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‘What did Roman emperors do all day?’

The Professor Emerita of Classics at Cambridge Mary Beard’s monumental book Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World (Profile Books) has been hailed as her best so far.
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:41 IST
Last Updated : 28 April 2024, 02:41 IST

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The Professor Emerita of Classics at Cambridge Mary Beard’s monumental book Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World (Profile Books) has been hailed as her best so far. In a conversation with DHoS, Beard shared what compelled her to revisit the Roman empire after her earlier work, SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome.

“While writing a history of Rome, from the beginning until the third century, I had talked about Roman emperors but because the form of SPQR was about narrative and narrative change, in some ways, the history of the Roman empire didn’t fit in easily as it wasn’t just the right framework for exploring it,” she says.

She continues, “Also, I felt escaping the mould in which biographies of Roman emperors are usually divided into, was necessary. I chose the period I did because it was a time of big change, with the establishment of empire, etc. With Emperors Of Rome, I was trying to think about how emperors were perceived, how they were seen, and how their power rested in how people understood their powers to be. It had little to do with how they exercised their power but how they were seen to exercise it. So, instead of breaking it down into the usual divisions, I began looking at it thematically; basically, asking the question, ‘What did Roman emperors do all day?’ The standard biographical tradition isn’t even interested in asking this question; it’s too pre-occupied with plots against the emperor, chronology, etc., but I wanted to know what it felt like being a Roman emperor, when you got up in the morning, what did you do, eat, travel, whom did you sleep with and how did you believe in yourself?”

While Beard manages to cover what she intended to do in this extensive account, her efforts are most visible in What’s In A Palace? It’s a chapter where the human geographical elements stand out because she doesn’t want to get lost in the grandiosity of the events.

She says, “It was partly stimulated by visiting the ruins of the Palace in Rome. There are lots of Roman Palaces but the central Roman Palace on Palatine Hill I’ve visited many times; and it’s utterly confusing. You’re tired by the time you climb the Hill to see the Palace. You can’t make sense of the crisscrossing walls or the different levels, and it doesn’t look grand at all. Imagine it’s the place where some of the biggest events in Roman history took place. This is where Domitian was killed! And it was from here the emperor would make his way just over the hill through a private passageway to the circus maximus … this is mission control of the Roman emperor and yet it looks a mess!”

Generational and geographical distance perhaps allows one to reflect and ruminate, resulting in this observation. Was it the case with her, too?

“Distance helps us in general,” Beard says. “One of the pleasures of teaching Roman history is that it enables you to discuss several issues because we’re so far away from it, we’re not personally invested in it. And Roman history, like other ancient histories, is kind of a safe space to discuss ourselves.”

“For example, talking about slavery is tricky. We should be bolder in discussing it but we’re not. I’m not. I think with Roman history, you can discuss some of the issues about power, exploitation, and race. Everybody can participate because nobody is invested. No one is a Roman; no one is a descendant of Roman—we’re all foreign to it, so we all join in. That’s partly why it’s fun to teach because you can raise big issues some students may not want to face.”

And it’s for nothing one falls back on history for lessons for the modern world. Beard shares one such realisation.

“When I was finishing this book, I was struck by the fact that how little opposition there was to the Roman imperial rule. There was analysis and anxiety but there was very little, full-fledged opposition to Roman rule as a system. A lot of emperors were killed but the empire and the system [remained intact]. And I think there’s a lesson here. I remember teaching a group of students the history of WWII, and at one point my co-teacher and I asked them if you’ve been living in France under the Nazi occupation what would you’ve done. Almost everybody said, ‘I’d have joined the resistance.’ That’s a fine, self-serving romantic fantasy I told them, but the evidence suggests that perhaps one of you might. They were quite shocked because we all imagine ourselves as righteous opposition but actually what the Roman empire illustrates is that people, if not actively collaborate, cooperate with the regime; they go along with it. It’s a warning for us: people are just not shouting.”

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Published 28 April 2024, 02:41 IST

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