Of Rome and its emperors
Historian Mary Beard's latest book tells the story of 30 Roman emperors in a new and original way, writes Hamilton Wende
Emperor of Rome ★★★★★
It all began with a piece of cake — a child’s delight in a 3,000-year-old slice of a blackened, ancient Egyptian treat.
“I grew up in Shropshire,” Mary Beard smiles at me from a tabletop in her kitchen. It’s a homely, creative space filled with colourful tiles and old wooden doors and cupboards. “Which is quite rural. I was five and my mother decided I needed to see London, so she took me to the British Museum. We went and saw the Egyptian mummies, but there was a case that mum said was really interesting. It was too high for me to see into, but a guy came past and asked if I was trying to see anything in particular. My mum told him about the cake and he got some keys out and opened the case. He lifted the cake out and put it right in front of my nose.”
Mary laughs. “That was the moment I fell in love with the ancient world. With the idea that you could actually be that close to the distant past.”
It’s something she has done superbly over her distinguished career. In her latest book, Emperor of Rome, she tells the stories of nearly 30 emperors in a deeply engaging and original way. She doesn’t follow the traditional approach of a long narrative starting with Augustus and ending with the murder of Alexander Severus in 235 CE. Instead, she looks at what it meant to be a Roman emperor, what it was like to be them, what they ate, who they slept with and how they ruled their vast dominions.
“I thought about how to tell these stories with all their lurid idiosyncrasies: how did he get around? What was his palace like? What happened when he went to war?”
She looks at the psychopathic tendencies of some and the mercy and good judgment of others. She shows us their robes made of silk from faraway China and their dinners of lark’s tongues and crystal goblets. We meet their perfumed lovers, male and female, and see the paradoxical ruthlessness and love they displayed, as it suited them, towards their families.
Beard begins the book in fine style at a dinner ruled over by the almost-forgotten Elagabalus, who fed his guests fake food of wax and glass, and released tame lions, leopards and bears to wander among them as they slept off their hangovers.
Not much more is known about him. He came to the throne at 14, asphyxiated his guests in clouds of flower petals at another dinner and collected thousands of shoes before he was assassinated at 18.
The details in her book are startling, colourful and always meaningful. She takes us from Augustus tearing out the eyes of a soldier to the flimsy claim by Vespasian that the divine power of his spit gave sight to a blind man. She debunks myths such as Nero fiddling while Rome burnt or that Commodus took potshots at the audience in the Colosseum with a bow and arrow.
Telling the stories of all these emperors was not easy. “They’re all much more similar than they are different.” From Augustus and the fall of the Republic, for more than 200 years nothing changed in the way Rome was governed.
“The system of one-man rule was never challenged,” she says. “They remained in power because people were prepared to accept them.”
The parallels with autocracies growing in our world today are worth considering. “It’s about power without limits. All autocracy is about smoke and mirrors. Dictators survive because we let them.”
We can learn from the Romans. “They did provide the world with a way of talking about power. Civic rights are very much a Roman notion. One of the best critiques of imperialism is Tacitus from the second century AD. He puts words into the mouth of a British freedom fighter: ‘The Romans make a desert and call it peace.’”
She believes understanding and reinterpreting the legacy of Rome and its emperors is something that will enrich all our lives. “You will see different connections and make a contribution, maybe more interesting from the fact that you’re not part of the old white, western tradition of the classics. I’m hoping there are people on the continent of Africa who can tell me a thing or two about the Romans and what they see, or why I am too narrow in my view.”
This journey is her calling. As she learnt at the age of five. “That you could be that close, no glass separating you. Since then, that’s what I’ve tried to do — open cases for other people and bring the past to life, and to let people share the experience and the pleasure I’ve had.”
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