Think Out Loud

REBROADCAST: Classicist Mary Beard explains what we know and don’t know about ruling the Roman Empire

By Sage Van Wing (OPB)
Oct. 26, 2023 3:32 p.m.

Broadcast: Monday, Feb. 19

Even though the Roman empire came to an end thousands of years ago, we still tell stories about the emperors who ruled during that time. From Caligula, who threatened to make his horse a senator, to Nero, who killed his own mother and set fire to the city to make room for his palace, classicist Mary Beard argues that the stories we tell about the Roman emperors might say more about us than they do about the emperors themselves. We spoke with Beard in October 2023 about her latest book, “Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World,” which attempts to break down what we can actually know about the lives of the emperors and how they ruled.


Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller, coming to you today in front of a student audience at Parkrose High School in Northeast Portland. We’re spending the hour with Mary Beard, the award winning scholar of ancient Rome. Mary Beard has written more than a dozen books about ancient Rome, including “SPQR” and “Confronting the Classics.” She’s made it a point to not just focus on history’s winners. She often focuses on people who don’t wield obvious power. So her latest book might come as a surprise. It’s called “Emperor of Rome.” Despite what the title might suggest though, it’s not a series of biographies of Roman rulers. It’s an exploration of what it meant to be an emperor and a demonstration of what we can learn about everyday Roman life and even ourselves through the stories about the office. Mary Beard, welcome to the show.

Mary Beard: Great to be here.

Miller: Here we are at a high school with people who are preparing to launch into their adult lives. I wanna start with your launch, just for a minute or two. What set you on the path to becoming a historian?

Beard: Can I go back to when I was five?

Miller: Please.

Beard: Yeah. I lived with my parents a long way from London. I was five. My mom was a village school teacher. She thought I ought to go to London to see the capital city. And she took me to the British Museum. We did fun things, but we also did the British Museum and I was dead keen on the Ancient Egyptians then, and we went to see the mummies and then she took me to the Ancient Egyptian Everyday Life Gallery. And she was looking around and she was like, “God, you know, at the back of that case, there’s a piece of 3,000 year old Egyptian cake,” right? So I said, “God, I really want to see that. I want to see that.” But back in the day, museums were not at all child friendly. I was little, I was five and this thing was right at the back, so she tried to lift me up so I could see this piece of amazingly preserved 3,000 year old cake, but it was hopeless.

At this point, an old guy walks past and says, was I trying to see anything in particular? And I said, “Yes, that piece of cake at the back,” right? And he must have been a curator because he went into his pocket, he got keys out, he opened the case and he brought this cake out and held it right in front of my nose, and I never looked back. It was just…it was only a piece of cake, but it was still kind of really exciting that someone not only would have put it right in front of me, but taken the trouble to notice that I wanted to see it and it made me think about all the things that survive from history that you don’t normally think about.

Miller: What’s fascinating about that is, it’s not a crown, it’s not something majestic and tied to the things that are normally written about in history. It’s a very everyday object. Also a sweet thing that a five-year-old or even I would be interested in at this very moment. But what’s the connection between that and your career? How do you go from that moment to becoming a historian?

Beard: Well, I think I was always interested in the kind of everyday bits of history. Emperors are all very well, and I’ve got more and more interested in them as I’ve got older, but I was always interested in what people wore, what the enslaved people did, what the ordinary folks got up to, how they went to the lavatory, how they dressed, how they washed and what they ate. And I never really looked back from that piece of the old bit of Egyptian cake. I got more interested in the Romans and the Greeks than I did in the Egyptians. I don’t really know why that was, but it was really about what it was like to be there and all the bits of history that we don’t usually get told about. Most people when you do history, when I did history at high school and at university, we didn’t know what people ate, and that’s one of the most interesting things. It tells you more about almost anything, if you think, what did people eat in the past?

Miller: Let’s take a question from the audience. What’s your name?


Miller: Go ahead.

AJ: I was curious, who’s your favorite author or what was your favorite book growing up?

Beard: Oh, that’s really hard. I think a lot of people who get into being writers like me, I think a lot of them, they’ve often spent all their time when they were kids with their noses buried in books. And I have to confess I didn’t really. It’s not that I was uninterested in books, but I had other things that I preferred doing.

