men how often they think about the Roman Empire. A thread that has seen the hashtag #romanempire viewed 1.1bn times suggests the average male respondent considers the ancient civilisation on – at least – a daily basis. When one woman challenged her brother’s claim, he showed her a virtual replica of the Colosseum it had taken him weeks to build on Minecraft. Country music star Billy Ray Cyrus got involved to admit he thinks about gladiators 20-30 times per day. Gosh.

On the bright side, the world’s renewed vow of interest in the ancient world suggests Beard is guaranteed solid sales for her savvy, humanising new history of Roman rulers: Emperor of Rome. But Beard argues that studying classics doesn’t just offer a safe space to men who want to indulge latent military yearnings, but to anyone seeking to explore some of the 21st century’s most emotive terrain. “One of the last things I did before retiring [from Cambridge university] was to make a series of short films aimed at kids aged fourteen to seventeen. Because the idea does persist, that things that happened a long time ago – dinosaurs, Ancient Rome – are for primary school and then you go to secondary and do ‘the real stuff’. So we looked at topics like free speech after talking to kids who are ‘presentists’: they believe that cancel culture is a product of social media.” She shakes her head. “So we made a film about Socrates.”

Since they’re all available online, I watched that film with my own kids (aged eleven and fourteen). They were surprisingly engaged by watching Beard lug a cardboard cut-out of the Athenian philosopher into a modern courtroom dock and act as barrister for the prosecution.

“Socrates is a dangerous radical, corrupting our youth!” Beard asserts as prosecutor. “He’s teaching them to question everything! Even things we know are true. You might as well send a climate change denier or an anti-vaxxer into every classroom. Words don’t just hurt our feelings, they can do real harm.” My eleven-year-old was genuinely distressed to learn that – 2000 years before John Cleese complained he’d been cancelled by the BBC, while talking live on the BBC – poor old Socrates was condemned to drink poison (“I’d have pretended to die, then run away”). My snarkier teenage son eyerolled the Athenian jury. “Didn’t kill the ideas, though, did they? And we still know who Socrates was today, while I can’t name any of the losers who voted for him to die.” Beard 1, classics education deniers, 0.

“When you start talking about these tricky issues through the figure of Socrates,” Beard tells me, “you can have a much better conversation because nobody is emotionally invested in the way they are with the people being cancelled today. You’re allowed to think what you like about Socrates. You’re allowed to think the Athenians were right to put him to death, or that they were utterly wrong.”

“What I learned writing this book is that most people are if not collaborators then co operators with the ruling regime”

Talking via Zoom from her home in Cambridge, Beard looks weary. She rubs her eyes and rocks back in her chair. Former students have commented on her tendency to slide down her chair during seminars until only her feet are visible – although they never had the sense of her reclining mentally. Today she has a good excuse. The previous night she’d been “gigging” (illuminating the classics for an audience of 2,000) at the Barbican. “Good crowd,” she tells me, “lots of young people”. And an even gender split, despite the TikTok thing? “Yeaaaah. Pretty even I’d say.” Although she first appears on my screen looking borderline catatonic, Beard is soon rocking forward, enthusing away the way she does on telly – only with more raucous laughter and swearing.

The late Times TV critic AA Gill once famously said that this wonderful woman (and her “tombstone teeth”) should be banned from our TV screens. I’ve always suspected that this sexist backlash was driven not just by men’s fear of her cleverness, but also by the abundant pleasure she took in her work. To watch Beard’s interrogation of ancient artefacts is like watching David Attenborough marvelling at gorillas. There’s the same scholarly joy in sharing the facts we know, then an open-palmed wonder at the remaining unknowns. Beard gleefully explodes the patriarchal myth that the acquisition of knowledge and the firing of synapses is a slog. Actually, it can be a blast and you don’t need to wear lipstick for the cameras to let anybody in on the secret. In fact, in ancient Rome they used the same word – lenocinium – for both makeup and prostitution. Cosmetics were, as ever, used by both men and women of the Empire, although its use by men was frowned upon and Cassius Dio tells us that people were unsettled when the emperor Elagabalus (c. 204 – 222) shaved off all his body hair and wore makeup.

Elagabalus is a key subject of Beard’s new book. Although she cautions readers that her study of Roman Emperors contains “fewer psychopaths than you might expect from the movie image of imperial Rome,” she opens with a chapter titled: “Dinner with Elagabalus”. According to ancient historians, we learn that this “extravagant, inventive and occasionally sadistic party host” served his guests flamingo brains and camel heels. He invited diners to seat themselves on the world’s first recorded whoopie cushions and served some of them wax or glass food. On one occasion he is said to have showered his guests with so many petals that they suffocated.

