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Mishcon Academy: Digital Sessions - In conversation with Mary Beard: Author of Emperor of Rome

Posted on 17 October 2023

In September, we were joined by Mary Beard, TV presenter, author and professor of classics at Cambridge, whose own work has explored the societies and culture of Roman and Greek civilisations.

Mary spoke about her new book Emperor of Rome, where she shines the spotlight on the emperors who ruled the Roman empire, from the well-known Julius Caesar to the almost unknown Alexander Severus.

Taking the audience beyond the hype of politics, power, and succession and into the heart of the palace corridors. Mary uncovers the facts and fiction of these rulers, asking what they did and why, and how we have got such a lurid view of them.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor
Welcome everyone, thank you for joining this Mishcon Academy Session, part of a series of online events, videos and podcasts looking at the biggest issues faced by businesses and individuals today.  I am Jo Lonergan, a trainee in the Commercial Litigation Team and I’ll be hosting today’s event.  Some housekeeping bits before we get started.  If you’re joining us online, you’ve joined automatically on mute and without video.  If you have a question, please use the Q&A function at the bottom of your screen and I’ll pick it up.  If you have any tech issues during the event, let us know via the Chat and one of the Mishcon team will give you a hand.  Okay, so, today we are joined by Mary Beard, one of the country’s most well-known historians and author of over twenty books, including the bestsellers ‘SPQR’ and ‘Women and Power’, available here for those of you in the room today.  We’ll be discussing Mary’s most recent book ‘Emperor of Rome’, also available here today, which unpacks the fact and fiction of Roman emperors from Julius Ceasar’s dictatorship in 48 BCE to Alexander Sererus’ assassination in 235 BCE.  And just a note to say that Mary has kindly agreed to sign books after the talk, if you want to stick around for that.  Okay, so, Mary, I’d like to start with your approach to writing the book.  You flip the story of Commodus strutting round the Colisseum, menacingly waving the head of an ostrich at the senators, you flip that on its head and you wonder, if I can just quote your own book to you, “what it must have felt like to be on your own in the middle of the amphitheatre, out of place, pathetically waving an ostrich head at the ranks of senators who were all munching their laurel leaves and barely concealing the fact they are all laughing at you.”  So, when many of us associate the Roman Emperor with power, tyranny and license, why was it so important for you to insert a more human element in the book?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge
It’s a very good week to be asking that because I am sure you all know how many men think about the Roman Empire, you know how ever many times a week. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor
I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge
And I’d like to say that it as all invented by my publicist but actually, it was just entirely coincidental and I think for them the Roman Empire, the figure of the Emperor, is really about power, it’s a kind of you know, if you say why do people think about the Emperor or the Empire in that way?  I think it’s because it’s a safe space to be macho, you know, it’s two thousand years ago so it doesn’t matter very much but the image, the fantasy, is about these kind of all-powerful blokes and I suppose what I wanted to do was to, was to prick that bubble a bit, you know I should say absolutely 100% I despise one man rule, autocracy, you know I don’t have any sympathy for the Emperor as a political institution but I thought almost no one ever sees it the other way round and there is this famous anecdote that you mentioned that, and that classicists laugh, you know, there’s, there’s Commodus, he’s in the amphitheatre and he’s, he’s had some spoof encounters, just like in the movie, Gladiator, he’s had some sort of spoof encounters where he always wins with other gladiators and then he, they kind of tie up some animals for him to kill, you know so it wasn’t, it wasn’t exactly very difficult or very brave, then, he then decapitates this dead ostrich, I mean it’s a horrible thought and he goes to the senators who always sit on the front row and he waves the head at them and he takes his sword in the other hand and he grins, we have an eyewitness account of this, and goes like that, as if to say “You next!”, you know, but the eyewitness account is very kind of wry because as you say, the guy writing this, Cassius Dio historian who was there, says, “I ought to have been scared but actually, I just wanted to giggle”, you know and but I thought actually, it would be awful, if I was caught giggling, this just like you know being in the school classroom, aged seven and you know you can’t giggle at the teacher but, so you bite on your ruler, he said, so “I didn’t know how to stop myself”, so I, they’re all in their, their dinner jackets, the ancient are given up dinner jackets when they’re in the Colisseum and proper toga and he’s got a laurel wreath on his head and pick, he gets a leaf out of the laurel wreath and bites on it very hard, you know, so, so kind of to disguise the fact you know to kind of hurt himself a bit so that biting your lip, so that he didn’t get found out and everybody loves that story, you know because think oh gosh, you know here’s the, we’re all on Dio’s side, he’s sitting there wanting to laugh, we know what it feels like, wanting to laugh and you’re not supposed to, it’s kind of one of the few occasions in the whole of kind of antique culture where you sort of know exactly what that felt like, you know, on many occasions you don’t quite know what it feels like to be there but that experience of knowing you shouldn’t laugh is one that everybody shares, and I just thought come on guys, what was it like to be Commodus?  You know, I think history is at its best, she says, I don’t mean that boastfully, it’s at its best when it tries to kind of flip things and see them a different way and Commodus isn’t an idiot, I mean he’s got written up, largely after his death, as, as a monster and that’s what you see in, in the movie, Gladiator, but he’s got himself in this position where he’s in the Colisseum, it’s a very kind of edgy space, not just because slaughter is happening but the Emperor 6.40 is parading himself to his people in the Colisseum and they’re all watching the spectacle of slaughter beneath, and it’s a kind of big, dividing line between what it is to be a proper Roman and what it is to be excluded and the mark of exclusion is down there on the floor of the Colisseum and it produces a problem for lots of Emperors, you know that they think they’re not looking at me, you know if you’re Emperor, you have to be looked at, you’re in the Colisseum and you’re kind of presiding, you’ve given these games but the everybody is watching the spectacle so the temptation to jump the arena boundary and make yourself star of that show is very, very high and you think Commodus already knows that, you know that it never works out, you know, that never, ever works out and then he kind of gets you know drawn, if this story, and probably is true, is true, to kind of go over and sort of taunt the senators a bit but in the kind of course of doing that he makes himself look an idiot, he knows he looks, he know he looks an idiot, I mean how could you not know you look an idiot, only if you have this kind of extraordinary view of Roman Emperors which is that they were over the top display artists who didn’t have a moment of self-reflection and that seems to me for me that moment is when you see the double bind of being an Emperor, you’re an ordinary guy, you’re not very, you’re not very special and you have to believe in yourself as ruling the Roman world.  Now, I imagine that’s not all that different for Prime Ministers or Presidents or whatever.  How do you believe in yourself as a figure of power?  And so I found myself wanting all the time to think you know not that I, as I said, not that I think that they system they were tying to uphold and did uphold was any good but just a kind of personal level, what on earth was it like?

