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Mary Beard: ‘We see Roman emperors as a long line of psychopaths’

We all know that the Roman emperors were a bunch of psychopaths who thought nothing of poisoning their dinner guests or playing terrifying tricks on them.

Whether it’s the disturbing black dinner of Domitian, where guests were given silver tombstones engraved with their own names, or the party where teen emperor Elagabalus suffocated his diners in a huge shower of rose petals, their generosity often came with a side order of murder.

Mary Beard. Copyright Caterina Turroni and Lion TV
Mary Beard. Copyright Caterina Turroni and Lion TV

But what if we have misunderstood the Roman rulers? Cambridge’s most famous classicist, Mary Beard, reveals a different side to these legendary characters in her new book, Emperor of Rome, and asks not whether these stories are true, but why they were told and how they have become stuck in our collective psyche.

“I think we see the emperors as a long line of – broadly speaking – mad psychopaths who usually tended to be nasty,” says Mary, who will be discussing her book at a talk in the city next week.

“We don’t stop to think that the Roman Empire wouldn’t have survived for hundreds of years if every ruler had been barking, nasty, sadistic, violent and a psychopath in the traditional way we see that.

“We’ve got very preoccupied with the character of individual emperors, how they showed their nasty side, etc and the few who might have been half good. But what we should be doing instead is saying, look, most of these emperors are probably pretty similar. So I’d ask what’s the job description of an emperor? What does the emperor actually do all day? And why do people tell these extraordinary stories about them, because we know that some of the lurid, very intriguing and fascinating anecdotes cannot possibly be true?

Mary Beard in the ruins of the imperial palace, Palatine Hill, Rome credit Lion TV
Mary Beard in the ruins of the imperial palace, Palatine Hill, Rome credit Lion TV

“For instance, Emperor Elagabalus could not possibly have smothered his dinner guests with rose petals. So my question is really trying to weigh up the day-to-day reality of being an emperor with the way they got built up as larger-than-life characters. And these stories about them really embed themselves in the way we think about power. I think, therefore, the stories are really important. But it doesn’t mean that they are true.”

One of the reasons why so many of the emperors suffered such bad reputations, explains Mary, is that hereditary succession was not really expected in Rome. Instead, an emperor could nominate his successor or – and this appeared to be much more likely – be murdered by political rivals. After an assassination, it was usually agreed the dead emperor was a bad sort and stories of his misdeeds would be circulated.

“If you ask ‘Why do we always think so many emperors were bad?’ that is very often because the guy who came next needed to dump on his predecessor,” says Mary.

“Just occasionally, they needed to big up their predecessors. If they had come to the throne, calmly inheriting it from Dad, Dad usually got a good press. But as soon as there was an assassination, everybody starts saying, ‘Oh, he was a monster’ and giving that real colour. The Romans are very good at inventing stories of real horror. We know that people get assassinated sometimes because they were nasty, but they sometimes get assassinated despite the fact that they were quite good. And so what we’re seeing is a massive case of history being written by the winners.”

In her book, Mary explains that Elagabalus certainly had his fair share of horror stories – from the merely humiliating, when he served less-favoured guests fake food made from wood and wax, or had them sit on slowly deflating whoopee cushions, to the truly disturbing: drugging party attendees so they would fall asleep and then releasing tame lions and bears among them so that when they awoke they would die of fright.

Poisoning was also a regular hazard – so much so that emperors employed their own food tasters. Nero was said to have murdered his rival and adopted brother Brittanicus at an imperial dinner after a doctored jug of cold water was used to cool his hot drink. Meanwhile, Commodus was reputed to have human excrement mixed into his guests’ dishes.

Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard
Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard

Mary says: “Nero is a classic case of somebody who really got a bad press. He seems to have done some good things: the fire of Rome happened and he initiated good relief programmes. He opened up his palace gardens for people to sleep in; he put new building regulations in place. On the other hand, there are stories of his complete madness: how he was so preoccupied by being a performer, for example, that he would come and sing with his lyre in public theatres, but he would lock the doors so no one could get out. We’re told women would give birth inside the theatre because they weren’t allowed out.

“Actually, I think it’s very hard ever to do a balance sheet of whether they were good or bad. If we were to ask whether Margaret Thatcher was a good Prime Minister, we know we’d get many different answers, and it would be impossible to come up with an agreed position. There are some people who still think that Liz Truss was a good Prime Minister. We are probably much too keen to say, what is our evaluation of him? Is he beta plus or is he alpha minus? Well, actually, these are political figures, who are argued about differently, or fantasised about, and for me that is what’s interesting, not ending up saying ‘Yes, on balance, the Emperor Claudius was quite good’.”

At this distance we can never know which stories are true and what the character of a particular ruler was like. So if Mary could be given a peek at one emperor’s secret diary, whose would she choose?

“I would love to see a secret diary,” says Mary.

“To some extent, we have the secret diary of Marcus Aurelius in the second century. We now call it his meditations. It doesn’t actually tell us very much about him. But if I were going to see memoirs they wrote at night, I think I would like the secret diary of the Emperor Augustus, the first proper emperor, partly because one of the other real puzzles about the Roman Empire is that it lasts for ages. Augustus starts the system at the end of the first century BC, which certainly goes on to the third century AD, and in many senses, it goes on later than that – it is the form of rule for half a millennium or more.

