Emperor of Rome: the fact & fiction

We love hearing about the exploits of Roman emperors, because of the addictive tales of excess, depravity, cruelty and murder. Mary Beard’s new book Emperor of Rome looks at these rulers from a different perspective – through the eyes of ordinary people – and suggests that not all the stories are necessarily true. Words by Emma Clegg.

It was pretty unusual for a Roman Emperor to die a natural death, and those who succeeded as emperor invariably had a hand in the previous one’s demise. Murder, poisoning, suicide, matricide, mariticide, filicide, fratricide, strangling, execution, lynching, torture were all a standard part of the essential pattern of (life and) death for so many of these sovereign rulers.

It’s not just the deaths of the elite in the Roman Empire that makes this period so colourful and endlessly fascinating. It’s the stories drawn from sources such as Suetonius, Tacitus, and Cassius Dio about the sensational and shocking exploits of individual emperors that are lodged in our minds. Tiberius (d.37 ad), for example, was accused of flinging people off cliffs for minor slights; Nero (d.68 ad) – the one who was said to have fiddled while Rome burnt (even though fiddles didn’t exist at the time) – set out to cruelly persecute the Christians, including wrapping them in animal skins to be torn apart by dogs. The paranoid Caligula (murdered 41 ad) had his own mother beaten to death, threw an entire section of a gladiatorial audience into the arena to be eaten by beasts for his own amusement, and planned to appoint his horse as a consul.

Mary Beard is on a mission to change the perception of these emperors as all being self-absorbed, decadent, depraved, cruel psychopaths. “After a lifetime of teaching Roman history I saw that those lurid, sometimes sadistic anecdotes that are always told about Roman emperors are important, but they aren’t necessarily true. We see the Roman Empire as if it was almost one psychopath after the next, with a very occasional goodie in between, but no empire was sustained for as long as the Roman Empire if it was ruled only by mad psychopaths and nothing else – and so I wanted to try to see behind those stories.”

Beard’s latest book, Emperor of Rome, shines a spotlight on those who ruled the Roman Empire from Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 bc) to Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 ad), a period that saw just under 30 emperors. It takes readers into the palace corridors, and beyond the hype of politics, power and succession and looks at the lives of ordinary Romans, providing an insight into the relationship between ruler and ruled.

No empire was sustained for as
long as the Roman Empire if it was ruled only by mad psychopaths…

Beard does this by focusing on the ordinary things – and asking questions such as how the Romans lived, what was the role of emperor, how they organised their succession and who were the other people in their lives. “If you ask those questions, you see that the emperors do have things in common – it is the same job, actually. The Roman emperors are much more similar than they are different. By looking beneath the surface at the ordinary things, you also get an insight into what all those anecdotes are doing. They are partly about people outside the palace, wondering what happens inside the palace.”

Beard doesn’t baulk at relishing in the colourful stories of the Roman emperors, with all the quirky idiosyncrasies that have made them memorable, but uses them to shed light on the Roman imperial system in a different way. One example is a section focusing on “the many women and men who brought their problems, large and small, to the man at the top, from lost inheritances to chamber pots falling from upstairs windows with fatal consequences”. As well as receiving letters from private individuals with more means, little pieces of papyrus were pressed into the emperor’s hands when he presided over public greetings at the palace or as he was carried through the streets. Each contained a request of some sort. Some of the responses that emperors gave to the requests that came in are still preserved on stone, on sheets of bronze or on papyrus across the Roman Empire. These requests are often about taxation, inheritance, illness and debts, but others reveal everyday incidents, such as someone wanting compensation for a cow which was killed in enemy action and another asking about a disagreement over going bird-hunting on a neighbour’s property.

“What we see very clearly in what has survived is the expectation that the emperor is accessible to the trivial problems of his subjects. How it worked in practice is harder because we don’t know exactly who framed the answers. Occasionally the emperor himself did. There’s a story about Hadrian (d.138 ad) who was confronted with a question of whether a baby born to a woman 11 months after her husband’s death could count as legitimate. The story went that Hadrian went up to his library, looked in the scientific textbooks, and came back and said, ‘Yes’. Which was even by ancient scientific standards a slightly odd reply, but he was at least doing his own research.

“What’s interesting in these examples is the accessibility of the emperor. You can see through his eyes some bits of the lives and problems of people we don’t usually see. The ordinary people who’ve lost their cows.”

Beard has some sympathy with the ruling emperors, because they are victims of their situation and constantly under threat: “It’s dangerous, it’s friendless in a way, and the system corrupts everybody, including the emperor, who knows that no-one is telling him the truth. It’s a system of deceit and deception. Some of them were perfectly decent guys on their own terms; others weren’t. But they are trapped in a system where everything is a pretence.

“The extreme parodies of character that we see are almost always invented after they are dead. One of the safest things to do in the Roman Empire is to dump on the previous emperor when a new one comes to power. But we need to remember that an awful lot more of the emperor’s time was spent in signing his letters than it was in having sex in the swimming pool. Let’s get interested in the admin. Because that’s where he spends a lot of time.”

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, better known as Elegabalus (d.222 ad) – who became emperor at 14 and was assassinated at 18, and is now believed by some modern historians to have been transgender – features in the opening chapter. Beard introduces him as a dramatic example to question the validity of some of the extreme caricatures of the emperors. His hair-raising highlights included marrying a vestal virgin, divorcing her and then marrying her again; hosting a dinner where he served 600 ostrich heads; making one of his exotic dancers the head of the Praetorian Guard; and releasing poisonous snakes into the audience at the Circus Maximus for his own amusement. He was also known for smothering his dinner party guests with rose petals.

“Part of the point of the book, and that’s why I start with Elegabalus, is to say that this isn’t necessarily literally true. But it gives you a true image of how people imagined Elegabalus. What was it like to imagine an emperor worse than anybody else had ever been? I don’t think the rose petals theory is true, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the moral that it’s constantly drawing to your attention. It’s the idea of what is the most generous thing an emperor could do? Well, he could shower you with rose petals at dinner. But when Elagabalus does it, it is so generous, it kills you. There’s a moral there.”

The scale of the Roman Empire was astonishing. At its height it stretched from Scotland to the Sahara, Portugal to Iraq, with an estimated population outside Italy itself in the order of 50 million. So the ordinary people in those places must have had very different experiences of everyday life. So what about Roman Britain?

“Roman Britain was about the most backward province in the Roman Empire that you could possibly imagine. The Romans encouraged the development of towns, and the old elite from pre Roman times would have invested in towns, wearing togas, having forums and taking baths. But that was probably a minority of the population of the province – if you went out into the country, you would find smallholders and small farmers who were living life almost exactly as they did before the Romans came – they were just paying taxes to somebody different.

“In Bath the Roman Baths have this wonderful temple pediment. That, for me, sums up all the ambivalence about whether in Bath you felt Roman or British. You’ve got the great classical pediment with the head of the Gorgon, during the Roman thing, and then you’ve got so many other references to local deities and symbols. That sums up the ambivalence – that the people in Bath would have been part one thing, part another, and they would have sometimes done the Roman thing and sometimes not. In Britain, the elite at least are straddling two worlds.”

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard, Profile Books, hardback, £30. Mary Beard joins Topping & Co in the Bath Pavilion, North Parade Road on 10 October at 7.30pm. £30 entrance, including a copy of the book.