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor
It’s interesting and it’s also good to know that you don’t want Emperor Rishi.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

No, I do not want, I absolutely not, you know.  But the, I suppose my kind of thought about this goes quite a long way back really because I remember when Lady Di was still alive, Princess Diana, I remember reading a, an account of what she did in the morning, I mean it was probably the Daily Mail or something wasn’t it because what, and the accounts said that she’d get up, she’d go downstairs, she’d go to the newspapers, which had all been laid out on the table, and she’d look for photographs of herself.  And my first instinct was to think how vain, you know, you know haven’t you got something better to do than just go through looking for photographs of yourself.  Then I thought, it must be more complicated than that and she was in a bit of a position of that kind of, you know she was a bit above Rishi in terms of you know popular recognition and I thought, she has got to learn, she is using those photographs to believe in herself as Lady Di, you know, that, that she is actually an ordinary, probably not terribly well, certainly not very academically bright, young woman in a crap marriage and but she’s got to learn that she is the image that she wants to be or she is made to be.  And I think the emperors are doing that and I think all these guys are doing that.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, if you don’t believe it yourself, how can you expect other people to believe it.  Yeah, no, interesting.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

It’s a very interesting version.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

No, no, please.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I should let you go but it, it, there’s, some of the many of the most elaborate, most high quality statues of emperors are found in imperial residences, which I think is another part of it, you know, they, they’re not actually put up in the forum so that you know we can all kind of kowtow to them, some certainly are but not all of them, that the number is an extraordinary number are found in properties we know to be owned by the Emperor, as if somehow you need the image of yourself, as emperor, just like Di, to believe in yourself as Emperor. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, you can gaze upon yourself.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Yes.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

To go back to what you said about Commodus having a bit of a bad rep post-death, I thought it was interesting that you do, you obviously you seek to do a bit of myth busting in your book but you do also indulge a few of the myths so that the book opens actually with Elagabalus and his habit of releasing tame lions, leopards and bears amongst the hungover guests after a big party, which I am sure they appreciated, and then smothering his guests with rose petals and there’s a picture of that actually in the book, in the first page, it’s amazing.  But so since you indulge these myths, what do you think they can actually tell us about the Roman Emperor?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I think that you have to transcend the idea and the question of whether they’re true or not, right.  I mean by and large the stories that we hear and read and have become absolutely kind of part of the image of different emperors, by and large those are told, we don’t know when they originated but they are told and written down after the death of the emperor concerned.  And so the Roman Empire is an absolutely extreme example of history written by the victors so Caligula would be a good case, you know, Claudius replaces the Emperor Caligula after Caligula’s assassination.  The justification in a sense for the assassination is that the PR team goes into overdrive and says Caligula was absolutely awful and so the assassination was a good thing, thank god we’ve got the Emperor Claudius, you know, it’s not very complicated PR.  The difficulty is now that we can’t know whether you know good people and bad people are assassinated, right, everybody in Rome who is assassinated, with the possible exception of Julius Caesar, became, was written up to be bad.  Some of them might have been, some of them probably weren’t, some of the ones that get a great reputation were probably just as seedy and nasty but they happened to be succeeded on the thrown by someone who is investing in them so, the first really good emperor is Vespasian, a hundred years into the imperial rule and why is he a good emperor?  Well he was succeeded, first time it had happened, he was exceeded by his eldest son, you know, so Titus’ reputation depends on Vespasian, Vespasian becomes good, when Caligula is assassinated, what we need is, we need to blacken him.  So, and yet we can’t tell, you know I think, I’m very suspicious of, of a kind of a, one strand in Roman history which is define the villain and to spend 500 pages of a book proving they were really good, right, that sort of revisionist history, may be true, it may not but I don’t think, we can’t tell.  So what I try to think about because I don’t want to throw away the anecdotes, these kind of colourful anecdotes are what makes the Roman Empire terribly appealing, you know, what did Domitian do in his spare time?  He got out his stylus and he killed flies with it, you know, that kind of stuff, you know.  What did Tiberius do in the swimming pool? 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