I suppose what kind of things that I remember when I was really little were the very childhood stories that I read when I could first read. There was an amazing story which still resonates with me. And you can see, when I give you the title, what sort of story it must be. It was called “The Story of the Fierce, Bad Rabbit.” And this was a story about a very nasty rabbit who stole a carrot from another rabbit and didn’t say please. And then he got his tail shot off by a man with a gun. And the story wasn’t exactly complicated, but it really made an impression on me. It partly made an impression on me, I think, because I really enjoyed being frightened by it. I think that the kind of stories I’ve liked ever since have been stories that really, I thought, gosh, I don’t like this very much and yet I do like it. And there were stories in which bad things happened and challenging things happened and I didn’t feel comfortable. And I think it kind of set me off on a lifetime of on and off reading, where I wanted books to make me feel uncomfortable, not comfortable, make me wonder about myself. And that started, I think I was about four when I first read this, I could barely, kind of, bear to read it because I knew that he was going to get his tail blown off. But it just made me think books aren’t meant to be comfortable. Books are meant to be difficult and challenging.

Miller: I want to turn to the paradox that’s sort of embedded in your book that I mentioned briefly in my introduction, that we can learn something meaningful about everyday life in Ancient Rome by learning about the least ordinary people in Rome, in the Empire. How is that possible?

Beard: Well, people have said to me a lot in the last few weeks since this book has been out in the UK, “Mary, I thought you were interested in ordinary people in the ancient world. And here you’ve written a book called ‘Emperor of Rome.’ Have you changed your mind?” And the answer is no, I haven’t changed my mind. I mean, I am quite interested in what it would have felt like to be Roman emperor. That’s true. But what you see through the eyes of the Roman emperor are some of the most ordinary stories and problems of the ancient world, that you don’t get any other way. I mean, one of my favorite ones is a story that ends up on the desk, in the entry of the first proper Emperor, Augustus. And it’s come for him to adjudicate, from the other side of the Mediterranean, from what’s now Turkey, city of Knidos. And in Knidos there were two kinds of rival families, and they were sort of bashing each other up, most evenings. And one evening, one of the families comes to the house of the other to sort of bash the door down and all this. And the people inside the house tell one of their slaves that he should go upstairs and get the contents of a chamber pot and throw it onto the heads of the people underneath.

Miller: A chamber pot is like a toilet pot, before plumbing.

Beard: Yes, a toilet pot. And basically it was a load of, I won’t say, I’m not allowed to say the word but S and P inside it. So the slave pours this onto the head of the people underneath. But also he drops the pot as well and the pot then kills one of the guys who’s marauding the house outside. And the local authorities say, this is a case of murder, mate. Come on, this is a case of murder. And it’s looking very bad until the owners of the slave appealed to the emperor himself, hundreds of miles away in Rome. And the emperor says, ‘No, it’s fine.” That was, he looked at the case, that was legitimate self defense. And we know about it because they were so pleased with the emperor’s ruling that they inscribed it on a stone and put it up for public display saying, “The emperor said we were not guilty.”

Miller: Now, it brings up so many questions. How was a sprawling empire, where it could take upwards of a year to travel from one end to the other, set up in such a way that for… I mean, this is life or death, this question. So there is a death that should be adjudicated, I get that. But why is it that the emperor would be roped into this?

Beard: It is extraordinary. The emperor kind of branded himself. He’s a ruler of the Roman world. But that meant he was available to people to bring their problems to, to write begging letters. He was supposed to be the problem solver for ordinary people. And so it’s clear that however difficult it is, they’re writing to him in their thousands, and sending off letters or little kinds of groups of people, to come to represent their case with the emperor himself. And so there he is. Heaven knows how he manages this and he must have got an awful lot of staff to help. But what he is doing is he is actually listening or reading the problems of the absolutely ordinary people in the Roman world who we mostly don’t hear about. And then we find the kind of stuff, they either are so pleased if they win that they write it up on stone and say, “Look, the emperor came out on our side,” or from the provinces of Rome and Egypt, you find it written on papyri that’s still preserved in the hot sand, basically.

Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience. Go ahead.

Student: What do you think is most important for students to know about history?

Beard: I think it’s most important to allow history to make you think differently about yourself. I think history is interesting in part because the past is curious, the past is kind of interesting and I’ve got a lot out of it. But I think the main thing is that it ought to help us look at ourselves a bit differently and we ought to think in some ways about what we will look like. It helps you think about what we will look like when we are history and it helps you see a different way of looking at the world. And I think having a different angle on your own problems. I mean, I often think about the Romans. They’re brutish, slave owning imperialists, in some ways, and I don’t like them very much. I don’t admire them, but I often do stop and think, what would they think is so weird about us?

