Mary Beard: ‘The Romans were debating gender division nearly 2000 years ago’

As Dame Mary Beard brings her Meet The Roman Emperor documentary to the BBC, she explains why the ancient rulers are still important today

Mary Beard in the Hall of Emperors, Capitoline Museum, Rome
Mary Beard in the Hall of Emperors, Capitoline Museum, Rome. PICTURE: BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes (BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes)

There were cruel Roman emperors, stupid ones and some that were just very good at PR. For example – Marcus Aurelius was known as the philosophising ruler who oversaw a period of peace, but his reign was heavily punctuated by bloody imperial expansion and persecuting Christians.

Airing tonight, the new BBC programme Meet The Roman Emperor With Mary Beard peels back the layers of Roman propaganda to show how power was wielded, and rather than chronicling events. Mary (69) takes us inside the palace where smutty graffiti was written by slaves and Augustus, Nero, Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius and lesser known oddballs like Domitian and Elagabalus terrified their dining guests.

The historian and classicist is concerned with what stories – such as short-lived Elagabalus never wearing the same pair of shoes twice – tells us about his subjects, and how the mundane acts like paperwork took up much of an emperor’s time.

Mary says the name recognition of figures like Nero and Julius Caesar means “we’ve got a pretty kind of clear idea about the lurid excesses of, and cruelty of Roman imperial power”, and by trying to get “behind that mask” viewers can visit the palaces in the Palatine Hill where we can more accurately find out how they ate, slept and plotted.

There are, of course, tales of “luxurious and stupid” dining, where the emperor and his subjects would sometimes sit in the middle of the sea and have their food floated down to them on little boats, in the TV production but she cautions that many written accounts are not based on reality and the tales are “a bit similar” to “celebrity gossip”.

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Mary Beard with the tombstone of Nero's nanny, Claudia Egloge
Mary Beard with the tombstone of Nero's nanny, Claudia Egloge. PICTURE: BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes (BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes)

“There all these stories about Roman emperors – the emperor Domitian skewering flies with his pen, or Caligula deciding that he would make his horse a consul (a magistrate),” Mary says.

“I think the brutal truth is we don’t know if they’re true.”

Much like the inner lives of today’s movie stars and royalty, she says they are vehicles for historians to understand how we projected “our own questions and anxieties and aspirations onto them”.

Mary says: “I see both now, in celebrity terms, and in the ancient world, tons of people thinking, what would I do if I was the most powerful person in the world? If I could sleep with anybody, who would it be?

“And if I had more money and more wealth than anybody else, what would I eat? How would I dine? What would my dinner party look like? And to some extent, I think that in all of this, what you’re seeing is people’s attempts to imagine what it’s like.”

Mary says eccentric Elagabalus’s reputation – who recently hit the headlines for being reclassified as an LGBT figure by a Hertfordshire museum because he was the focus of an unverified Roman tale that he asked doctors to make him a woman – “reminds us that some of our debates about gender and gender division are not new”.

“For 2000 years people have wondered about where the division lies between men and women, how that division can be crossed and I think… for me, whether it’s true or not, it is a reminder that… we’re not the first people to have grappled with these issues,” she adds.

“It does look as if Elagabalus was bothered about his pronouns, he also upturned versions of gender in all kinds of other ways… he is supposed to have tried to convene a female Senate…. In Roman times, that was utterly shocking… it was putting women in the public sphere so Elagabalus is constantly pushing, in the stories, gender boundaries.”

Mary Beard in Nero's dining room, Rome
Mary Beard in Nero's dining room, Rome. PICTURE: BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes (BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes)

If we cannot be sure of contemporary accounts, what would Dame Mary like to journey back and see? She says she would like to visit a Roman bathhouse to get beyond the image of it being “all the blokes taking their clothes off, admiring each other and rubbing down and all that kind of stuff” to what was really going on in these private areas.

Mary has previously fronted the BBC documentaries Caligula With Mary Beard in 2013 and Meet The Romans With Mary Beard in 2012 and is inspired in her new one-hour documentary by her non-fiction title Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World – which received rave reviews last year.

For the programme, one thing she most enjoyed was going to the main palace in Rome and seeing how “scary” it could be with its “blind corners that you can’t see who’s coming round”, which must have frightened visitors.

“Part of what the programme tries to do is to say, ‘it was terrifying for the emperor too’ and in the middle of this great sort of panoply of power, there was an ordinary guy who was trying to rule the Roman world, and was in some ways, a prisoner of his own palace,” she says.

“You know, he was the victim. He was surrounded by people who would never tell him the truth, they’d only really tell him what he wanted to hear.”

She notes the example of Domitian, who is said to have had the walls of his palace lined with shiny stone so he could tell who was coming around the corner, as emperors often got “assassinated in their beds” or poisoned at the dinner table, and rarely died in public.

Mary Beard in Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli.
Mary Beard in Hadrian's Villa, Tivoli. PICTURE: BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes (BBC/Lion Television/Russell Barnes)

Mary adds: “I’m trying to create a world in which the emperor is sort of a victim of all this as well. It’s hard to feel sorry for them, but I do a little bit.”

She is quick to advise caution by “drawing exact parallels” between ex-US president Donald Trump and Julius Caesar, who both promised to return to a glorious past, but says dictators and autocrats “are also imprisoned by their own power”.

“When it comes to the end of their power, they end up in a seedy place, being put to death, and comforted or whatever by very few friends, it still is the pattern of what happens to the autocrat,” adds Mary.

She also says much like modern leaders, who receive information through advisers, Roman autocrats would have known little about their own empires.

Mary says: “How do people at the centre of power find someone who’s going to tell them the truth? And how do they find out what’s going on? You know, when people are actually not showing or keeping the truth from them.”

Meet The Roman Emperor With Mary Beard will air on BBC Two and iPlayer at 9pm on Monday April 8.