What did he do in the swimming pool?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Well I’ll tell you, it’s really awful.  He had what he called his ‘little fishes’ who were young boys who came and nibbled his private parts.  Right.  Okay, we don’t, we do not want to throw these, I mean a very boring bit of ancient history before we say we say we’re not interested in those, I think what we have to say is what are they telling us because these stories, true or not, they’re told against the context in which they make sense and they’re told for a purpose and I think your story about, the one you mentioned about Elagabalus who, sorry, I’m going to…

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

No, don’t worry. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Every time, no, you don’t have to bother about whether you get the names said right because we don’t know how Elagabalus said it either, right, okay.  You know, there are wonderful stories like the one that Alma Tadema depicts in the 1880s, guests go to dinner and in a, it’s a, it’s a trick that many emperors pulled, you know, how to show your generosity, well eventually you will shower the guests with rose petals.  The only trouble was that Elagabalus was too generous and there were so many rose petals that they smothered and died, right, it was murder, right, murder by rose petal.  And it, I hoe you’ll look at the picture of, that Alma Tadema depicted that which is in the book and it’s a wonderful picture because if you look very carefully at the faces of the guests, you can see that some of them are still blissfully unaware that this is going to end badly and some of them are already feeling a bit scared so, Alma Tadema, you know, I thought captured it.  But the usual way of seeing that story is to say oh, he’s, he’s only a teenager, he has assassinated age eighteen, he is on the thrown for four years, fourteen to eighteen, so look, this is the kind of thing a capricious teenager on the thrown does, you know he just kind of makes a mess of it, and that’s partly what the story is about, I think.  But it’s also reaching to I think rather more important issues about how people reflected on Roman emperors and their power, partly saying I think when an emperor is generous, it can kill you, you know, Emperors kill with kindness, that the emperor’s generosity can be as dangerous to you as the emperor’s threats and violence.  And so in a funny way, I kind of find it a rather sophisticated little vignette of how the emperor might operate.  Why is the emperor dangerous?  How do you, you know, do you feel, you know you’re invited to dinner, is that a scary, you know, opportunity or is it the best invitation you’ve ever had in your life?  And of course it’s both. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, life or death sometimes, it seems.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Yeah.  You know, it’s, the imperial banquet I should say, and you’ll find more about this in the book, is the kind of, in Ancient Rome is the classic crime scene, you know, so it’s a bit like the English country house or Cluedo, you know, Professor Plum with the lead piping in the library and so, the idea that death happens at dinner, that murder is always on the menu, is a way that people thought about how the emperor operated and you know you go to the dinner with the emperor and you’re surrounded by his food tasters who are tasting for poison and a sensible precaution you might say on the part of the emperor but is also on that reminds every guest that there might be death happening here.  As soon as you’ve got a food taster or there’s a wonderful epitaph in the book of the chief food taster or whatever, as soon as you’ve got that, you’re telling people poison, you know this could be poison here. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Mm, could be your last bite.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Could be your last bite.  And another thing, I’ll tell you one more anecdote then you must go on. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Go on, go on, no. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