Miller: What do you think they would … I mean, setting aside technology because that always changes, but what about the way we’ve set up our society and what it reflects in terms of our values, what would they make of it?

Beard: I think one thing they would find absolutely extraordinary is the prison system. The idea that what almost every culture in the world now does, but particularly Western cultures, that their way of punishing people is to lock them up, at enormous expense. Actually, probably fruitlessly. Rome didn’t know anything about prisons. They weren’t nice, but if you committed a crime, you either got fined or exiled or, I’m afraid, killed or you got a slap. But the idea of removing someone’s liberty because they’d done something of which we disapprove, they [would] just think it completely baffling.

They’d also think jolly baffling, the way we treat old people. The idea that what you do with old people is ultimately lock them away with a lot of other old people, to spend their final days just in a sort of a world where only the old go. And I think, OK, people didn’t live quite as long in the ancient world as we do, but old people would not get pushed aside.

Miller: What about young people? I was struck by how many times you mentioned toddlers and little kids at the emperor’s banquet table area. It seems like it was a very multi-generational affair.

Beard: It’s a much more multi-generational affair. I think that one of the things that they would also find surprising about us is the way we treat kids and particularly very young children. The idea that you give children different things to read, you dress them differently, you give them toys that are made for children. That, by and large, would be completely incomprehensible. There were, we have found in excavations, a few things that look like toys, to be fair, and a few things that look like dolls. But basically, kids in the ancient world are just young grownups. Now, there are pluses and minuses to that because certainly ordinary kids, not rich ones, but ordinary kids probably went out to work before they were 10, probably. There wasn’t a kind of sense that there was education, school past the age of 10 or so was only for the relatively rich, but children were just mini-adults. And they had dinner, the emperor had dinner and the children are at the dinner, and it’s a much more generationally mixed world.

Miller: I want to go back to this question of the size of the empire. At a time, obviously, without internal combustion engines were just using animal power or your own power to cross from England to the Eastern Mediterranean. What did that mean in terms of the challenge of administering an empire?

Beard: It’s absolutely mind boggling. We have some letters surviving between the emperor and people who are governing the far flung provinces. It takes three or four months to get a letter from Rome to let’s say the coast of the modern Black Sea. And you find you got these governors writing to the emperor to say, “What shall I do about the bath building that’s falling down somewhere?” And by the time he can get a reply, that’s probably going to be about eight months later. So how that actually works in practice is really, really difficult and in a sense, people don’t know what’s going on in the empire, really, I think.

Miller: You also note that - which I found very reassuring early on in the book - you say, “If dear reader, you actually can’t really distinguish too many Roman emperors, you don’t know their names, you don’t know too much about their history, don’t worry because chances are people living 2,000 years ago who were ruled by these men, they would have been in the same situation.” So, I mean, what was the level of familiarity among everyday Romans or people within the control of Rome, in terms of their rulers?

Beard: Very, very low. I mean, we’ve kind of got the impression, I think largely peddled by historians, modern historians, that what you need to know about the Roman Empire is who the emperor was, what their name was, when they ruled, all that kind of stuff. There were some people in Rome, there were people who were close to the emperor, had dinner with him, to whom that mattered. Mostly it didn’t matter. Mostly they probably didn’t know the guy’s name or it certainly took them some time to find out when one emperor died and the next one came to power. So, it’s like us in a way. I mean, I don’t know, maybe you’re much better, kind of trained than I am. But I doubt if you could actually reel off all the presidents of the United States, could you?

Miller: Not the entire list, no. I know the current one and I know the previous one.

Beard: I know the previous one, that’s right. And journalists always used to ask me about the previous one. They always just say which Roman emperor is he most like? I always took care not to reply, thought it was too dangerous to reply. But we don’t know that. I don’t know if somebody said, what’s the date of Edward III of England? I wouldn’t have the foggiest clue. Most Romans were like that. They know about emperors, but they don’t know much about which emperor is which or when they ruled or what they were like.

Miller: Let’s take another question from the audience. What’s your name?

Kai: Kai. My question is, do you have a favorite Roman figure from history?