“The curious thing is we have no idea what he was thinking about or how he did it. We don’t have any sense of his motivations, his strategies, his tactics. Did he just get lucky? Or was this all a careful programme to establish a one-man rule in Rome? We just don’t know. Partly, I think he got lucky because he lived a very long time. He ruled for over 30 years. By the time he’s dead, not many people actually remember what life was like before. And so I’d love to know what was going on in his head.”

She adds: “I would also love to see the memoirs of the Emperor Elagabalus in the early third century, because he’s really not very well known. He’s not exactly a household name in the way that, say, Nero is or even Caligula. But if you go and read what was said about him usually after his death they are the most extravagant stories that we’ve got of any Roman emperor.

“My own view is that these stories are actually making an important point about people’s fantasies about an emperor. Go to dinner with the emperor and you won’t get out alive. Go to dinner with the emperor, you’ll end up on the floor. And even when he’s being nice to you, he can still kill you. I think those are all really big points about how Romans used to try to imagine emperors but it would be quite nice to know whether he was just a slightly shy little teenager, really.”

Imperial dinner parties were a coveted and feared event. It was the place to be seen, but would you get out alive?

“Poisoning is never very far away from an imperial dinner party,” explains Mary, “and you know that because in the background – and I’m sure you’re looking at them – there are the food tasters and they’re not tasting the food to see if it’s good. They’re tasting it to see if someone’s doctored it. The imperial dinner party is the lens through which imperial power and imperial discontent are seen and jockeying for position – who’s sitting where – is all magnified. We can understand that because I’ve been to some formal dinners where it’s been absolutely made clear to me because I’m sitting right at the bottom of the table behind that pillar that I’m the least important…”

If Hollywood movies have depicted anything about Rome accurately it is the dining scene, says Mary.

“Dinner with the emperor is a very edgy, dangerous big deal. And the imperial banquet is where you see the emperor on display. OK, not many of us would actually go to dinner with the emperor. But there are stories about how the emperor behaves at dinner. That is the place that defines the emperor’s qualities. We always say, ‘Oh my God, I would feel terrified. I wouldn’t want to go’. But I’m sure that everybody thought that dinner with the emperor was beyond their wildest dreams – the kind of invitation you don’t turn down and yet it is also this kind of microcosm, where everybody is looking at everybody else, where everybody is being judged.”

However, being an emperor was not all luxury and sadistic fun because they were always having to look over their shoulder for an attacker and could not even trust their closest friends and family.

“There is not a single emperor for whom there was not some suspicion that they’ve been murdered,” Mary explains.

Anecdotes reveal a sense in which the emperor knows about his own vulnerability.

“One particularly nasty character, the Emperor Domitian at the end of the first century CE, is supposed to have had the walls of the places he walked within the palace lined with a shiny reflective stone, so he could see who is coming up behind him. That’s a nice reminder that assassination is a danger that the emperor faces from within the court.

“We tend to think of the classic assassination being the assassination of Julius Caesar, in the Senate House. It’s public, and he’s got by a group of discontented senators. That is one model of assassination – it’s like we still have the Kennedy assassination as our model of political assassination – but most assassinations were from people within your inner circle. It is the bodyguard that’s going to kill you. And so the imperial palace becomes both a site of amazing luxury but it’s also a site of danger for the emperor. It’s a world of not being able to trust anybody, of never been able to believe what people say.

“We think about the flattery of the emperor being very demeaning for the people who are doing the flattering, always having to say yes, you’re absolutely right, etc. But it’s also demeaning for the emperor because one thing emperors know is that no one’s ever telling them the truth. It’s a world where you don’t know what’s true.”

Another problem for the emperor is that it is impossible to really be in charge of such a vast empire because of the speed of communication.

Mary says: “It might take three months to get a letter from one edge of the empire to Rome. And another three months to get it back… how much real power over what was going on outside Italy did the emperor have? We have letters from Roman governors saying, ‘I’ve got a terrible problem because the bath house in this town has fallen down. Should I get an architect and restore it?’ But we know that, mostly, people just decided things on the ground because they hadn’t got the time to wait for the reply.”

Last year, a TikTok trend suggested that most men think about the Roman Empire every day. This may have seemed a mind-blowing fact, but Mary believes it does hold an appeal for a certain type of man.

“I think about the Roman Emperor seven times a day, but then that’s my job,” says Mary.

“But I did come to the conclusion that Rome is still a safe place for that kind of masculine vision of manhood. It’s far enough away that you’re allowed to pretend to be a Roman Emperor. You can enjoy the fantasies because it’s 2,000 years ago. Who am I to judge that? But I was very struck by the obvious fact they’re not thinking of themselves as slaves when they are musing about the Roman Empire. They are thinking of themselves as the bosses, the generals, the emperor, wielding their swords and building roads and building bridges.

“They’re not thinking about being a slave who cleans the bath house out. And one of the things that I hope my book will do is to say, look, there is that traditional image of the Roman Empire that is not entirely wrong, but it is only a tiny part of the overall picture. Who helps the emperor, how does the emperor live, how does the emperor go about his daily life?

“You start to investigate that and it becomes much more interesting than that very narrow stereotype.”

Mary Beard will be in conversation with Simon and Louise Savidge about Emperor of Rome on 2 July at The Frankopan Lecture Theatre, Jesus College, at 7pm. Tickets from https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/mary-beard-emperor-of-rome-tickets-856955686527

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