And it’s all about, and the court is all about sort of suspicion.  A great tale was that one of the Emperor Tiberius’ renegade female relatives comes to dinner and he’s trying to be nice to her, even though they’ve really quarrelled and he says “Oh do have an apple”, right.  She puts her hand into the fruit bowel and just for a minute, she hesitates, she just thinks, mm, but then she thinks I’ve got to eat this so she does.  Tiberius notices that moment of hesitation, which gives away the fact that she suspects him of trying to poison her and she’s soon in exile, and then worse. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, that was, that was an interesting part of the book actually the, the section about women and how you know everything from their sexuality to their influence is just seen as a massive danger under one-man rule, yet in another way they also have this newfound position at the forefronts of, of the Empire.  So I wonder if you could talk a bit more about that and what the role was there for women.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I mean I think that one of the things it’s easy to forget is that one of the biggest changes that you’d have seen from the old sort of democratic system in Rome to the new system after Julius Caesar of one-man rule is that you saw images of women in public.  If you’d walked through Rome in 75 BC, you’d have seen a, you’d have seen goddesses, then you might have seen a couple of mythical, republican, early hero heroines of Rome.  Otherwise, it’s blokes only.  If you go to 75 CE and you walked through Rome, the public space displays women.  The wives, the sisters, the daughters and the mothers of emperors, so the imperial family and that kind of dynastic and investment in dynasty, that changes the visibility of, of women in the public sphere completely dramatically and I think it would have been one of the biggest things, no one ever mentions this but that would have been one of the biggest changes you’d have seen. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, definitely.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I think that you then got the problem of the image of the illegitimate use of power by women and there’s, that fits I think quite easily to the, to another of the changes that happened with the Roman one-man rule and the old systems of the senate and consuls and all that, they continue but everybody is well aware that the real power is behind the closed walls of the palace and behind the closed walls of the palace, people who have power are the people who are close to the emperor and that’s a major kind of social hierarchical upheaval.  It means that some slaves, you know the emperor’s slave barber who has 20 minutes with him in the morning and can whisper in his ear, becomes a potentially powerful figure and the women, even more so. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, you mentioned that we should ask Carrie Johnson some of the…

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Exactly. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Because you’ve got…

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

How it feels. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

You’ve got the Carrie Johnson phenomenon because you know we know that, that the, you know the same would have gone for Cherie Blair or went for Nancy Reagan, the women who were associated with modern political leaders are also believed to, and probably do have, influence over the political leader but they also are a kind of absolute lightening rod for misogyny, you know the, you know, how, you know, how do we explain the fact that President X made that stupid decision?  Blame the wife, right?  And we saw that very obviously with Johnson and the animals coming out of wherever it was, you know.  And so you, you, in a kind of broadly misogynistic world, the women are useful, they’re useful people to blame and they’re useful explanatory tools when you don’t really know what’s going on, you know, so in the, well just, I don’t know how many of you really looked at or looked at for the first time, the BBC’s I, Claudius when it was recently reshown but that is a classic case, you know, Robert Graves partly borrowed from ancient writers.  Livia and Augustus, the first proper imperial pair.  They have terrible trouble with their succession.  They don’t have a son between them, together.  Augustus has got a daughter and Livia has got a son, from previous marriages. And what is clear is that a large number of those chosen by Augustus to succeed him, die, right.  Now, one of the, you know why do they die?  Well, I mean I think one of the problems in the ancient world is you can’t, it’s very hard to tell poisoning from appendicitis actually, you know, and it’s quite easy to sort of, to you know, conspiracy theory is always better than a cockup for most Roman historians, right, and so you’re looking, you’re looking to explain why he had such bad luck with these successors and Livia’s the obv… Livia is the convenient answer, the, you know, you can’t disprove, we still can’t disprove you know the possibility she might have poisoned every single one of them, especially as in the end, it was her son who came… (26.16 to 27.08 no sound)

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

…27.08? for me once a day every time every time I go to the loo or when I drive a straight road or something like that, it’s, it’s interesting and I’m sure it’s, it’s a Monty Python or like a Joaquin Phoenix-esque emperor but still, interesting. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

We always imagine ourselves at the top, when we think about the Roman Empire, we never imagine ourselves ordinary, right. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

No.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

We always imagine ourselves strutting around a palace.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

No, exactly.  Ostrich head in hand.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Yeah, exactly.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

In a recent Guardian article that I read while I was looking you up, you compare the fabrication of the Roman emperors to Rishi Sunak pretending to fill up an employee’s car in Sainsbury’s for a photo op, which is, it’s a great photo as you’ll see, he looks so uncomfortable.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

It’s amazing.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

And at the very end of your book you mentioned how the research has opened your eyes to the Roman Empire and that, that way of ruling but also how it’s, it’s opened your eyes to the modern political world so, it kind of got me thinking, how much of the, the then can we see in the now?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I think one always has to be careful about drawing two close and direct links, I mean when, when Trump was President, the commonest question I got asked was “Which Roman Emperor is Mr Trump most like?”, right, and…

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Which Roman Emperor is Mr Trump most like?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Well, I tell you what I used to say.  It depended how much time I had.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Okay.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

If I had a lot of time, I’d say now, let’s sit down and think through that question and actually, probably not like any.  If I was busy, I would always say Elagabalus.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Oh.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Because I knew they wouldn’t have heard of him. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, fair.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

And at the very least, you know, they’d just say yeah, you spell that with a, you know.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah.  Elagabus. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

That’s right and then they were going to go and look him up, you know they HAVE to look him up.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yes.  Anyway, sorry I interrupted you.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