Beard: I think most Romans were pretty nasty, actually, in our terms. And people quite often ask that question or they put it even more sort of, who would you like to have dinner with? And you think, “Oh, I’m not sure I’d like to have dinner with any of them.” I’ve got some that I find more interesting than others and I think my favorite one is a very little known emperor from the third century CE, a guy called Elagabalus. And he’s interesting because he is the absolute extreme of being a bad emperor. So you probably know the names of one or two bad emperors. Nero is still a name recognized. Emperor Caligula. Elagabalus is absolutely off the scale. He does things like … well, he invites his friends to dinner and he then showers them with rose petals, but he showers them with so many rose petals that they smother and die, right?

Miller: Or so goes the story.

Beard: So goes the story. Yes, sorry. None of this, I’m sure, is true. But he invents the whoopee cushion. He has a lot of people to dinner and he sits them on inflatable cushions and he has people pull the air out as the dinner goes on. And so they end up on the floor. And he’s an appalling fat shamer. He invites people to dinner because they’re very large. And then he laughs when they can’t fit on the same couch. I mean, he is absolutely ghastly in every possible respect. You’re right to say probably none of this is true, but it sort of makes you see what Romans were afraid of in emperors and it’s a bit like modern celebrity gossip. We know it’s not true, but it tells us quite a lot about how we think about these people.

Miller: You mentioned that everyday Romans, it would take a while for them to figure out who the new emperor was, if they ever would really pay attention to that. Let’s turn to the question of succession. You have a whole chapter about it. And it’s fascinating because unlike a lot of cultures throughout history, where if there were one person rule or one man rule, it was not uncommon for the first child or the first son to take over. That’s not the way it works in Rome. So, what would happen in general when an emperor died?

Beard: When an emperor died, they fought it out. Now in the UK, we have no doubt when Queen Elizabeth recently died, her eldest son took over and we knew that was going to be the case for the last 70 years. Ever since this kid was born, he was going to be the next. Now, Rome doesn’t have a system like that and it is helpful, if you want to be the next emperor, it’s helpful to be the son of the previous one. But it doesn’t solve it, it doesn’t give you an automatic right. Now, there’s advantages and disadvantages in both systems. In the kind of UK, European monarchical system, there’s no question about who’s going to succeed and everything’s very straightforward, but it means you have to put up with someone who’s completely hopeless if they happen to be the first born.

Miller: And over time, a kind of inbred world of royalty.


Beard: Yeah, that’s right. What you find in Rome is that you don’t have to put up with someone who’s hopeless. But all the time, people, from long before the emperor is dying, even before he looks faintly sick, they are jockeying for position to be the person who’s going to be named to be the heir. So it makes the court and the people around the emperor constantly rivalrous, constantly trying to get one up on the other people who might be their rivals...

Miller: And often killing them, out of fear.

Beard: Sometimes it is said, killing them.

Miller: Sometimes. But I mean, it did happen?

Beard: Look, Rome wasn’t a nice place and the way of solving your problems in Rome, apart from writing to the emperor, was a pretty brutal way. You killed your way out of your problems. It’s a really frightening kind of society. But people would try to make sure that their rivals to the throne were sidelined somehow and sometimes that sidelining was a pretty brutal form of sidelining.

Miller: Often the way emperors would try to get around this or choose their own successor, was through adoption. It was an unbelievably common and also geographically far away process. Emperors came from Italy - but also what we now call Italy - but also from Spain, from North Africa, from Syria. What did it mean to be Roman? And what did it mean to be a foreigner?

Beard: I think that’s the big question. And I think it’s one of the things that makes Rome interesting because like when you see the movies about Ancient Rome, by and large, the Roman emperors are posh white men in togas, really. There were some of those. But one of the things that’s quite extraordinary about Rome as an empire, compared with other similar early empires, is that it is constantly incorporating people from the conquered territories. They become citizens, they’re brought into the show and they become leading figures so that you have, by the end of the second century CE, you’ve got a Roman emperor whose home is Africa. And a little bit later you’ve got a Roman emperor whose home is Syria. And so it isn’t that very narrow, very limited ethnic group who are making the, forming the ruling class. It’s much, much wider than that.

Miller: Much wider than that.

Beard: Yeah, much wider.

Miller: So, I mean, how would Romans read what we now call race?