It starts to make more sense when Beard explains that Elagabalus was just fourteen years old when he landed Rome’s top job. As a teenager he relished contrariness (only eating fish while miles from the sea and marrying a Vestal Virgin) and demonstrated a limited awareness of how his whims affected others. Dio claims he “asked doctors to give him female private parts by means of an incision.” Beard notes that: “In our own day he has sometimes been heralded as a transgender pioneer, mounting a radical challenge to rigid binary stereotypes. Most Romans would probably have thought that he was turning their world upside down.”

Beard – who has admitted to being too “scared” to assert a view on modern gender identity politics – stresses that we cannot know how much of any of this is true. But she also thinks that doesn’t matter. Because what these accounts clearly do tell us is what worried the Romans about imperial power. How they feared the whims of autocracy and how they planned to survive it.

“What I really learned, writing this book,” she tells me, “is that most people, most of the time, are if not collaborators then co-operators with the ruling regime. We are terribly guilty of having a romantic view that we would be the ones to put our heads above the parapet and say: ‘I think autocracy is a very bad idea! We should return to democracy!’ I mean, academics, desk-bound, library-bound academics, who’ve never put their bodies at risk in their lives, are guilty of this. I think if you’re so keen on the dissidents in history maybe you should become a dissident in your own time, mate!” Despite including herself in that desk-bound category, Beard does regularly go out on a limb, engaging reasonably with critics on Twitter (X) and – at one time – backing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party. She later backtracked on Corbyn, noting he hadn’t done enough to combat antisemitism. But she’s as critical of her own views as of anyone else’s and notes that about-turns have always been the way of things. “Most Romans went along with whatever the emperor said. When one emperor falls we see writers deploying the same tactics we would today: “Oh, I always thought he was terrible.”

Beard recalls a meeting with students fifteen years ago in which they were debating the role of classics in helping us understand modern culture. “We were thinking about the Second World War. And almost every student said they’d have joined the resistance. I had to say: you wouldn’t have done that. Very few people did that. Studying history can allow you the fantasy that you would have behaved differently to the majority who were just trying to get on with their lives without being killed.”

Although Beard’s book appears to be about the Top Dudes, it’s actually a sly reminder that empires built emperors, not the other way around.  So in studying the role of the Roman Emperor (which she does via various aspects of a ruler’s life, rather than via the chronological guide to personalities) Beard is able to peer into the more human situations. Who served the emperor’s dinner? How, and on what crockery? Who took his minutes? Who did he sleep with? And whose grievances did he hear?

To watch Beard’s interrogation of ancient artefacts is like watching David Attenborough marvelling at gorillas

The story that sticks with me is of the Emperor Domitian’s “Black” dinner party, at which he seated guests on chairs designed to look like their own tombstones, had waiters who were slaves painted black, and food presented on the black crockery usually used to serve ritual food to the dead. They all left in fear of their lives and were later woken by gifts from the emperor of their seats scrubbed clean to reveal they were made of silver. “Cassius Dio gives us that as a tale of terror minus the bloodshed. A proof that you can scare the wits out of people without hurting anyone. It’s powerful. But also, you sit there and think: maybe it was just a fancy-dress party. We have Halloween parties. Or perhaps Domitian was playing at being a philosopher by talking about death all night? We don’t know!”

Beard says that when she first began studying classics she believed she needed to “master the biographies of the emperors… my dissertation as an undergraduate was about Nero and the Flavian dynasty. And in some ways it’s very good training to get to the bottom of those careers. It teaches you how to deal with the sources. But I realised that the chronological approach wasn’t going to open up the Roman Empire to me. I realised that when you look at an individual biography you think one particular anecdote about that emperor is very telling about a person. Amazingly idiosyncratic! But when you find versions of the same story cropping up again and again you realise you’re learning more about a population’s relationship with power than about any individual. I mean, people get very worked up about Caligula and his horse, but the more you read the more you realise that many emperors had very strange relationships with their horses!”

What’s interesting here, Beard thinks, is “the fantasy of how power can go wrong.” She tells me that her own academic training encouraged her to try and “work out if an anecdote was true or not – when you can’t. But what you can do is think about who is telling this anecdote and why. Then you see that the most implausible story is often the most informative about a culture. That lovely story about Elagabalus and the petals? It captures the idea that even when emperors are kind to you they might kill you.” Like Rishi Sunak saving us all some short-term cash by cancelling our commitment to Net Zero? “Well,” Beard shrugs. “Yes.”

Helen Brown is an arts journalist writing regularly for The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, The Financial Times and The Daily Mail

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