No, it so.  There’s, there’s, I don’t think there’s kind of that sort of direct comparison helps, however I think that you know I did come to think and it’s what I wrote in the Guardian, which is that what you see is that Romans, Roman critics, Roman historians, when you kind of pull away at the anecdotes, one of their problems is, is the Emperor just an actor, right?  So, why all that stuff about being so anxious about someone like Nero performing on the stage?  Well, partly because it’s kind of pulling the veil away and saying the Emperor actually is just an actor and it goes back to the last words, it’s all very revealing and always made up but they’re revealing nonetheless of several emperors and Augustus himself is supposed to have said as he was dying, after forty years on the throne, “If I have played my part in this comedy well, give me applause.”  So, right at the very beginning, there is this kind of sense that what the emperor is doing is performing and whether that’s dangerous, is it just a performer?  Should an emperor necessarily perform because that’s what emperors do?  Or does it show that there’s nothing more there than kind of somebody else’s words that he is mouthing and it is our problem, you know whether, whether the people in power are actors is one that we face all the time and that, you know that Rishi Sunak photograph with filling up the car that wasn’t his, it just sort of undermines everything that he was wanting to say.  It’s a bit like when whichever Miliband it was that ate a hamburger of something and it was totally clear he had never eaten one in his life, right. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

That’s another great photo to be…

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

You know, and so, we, we wonder about the, the sense in which can you, can you really believe what you see when you look at people in power?  And do they say, when they, when they say things, are they speaking?  Now, Romans, even before the empire had worried about the idea that the orator might be speaking somebody else’s words and Nero was the first Roman Emperor who when he gave the funeral oration of his adopted father, Claudius, who his mum had murdered, he had somebody else ghost the script and Tacitus, the historian, says, “He was the first Emperor to speak with borrowed words.”  Borrowed words.  Now, we actually are very naïve about borrowed words, you know we see, you know we see an article by the Prime Minster in the Sunday papers and we imagine he wrote it, I mean it says you know, Rishi Sunak at the bottom, I mean you know when we sit and think about it, we know he might have kind of signed it off very briefly, you know, but he didn’t write it, I mean we know that, that the speeches of politicians are not written by them because we’ve got biographies of speech writers, you know we know who Thatcher’s speech writers were and we can sometimes be, if you look at the recordings of Thatcher, you can see she didn’t understand what she was saying, you know, when she says, “The lady’s not for turning”, I don’t think she knows that it’s a pun on the lady’s not for burning, it doesn’t look as if she knows that.  And yet we fudge that from day-to-day, you know we get, we get a letter from the King and you know it’s signed by the King and we kind of imagine he wrote it, of course he didn’t, you know, we’re very stupid but, so there is a sort of way in which we live with that but we also, when it goes too far like Rishi and the petrol, we think that, you know he’s conning us, you know that’s not his car, you know and he’s taken off the Prada shoes you know and all the rest.  That was exactly what happened in the complaints about Roman emperors, Nero in particular but not only.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, no, and somewhere you share an anecdote about a wax figure of the dead Trajan, have a I pronounced that wrong?  Probably.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Trajan, yes. Trajan.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Being paraded round to celebrate victories which are already being overturned by the, the conquest.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Are they just a model?  Are they?

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Are they just, yeah. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

You know, Trajan comes, Trajan has done a very quick kind of smash and grab raid on Mesopotamia in order to get some military glory.  It lasts about six months but he claims to have got a new province.  He then dies.  Hadrian takes over, there’s a big problem, now you know, how are we going to celebrate these victories, well, which are not victories really because we’ve already given the territory up and the conqueror is dead.  So what do they do?  They, they make a wax model of Trajan and they process him through the streets.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

The party has to go on. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

The party has to go on.  And the reverse of that would be people like Caligula and Domitian who, there’s a lot of pretend victories goes on in the Roman Empire, I mean when you see all those statues of emperors in their battle skirts, that’s partly a substitute for fighting, not a mem… not a commemoration of it you know, they dress up in military kit, well it’s like our Royals don’t they, always getting hundreds of medals you know, and actually they’ve not served in a active combat ever, right, but they’ve still got all these medals because they’re wanting to say I, listen, I have a military basis to my power and that the same was very true of Roman emperors and they’d sometimes kind of get a campaign together but it sort of never, it always fizzled out.  So what, but then you want to celebrate a triumph, again for another non-exist triumphal procession through the streets of Rome for a non-existing campaign so, what do you do because you’re supposed to process your captives through the streets when you have a triumphal procession but you haven’t got any captives because you didn’t really have a war, so Caligula and Domitian get told off because, in the historical accounts, because what do they both sort of were supposed to have conquered, done a bit conquering in Germany but didn’t have any captives, so they get some gauls and they dye their hair and they dress them up in Roman costume and they teach them a bit of German and they act out being the captives.  Domitian even goes so far, it is said, that he though god, I’ve got to have some booty as well, you know, he’s got no captives, no booty, so he goes to the palace furniture store and brings some stuff out of the palace furniture store to process through the streets.  Now, it is actually wonderfully funny, right, and you know the idea that the Romans you know kept a straight face at this is a bit odd but it also, bit like the Elagabalus and the rose petals story, it’s actually asking you to think about pretence, you know authenticity, you know, is the Emperor really a conqueror?  And what if it is all a charade?  You know, and I think it's not for nothing that the favourite Christmas game of our own Royal family is charades, you know, and I think it’s about knowing, you know they’re kind of recognising that’s it’s a…

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, well, um.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

That’s it’s all, it’s all play acting. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

We’ll leave that one to hang in the air and take some questions.  There’s none that have come in online, I hope I’ve done that right and I’m not ignoring anyone but anyone in the room have a question?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Otherwise I’ve come a long way.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Tannoe?