Beard: They would be very, very puzzled. I mean, I think that there is a big debate about exactly how far Romans had any real racist sense, but everybody would agree that nothing like the modern world. Whether you can spot it a little bit is a big question. But I think that you can see that, I think very clearly, in the institution of Roman slavery, because you say to a Roman, close your eyes and think of an enslaved person, they would probably see a red-haired German, right? They don’t see an ethnic difference in the enslaved versus the freeborn citizens. And that’s why, another reason I think, why they’re an interesting culture to study, because they’re exploitative, they’re hierarchical, they’re cruel. But that kind of hierarchy and that kind of exploitation goes across different boundaries from ours and is formed differently.

Miller: How much was the institution of slavery embedded in the Roman Empire? Can you give us a sense of the extent of it?

Beard: It’s very hard to know the number, but Rome is one of the very few basically slave societies, which is to say that Rome could not function - its functioning of its government, its economic activities, its agriculture and its trade, was absolutely founded on non-free labor. And there have been very few societies where that has been the case. Slavery, in the ancient world, went right through any society. You could find that there were always people who had lost, in some way, their freedom. But Rome and other cities in Ancient Greece were unusual in that the whole institutional makeup of the state was based on slavery.

It’s different from Atlantic slavery in the way that we’ve become familiar with it. And certainly it is, I think, initially puzzling to see that occupations that we tend to think of as fairly high status occupations are often filled by the enslaved. So medicine would be one. It’s also the case that slavery in the ancient world is a feature of war. What happens to you if you are on the losing side of a war?

Miller: You’re a prisoner of war.

Beard: It is enslavement. And that happens to Romans when they lose - and they sometimes do lose. Then those Romans get enslaved in Parthia or wherever it was. So you cannot look at Roman culture without thinking about slavery, but it is a very different vision of slavery. And there’s a very nice wry, and in some ways quite chilling comment, that one Roman suggests a certain point that slaves should be made to wear a uniform, because otherwise you go into the center of town and you don’t know, you can’t recognize who is slave and who’s free. That suggestion is rejected on the grounds that if slaves wore uniforms, they would know how many of them there were.

Miller: Let’s take another question from our audience. Go ahead.

Student: How do you deal with self doubt and writer’s block?

Beard: With very great difficulty. Well, let me give you one answer, which I’ve just come across recently. I recently left my job in the university and I cleared out my room and I’d lived in an office I’d had for decades. I was clearing out all the papers and I came across at least the start of three books I’d started to write and never finished. There was the typescript, what I’d written, I’d got a chapter or two in and then I know, I blocked it out. Actually, I can’t remember why I never finished them, but I looked at them and I thought, they’re not bad, actually, they’re quite good, but at a certain point, I just couldn’t do it, just couldn’t do it. I think that there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I used to find it extremely hard to write. And I think I found it hard to write because I was always pretending to be a writer, I wasn’t being me. I was thinking, oh, this is how you have to start, this is what you should do. And that’s probably why I didn’t finish these three books, because I was sort of pretending to do it. I was acting and I think that the thing that really made a difference to me, and I don’t know how it happened, was when I thought, I’m going to say what I want to say. And I thought I’m going to say what I want to say, it isn’t always plain sailing after that. You still get times when you get tied up, but you don’t actually get that sort of awful sense that you just can’t do it.

And for me that’s been about writing, but it’s also been about speaking. And now I probably speak what some people would think of as too much, but when I was a young lecturer at university, I’d go to seminars and I would never dare open my mouth. I had things I wanted to say, but I could never get in, I could never, there was never a time when I could say, excuse me, I think I’ve got a point I’d like to… and I felt terribly frustrated because I think there’s nothing worse than having things to say, but finding you can’t get your point across. And again, when that changed was when I decided I would just say these points my way. I wouldn’t pretend to be an academic and be all pompous. I’d just say that doesn’t make any bloody sense to me, right? And then when I started to speak as me, I found that I could do it. But up to that point, I just found I was pretending to be someone that I wasn’t. And I think that - I don’t know how far this goes for men, I think it probably does up to a point - but I think a lot of women find it very hard because they’re trying to speak the language, often of a kind of male hierarchy and it comes out, so you hear yourself speak and you think, who’s that? That isn’t what I’m thinking inside.

And I wish I knew how I made that transition between, between kind of pretending I was someone I wasn’t and then being me, but it’s really, really helped and maybe everybody has to find their own way to do that. I mean, I think of it now looking at myself on television, and I’ve made quite a few telly programs, and some of them are good and some of them aren’t so good, I think, but when I watched them, what I find quite reassuring is even when they’re bad - as they sometimes are, let’s be honest - I watch them and I think I recognize myself and I think that is absolutely key. Like now I’m hearing myself in my ears and I sound like me. I might not be speaking sensibly. I might be getting the wrong end of the stick, but I feel as if I’m speaking like me and I think for women especially that is really, really important.

