The decadence of Roman emperors

Book Reviews
A mosaic of an eagle wrestling a snake on the cover of Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard
Emperors of Rome: Ruling Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard
Emperors of Rome: Ruling Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

This review was first published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Oct. 20, 2023

There’s an old joke: What did the Roman say when his wife was eaten by a lion? Gladiator.

The queen classicist, Mary Beard, English scholar and feminist who wrote “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” is back with “Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World.”

Even as she tackles a very serious topic, she leaves room for levity, and plenty of it.

Leave it to Ms. Beard to educate and dispel. Take gladiators, for example. Today, one does not kick back to watch criminals executed in brutal and tortuous ways. One does not watch gladiators fight and animals slaughtered. But Roman emperors, along with 50,000 of their best friends, sat where their place in society dictated: no best-in-house seats here.

When emperors attended such events, it’s not what you might picture, Ms. Beard notes: “Far from being an uncontrolled crowd baying for blood, as they are often imagined, the people of the amphitheater were aggressively ordered and dressed in their formal best. No movie has ever captured this.”

Ms. Beard artfully walks the line between academic scholar and patient teacher. The book is arranged by topic, so chapters each tackle a societal issue, from “power dining” to “time off.” This is helpful because emperors often had the leafiest of family trees, and as the author points out, “Their qualities, good and bad, were assessed as much in the dining room as in the Senate house.”

Elagabalus, a Syrian teen, was into what any teen would be pre-cellphones, with a twist of invention: He made the first-ever recorded whoopee cushion. He never wore the same pair of shoes twice. He has sometimes “been heralded as a transgender pioneer” after he asked a doctor to give him female private parts. He was also a Roman emperor.

But these stories are (possibly, almost certainly) exaggerated, Ms. Beard points out, made up by people who wanted to “curry favour with his rival and successor on the throne.”

The book begins with Julius Caesar (assassinated in 44 B.C.) and leaves us after 30 emperors and 300 years, with Alexander Severus (assassinated in A.D. 235). One reason, Ms. Beard writes, she stops there is that after the death of Severus there were as many emperors in the 50 years following as there had been the 300 years before. Also, the world around them changed and many emperors never even actually visited Rome after that.

Ms. Beard makes clear that readers learn through the eyes of friends and enemies of emperors, and how a story was spun was left up to the person who wrote it down, or those that couldn’t.

Women, for example, had no codified power but (as throughout history) they worked behind the scenes to wield what they could. It is notable that emperors’ female family members had some standing, as they appeared on coins, statues and building names. Ms. Beard, who has given lectures and much thought to women in power, takes us to the place where anthropology meets history.

As one might expect, Ms. Beard devotes space to the sexual capers of the emperors, which — and this will be no surprise to anyone — are at times problematic. Augustus who liked to “deflower virgins” groomed by his wife, Livia, and many other emperors raped slaves.

Ms. Beard explores physical as well as social structures, walking the reader through some of the palatial homes inhabited by leading Romans. Many places are now mere outlines, but she skillfully reconstructs parties and dinners so readers feel like they are there. The book also contains diagrams and illustrations of the places and people discussed.

Through all of the historic rigor, Ms. Beard subtly reminds us why she is expert at writing about difficult-to-research topics, even as she sneaks in a joke about Augustus and an (underhanded) campaign he ran to impress citizens. She calls it a “post-civil war ‘Make Rome Great Again’ campaign,” and a reader can practically hear Ms. Beard’s sly smile.

“Emperor of Rome” was not built in a day. Readers can be grateful for Ms. Beard’s rigorous, thoughtful work.

Meredith Cummings is a freelance journalist and teaching assistant professor of journalism at Lehigh University.

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