Audience member

Hi, Mary, thanks for coming.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Hi.

Audience member

Hiya.  So, I was just thinking about a lot of these anecdotes which have kept in the public consciousness about the Roman Empire and about emperors specifically about Commodus in the amphitheatre and Domitian stabbing flies.  It feels like history sometimes focusses on the personal depravities of emperors rather than their general administrative capabilities.  Do you think that’s a feature of history generally that what we focus on is people’s personalities?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I fear it is and I, I think that, you know I’d like to do both, I mean I don’t think we can reach the personalities of emperors but I think we can reach what people say about the personalities of emperors and I think there is a kind of sense in which let’s say the details of administrative history or economic history have sort of been kind of pushed to one side, certainly in writing for a general audience because they’re thought to be boring, right, they thought that you know what’s exciting, well it’s the stories of the psychopaths and all the rest, now if the Roman Empire had been ruled by as many psychopaths as it’s supposed to have been ruled by, it would not have survived, you know they can’t be that.  But I think one of the things I try to do in the book is to, is to say look, you can bring out the exciting even from, god help us, Roman law codes, right, you know.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

This is the right crowd for that.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

It is the right crowd, yes, I thought, you know.  And there’s, there’s an awful lot of material there which somehow gets kind of just pushed into the seminar room, you know it’s kind of things that well, you know, specialists in Roman law are interested in this.  You read all the stuff in the digest and you know okay some of it is extraordinarily boring, you know, you would accept that but you, you get into seeing what the Emperor actually does, you know, or at least what he puts his name to and there are stories of power, exploitation, personal tragedy that are as vivid as anything you get by concentrating on the personality of the Emperor and you know I’ve tried to, to as it were bring back you know out of the terribly dusty library corners, some of those things, I mean, you know economics I think you know one of things that we forget is that the Emperor was hugely rich and that, but he was personally the owner of vast tracts of the Empire and you can tell that because we’ve got papyri from Roman Egypt among other places which actually make that very clear and he’s renting out or, you know, his agents are renting out this his agricultural land and I think it’s, you know I’m, I suppose I’m, talk about Domitian and his stylus didn’t I, I, I think that one of the things it would be nice to do is to, as I think the Romans did, you know, see the Emperor not only in the swimming pool, not only in the murderous dinner parties but also, you know what’s his brand?  It’s a pen.  You know, the Emperor is ruled, the Empire is ruled by writing, you know, it communicates by writing, it is ruled by writing and the Emperor is a writer and that, you know, I say it isn’t as sexy as a swimming pool, a little, it looks a bit more boring but it, you know, that is getting you to the heart, you know, and anybody who is interested in law knows that, you know that, that writing is a control mechanism as well as a liberation and lots of stories are about emperors with their pens, you know, what, Julius Caesar is assassinated, what does he defend himself with?  Hopelessly, as it turns out, his pen, you know.  Domitian uses his pen to skewer flies but actually, that’s what they’ve got with them.  Hadrian gets crossed with a slave and he stabs at the slave’s eye with his pen, blinding him.  He feels very bad about it a couple of hours later and says to the slave, look, how can I, how can I make up for this?  You know, you what would you like, you know tell me anything you’d like.  And the slave just says, “My eye back please.” 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Cheeky.  We’ve got a question online from Nick Payne.  He asks, “How did the Emperors project their image/power across such a large Empire?”