Miller: Maybe this is hard because as you’ve just said, you wish you could pinpoint how this happened. But I’m wondering if you could sort of imagine reverse engineering it and if you can imagine what it would have taken to arrive where you have arrived earlier, like the kinds of societal changes that would have given you the confidence to be yourself earlier?

Beard: I don’t know the answer to that. I actually feel quite grateful that nobody had heard of me until I was about 55. I was teaching in university. I was having children. I was being reasonably successful within a job. And as I just said, I was beginning to find a way of speaking in a way that I thought sounded like me. I kind of knew what it was to be authentic, and I didn’t do any real public stuff, like being on telly, till I was in my mid fifties. And I shouldn’t say this to an audience of young people, I should say go out and grab the opportunities while you can [but] I felt that by the time I got to have any kind of public role, I didn’t mind so much. I didn’t care. And it’s quite nice, not caring.

Miller: The freedom of not worrying what people were going to think.

Beard: Yeah, and when I did a telly program - it wasn’t the actual first one I did, but I think it was the second - it was reviewed by one television critic in the newspapers in England saying, Mary Beard is just awful. She looks like the back end of the bus. If she’s going to come into our sitting rooms, she might at least make an effort to brush her hair, her teeth, her rabbit teeth, it went on and on and on like this. And it became a bit of a kind of controversy in the UK, because it was just coming at a moment when older women were fronting television programs much more. But I think that if that had happened to me when I was 30, I know I would have been absolutely crushed by it. And I think that you do build up a bit of resilience, which helps.

As I say, what I don’t want to do is put off young people and I don’t mean to ignore the guys, but particularly I don’t want to put off young women from actually thinking that you should go out and get it now. But also don’t worry too much that you’re missing the chance. People often look at me now and people, when I talk at high schools in the UK, they assume that I’ve been sort of successful forever. Well, I haven’t been and sometimes you wait a bit and so you shouldn’t get put off if things don’t work out to start with. It didn’t really work out for me… and I looked at these unfinished books and I thought, I whited them out of my mind but they must have been dreadful when I decided I couldn’t go on. So you always get a second chance, you really do.

Miller: I want to take some of these things actually back to Ancient Rome. What were the official limits on women’s power in Ancient Rome? And what were the ways that women did wield power despite those official limits?

Beard: They have no political rights, they cannot vote. They have some economic rights and legal rights, that they can inherit property. In fact, women in Rome were better off than women in the United Kingdom up until the end of the 19th century. But still they had no public role. The idea that a woman should have a public face was really, really difficult. Now, what happens when you get to the period of these one-man rulers is that women do become a bit more powerful. They become a bit more powerful because they’re close to the man in power. If you have a single ruler or a president or a prime minister, the people who are close to him wield power a bit because they can bend the ear of the man in power and that certainly happens in Rome. But I think that we have an image of women in the Roman Imperial Court as being schemers and wheelers and dealers and women who’ve got a political agenda that they’re trying to bring about.

Miller: Whispering into the ear.

Beard: They’re whispering into the ear and they’re doing worse. They’re poisoning people in order to bring about, for example, the succession of their own son. Now that may or may not be true. But I do think that it also falls into the pattern that we still see of, if you want to know why things are going wrong, blame the woman, right? And at the moment in the UK, we’re having an inquiry about how the government handled COVID. And one of the issues is whether the Prime Minister Boris Johnson did it properly. And a lot of people think that that’s not the case. What you find, even in this official inquiry, you find people blaming Johnson’s wife for the reason that he made certain decisions that were bad. You think, blaming the wife goes back to, well, it goes back to Eve, doesn’t it? But it goes back to certainly the Roman period, certainly before, and women have always been blamed for when men get things wrong. I think it is a basic lesson that the Romans teach us and modern culture.

Miller: Let’s see another question from the audience. Go ahead.

Student: When you’re looking at the history of different places or like a new place, what’s the first thing that catches your interest or you start investigating?

Beard: I do look for what happens about women and gender and I think I’m always on the lookout for who are the people we don’t see, right? Do we see the women here? Do we see the poor? Do we see the ordinary? Do we see the enslaved? And I think it’s often in history, it’s quite interesting to say, always ask yourself what you’re not being told, right? Who are we not seeing and can we actually get any idea of what their perspective on that period of history would have been? So I always try to be a bit sort of countercultural, always try to say, what would it be like to see this from the slave’s point of view or the woman’s point of view or the person who’s destitute and sleeping under a bridge in ancient Rome?

And in some ways, that’s always frustrating because very often you don’t get enough material and you always want more, but very often there’s a lot more there to tell you about them than people have ever admitted or wanted to see. That’s why I think, in writing this book on the Emperor of Rome, I hope people will feel surprised that you can tell a little bit of the story of the woman, the enslaved woman, who was the masseur of the emperors of Livia, or the poor bureaucrat, low level bureaucrat in the Roman province of Egypt, who’s trying to get things done and is sending what we would call email after email and is being a really frustrated administrator. People we don’t usually see, but actually look for what you don’t see and you’ll find it or you’ll find a bit of it, would be my motto there.

Miller: You have a sentence near the end of the book that really surprised me. You wrote this: “Working on the Roman Empire for so long, I’ve come increasingly to detest autocracy as a political system, but to be more sympathetic, not just to its victims, but to all those caught up in it, from bottom to top.” It’s the top that I found most intriguing. What is the sympathy you’ve begun to feel, say for an emperor or a senator?

Beard: I can do the emperor easier than the senator probably. I think senators probably had a better time than the emperors. I think it’s probably very unfashionable to say, do you know, I feel really sorry for Roman emperors. That’s not exactly a fashionable line, but I started to look at these guys and they’re kind of ordinary human beings who have to pretend that they’re running the whole of the Roman world. And they’re not really, but they got to pretend, and they’re living in a court where they know that no one is telling them the truth. People talk about the Roman imperial upper crust, they talk about it as being a society of flattery. That’s what happens to emperors. They get flattered and we kind of tend to think how awful it is to always have to flatter this bloke. Well, we should also turn the tables on that a bit, I think, and say what would it be like always to be flattered.

Miller: And to never then just have an innate distrust. If anyone says anything good about you, you probably are not going to believe that they actually believe that.

Beard: Nobody can trust the emperor, but the emperor can’t trust anyone else. So as soon as you get that kind of disjunction of power and you get this autocracy … I suppose what I mean [is] I felt increasing sympathy for all those people, all the individuals, those who had to say, “yes, sir, you’re absolutely brilliant.” But also for this guy who’s trying to believe that he’s the top dog, has to behave like it and nobody will trust him. You cannot trust anybody. And to some extent, that makes you a bit sympathetic to men and women, but mostly men in power now … I don’t know, does the American President ever have somebody telling him the truth?

Miller: Well, one of your most overarching projects is to show that even if the stories that we tell about our rulers aren’t true, if they are, as you say, imbued with fantasy, gossip, slander and urban myth, that they can still tell us things that are true. Are you arguing that that’s more the case with autocracies or is it that there’s always a meaningful subtext even in the lies we tell ourselves?

Beard: I think lies are really important in history. Lies and half truths and exaggerations are as important as what literally happened.

Miller: Why?

Beard: Because they often expose the things that we are scared about, the things that we are curious about and they expose our preoccupations. I mentioned a bit ago this little boy, Emperor Elagabalus, showering rose petals on his guests, so many that they smothered and were killed. That’s partly a story about what a kid gets up to if he’s ruler of the world. But there’s a bigger point to it, I think. And it’s saying, why are we scared of emperors? Well, we’re scared of emperors because even when they are at their most generous, they might kill us. And the generosity of people in power can be fatal. And I think that if we were to write a history of the 21st century and we wanted to know about what we thought about our world, what preoccupations and prejudices we had, I think looking at gossip about celebrities or Harry and Meghan would tell us an awful lot, even if it’s not true.

Miller: We have about a minute left. But what happens in a society where truth is so warped or destabilized?

Beard: That’s it. And what is it like to live in a world or to live in a court culture where you can never believe your eyes, you can never know what is true. And I think in some ways that is what is scary about autocracy and maybe we have to keep a bit of a watch out for whether it might not be scary about what we’re living through, too.

Miller: Mary Beard, thank you very much.

Beard: Thank you.

Miller: Mary Beard is the author of “Emperor of Rome.”

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