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

They’re the first people to really do mass branding.  Now, they, Julius Caesar is the first person, first living Roman to put his head on coins.  Now, that’s partly about parading an image and connecting, I think, money and Caesar but it’s also getting his, getting his head into every pocket where Roman coinage is used and it’s, we now don’t think twice about it, you know, it’s a, that tradition has never gone away that the ruler’s head is on the coinage.  In, I can tell you, in 44 BC it was hugely controversial and one, it looks like it’s one of the things that prompted the assassination.  But you’ve also got the flooding of the Roman world with the images of empires, of emperors, you know the Emperor can’t be everywhere, some of them travel a bit but you know, there’ll be millions, Roman Empire is 50 million people probably, there’ll be millions of people who’ve never seen the Emperor in real life but it is the first time that statues and paintings, although the paintings don’t survive, are mass produced and one estimate for Augustus, who is the first proper Emperor, Julius Caesar started this but he was killed too quickly to be able to do very much about it.  The rough estimate, and it’s very rough, for the number of statues of Augustus in the Roman Empire, leaving aside coins, cameos, paintings, marble and bronze statues, is between 25 and 50,000 and that’s another way in which the Empire, the institution of one-man rule simply changed the way the world looked, right, and I think that’s, that’s something that is very difficult to capture and you know we now go to museums and I watch people in museums and statues of Roman Emperors, but I tell you, they don’t look at them, right, you know and you know, I don’t look at them often either, go on about the Emperor you know, go on.  In antiquity those statues were revolutionary in that the idea that the ruler was represented by his marble image was, you know, there’d been some statues of Alexander the Great but he didn’t last that long either, the successors of Alexander the Great did occasionally have their, their portraits on coins, it’s not really entirely clear.  You’ve now just got the omnipresence, you know, and it looks like, it looks like a dictator show, you know, one of our images of dictatorship is that you go down the highway and you know there’s a picture of the dictator on every other lamppost, that, it’s that feeling that you get.  Interestingly, also, Augustus, if you want the comparison with North Korea, for example, Augustus is an entirely made up name, he, he was Julius Caesar’s great nephew, fought a very bloody civil war, wanted a branding change, had been called Octavius or Octavian and these things like I’m going to need a new name, you know I’ve got, and he chooses Augustus.  We kind of now think of this as absolutely normal, it’s the kind of name of the first emperors, what gives us the month of August was named after him.  What it means is you absolutely literally revered one, you know, it’s you know, it’s absolutely what we take the piss out of when it comes to somewhere like North Korea and yet it’s, it’s lasted as a quite serious title for 2000 years.  Revered one. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Revered one, I like the sound of that.  Any other questions in the room?  Leah?

Audience member

Hi, thank you, Mary. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Hi.

Audience member

One of the things that’s so fascinating about the Roman Empire is that even though it was such a long time ago, we seem to know so much about it.  Do you think that the Romans thought like us and that we can ever really understand what they were thinking?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I think that, I’m glad you started the first, what you said first because there is a tendency for people, particularly ancient historians, to say oh there’s so much we don’t know about the, we haven’t got the perspective of the women and no writing by women, don’t have much perspective of the slaves or whatever but we have an enormous amount of stuff, you know it is terribly, terribly well documented and some bits of Roman history are as well documented as what you get again in the West first of all with Renaissance Florence in terms of the amount of documentation.  The big question is always well are they like us or are they not like us and the answer always has to be well, in some ways yes and some ways no.  I mean, if they weren’t like us at all, it would be extremely uninteresting, you know, if they were just utterly foreign and remote with no overlap with anything that we do, we wouldn’t be concerned with them.  There’s always been a bit of a tendency I think to make them too much like us and to in a sense, project our own motivations or anxieties onto them and I think that, you know, one example or kind of model I use and think about it because it’s, I think it’s quite hard to know where you stand on that, you know, is, kind of think about doing ancient history as if it was a, you are balancing on a tightrope, you’re walking along this tightrope and there’s a sort of a different world is underneath you and you look down on one side and it all looks ever so familiar, you know there’s people going to the loo, having kids, you know, making jokes, playing around, you think I can recognise that world.  You look down on the other side and it’s completely alien and it’s the same land but it can look either familiar or utterly unfamiliar and I suppose I think that’s what’s interesting about it, you know that, that it, you have to, you have to constantly work out where you think you stand and whether you think they were like us or whether you’re just fudging it, you know, it would be so much nicer if they were you know, I can understand what it was like to be this child in this place, although almost all the ways they thought about the world were completely different, you know, they imagined a woman’s body as having you know nothing between the mouth and the vagina, it was a tube, you know.  So, I can tell you how you can cure a sore throat.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Not actual medical advice.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

It gives us, wonderful, you know.  You know, and you think well what would it be like if I did think that?  How different would my world be?  So, totally right question and no right answer. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

I think it would be quite an uncomfortable world by the sounds of it. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Puppy dog fumigations is the answer. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yikes.  I reckon we’ve got time for one more question in the room and one more question online, so does anyone have a question in the room? Yes. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Oh, can we just, can we just fit in two, two and one online?  Okay. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Yeah, sorry, I’ve made an…

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

One there, one there and then online. 

Audience member

You mentioned that you’re not a fan of autocracy and I’m not advocating for it but I was wondering to what extent you think the Roman Empire was so successful because of the institution of Empire or to what extent you believe that it succeeded despite that and from the moment of the fall of the republic, it was kind of doomed to fail. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I, you know that’s putting me on the spot isn’t it.  Um because I think what is so striking about the Roman Empire is it lasts, as a, as a system it’s fantastically resilient, I mean in the East it lasts the Fifteenth Century and we always think that the Roman Empire fell in the Fifth Century, well it did in the West but it lasted till the Fifteenth.  And you have a sort of really paradoxical position that the system is terribly resilient and emperors are killed left, right and centre and the, you know, the opponents, you know the opponents of individual emperors get many of them.  I find it, I just, I find it very hard, I mean in part I suppose I’m going to say that however Augustus who really, much more than Julius Caesar, actually formed the system and we’ve got no idea whether it was a masterplan or improvisation or whatever, he did some such crucial things which gave it longevity and the prime one was nationalisation of the army and if you look back to the Republic, you’ve got basically private armies fighting it out, including those actually owned by Augustus himself before he was Augustus.  The nationalisation of the army completely revolutionised how force was used in the Roman world and it monopolised force for the centre, you know in a sense it, in that way it was a military dictatorship actually but Augustus and the emperors controlled violence, at enormous expense, absolutely enormous expense.  Augustus, for example, started a fixed term of service for soldiers, with a pension scheme.  It was phenomenally expense, so expensive that he was soon in our position and having to kind of lengthen the terms of service and put the pension payments off but it was, it was the central plank of stopping the fracture of emperor and you know until 235, there’s only two periods where, one in 68 and 69 and the other in 192 where it looks vulnerable and that is extraordinary, and even after the Third Century when things get pretty dicey, it can be restored again, there’s a model for the restoration by Diocletian and then Constantine but it is, it is puzzling, you know.  You know, how, did this, you know was it despite it all?  I don’t, I don’t know. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Thank you.  And then we had a question just down the front here and then we’ll take the last one from online.

Audience member

Hi.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Hi.

Audience member

Hi.  Assuming that sort of Roman emperors are they’re sort of linked, they’ve got a religious role that they play as well at the centre of the state.  Is there any sort of evidence of, how do you prepare to be an emperor, number one, and how do you prepare to be a living god because it’s not really a manual is it?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Look, you guys are asking really good questions, every single question, because those are absolutely homing in on two of the really, really difficult transition points.  We have no clue how emperors were trained to be emperors.  We have, Marcus Aurelius, much more interesting than his rather kind of overrated meditations.  We have letters between him and his tutor, Fronto, still surviving and you know he, Fronto gives him a bit of sort, a little bit of good, practical advice like, you know, you know don’t play with your mobile phone when you’re supposed to be watching the races because he, he’d taken in his correspondence to do at the, in the Circus Maximus and it did not go down well, it’s a bit like you know William being caught texting during the Cup Final.  And so you’ve got you know it’s a bit of kind of savvy advice but otherwise he’s, he is going through the kind of education, we think it looks stultifying that elite Roman kids went through, you know making up spoof speeches, you know defend Romulus on the charge of murdering Remus, you know, etcetera.  And we can only assume that they learnt it on the job and we can only assume that people, some people who were very important in there were the slaves and ex-slaves, were actually managing the show.  So, that’s one big mystery.  The other big mystery is how is, what did it feel like to become a god or to think you were going to become a god?  You know, they joked about that, you know, when Vespasian dies, you know he says oh my goodness me, I think I, I think I’m becoming a god, right, which was presumably a joke, not a observation.  And you can do, and I talk about this in the book a bit, you can, you can say look, the boundary between God and Man is much more fluid in the Ancient World, that, you know there is plenty of gods like Hercules, who had started out life as mortal so, that transition is possible.  It is still very hard to know how they thought about one day the emperor being a bit sick, then dying and the next time having a temple and a load of priests and Seneca, Nero’s tutor, takes the piss out of that when he does a, a little skit about Claudius going up to heaven and Claudius, you know, not the most kind of spritely emperor, goes up to heaven and the gods think, I don’t really fancy you here, thank you very much, and they send him back down to hell.  So, they’re puzzling about it too, I’d say. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Interesting, yeah.  All I can say is that I hope I can summon some wit on my deathbed. 

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

It’s always invented afterwards you know so you don’t have to, somebody else, somebody else will, will summon, will summon the wit for you. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

So, online quite a nice one to finish with, someone has a good reference here.  Taking the Python view of “What did the Romans ever do for us?”, which emperor left the biggest legacy and why?

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

I think it’s, this is a really boring answer to a nice question.  It has to be Augustus, not only because we still with Augustus, we live with Julius Caesar and Augustus in July and August, they named the months after themselves and we still use it, but I think that there is, there is no other place, there’s one possible other place, where you can see the world changing in a way that lasted for centuries, except under Augustus.  The, I suppose you know my second place I’d say the Emperor Caracalla, not a very nice piece of work, murdered his brother on his mother’s knee, but in 212, he made every free, every free person in the Roman Empire a Roman citizen, giving millions and millions of people citizenship.  It’s probably counts as the biggest grant of citizenship to huge numbers of people ever in the history of the world and I mean it changes the balance between the insiders and the outsiders, it makes everybody an insider.  Now, they find other ways of making insiders soon but essentially, it has made everybody in the whole Empire an insider and we have no idea why he did it but it’s a big change. 

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Sounds huge.  But yeah, thank you for coming in, Mary, a really interesting talk.

Mary Beard
Author and Professor of Classics, Cambridge

Oh, thank you.

Joanna Lonergan
Trainee Solicitor

Should we say thank you to [applause]

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