Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Bust of roman emperor Domitian in the Louvre Museum in Paris (Wikimedia Commons).

As much historiography as it is history, Mary Beard’s Emperor of Rome is monumental: intricately detailed, awe-inspiring in scope, and a testament to her wide-ranging and engaging scholarship. An account of “what it meant to be a Roman emperor,” the book is also a sustained exploration of tradition embodied by an individual ruler. The work presents the reader with information ripe for further exploration and interpretation—a monument not only to Rome’s institution of imperial rule but to the swirl of stories that create its “emperors of the imagination.”

Emperor of Romeby Mary Beard

512p $40

The interchange between the minutiae of lived experience during Roman antiquity—the ground-level view of daily routines, paperwork, clothes—and the panoptic view is perhaps the most exciting part of Beard’s work. Beyond her masterly unpacking of what it meant to be the Roman emperor, her reading of all sorts of material prompts her reader to look at the quotidian details of her or his own life with new eyes, as evidence of the structures and dynamics that permeate society at any given time and place. Beard frequently and conversationally draws comparisons between ancient and modern—Imelda Marcos shows up on the second page—that reveal not just the ubiquity of sensationalized stories about the rich and famous, but also that those stories can tell us as much about the audience that composes and consumes them as about the subjects themselves.

In this way, Beard gives us a sense not just of the realities of imperial life, but also of the stakes of asking such questions and of the historiographical process itself. Her interest lies in the gap between practicalities and perception, the baked-in Roman fears that imperial rule “was a strange and unsettling dystopia built on deception and fakery.” Beard paints a picture of a world in which everyone—emperors included—was trying to construct their idea of what an emperor should be in a nation that could not and would not accept kingship at face value.

This element of projection is the through-line of a book that, for all its richness of sources, details and insights, does not lead to a cohesive conclusion. As Beard explains and her book demonstrates: Despite having so very much to work with, we are in the end left with a tangle of threads to follow rather than a finished tapestry. This is not to diminish the author’s great achievement of sorting through the threads and the wide range of materials from which they are spun.

As any teacher of Roman history knows, one of the challenges of explaining Roman autocracy is the nature of the republic that preceded it. In the first chapter, Beard explains how a “sort-of democracy” became a monarchy in all but name. This political evolution was a focus of Beard’s preceding book, SPQR. “Empire” proper was in some ways the natural culmination of centuries of aristocratic striving to be top dog in tandem with the practical exigencies of running a vast territory. At the same time, autocracy—the constitutional realization of one man’s ultimate authority—was anathema to the Roman self-image.

How, then, did the Roman emperors get away with it? According to Beard, the term civilitas—the concept of equality among all citizens— covered a multitude of autocratic sins. In the first chapter, “One-Man Rule: the Basics,” Beard presents two texts: Pliny’s Panegyricus, delivered in 100 C.E. to the emperor Trajan, and Augustus’s Res Gestae (translated by Beard as “What I Did”).

The former, which Beard calls “a job description for the role of Roman emperor,” reflects the hopeful praise of the imperial subject, willing his ideal ruler into being through somewhat over-the-top adulation. The latter, too, functions as a job description, but by the man who originated the role, Rome’s first emperor: Augustus. This work, which Augustus not only had inscribed on the outside of his tomb but also published as a series of multilingual billboards throughout the empire, offers an (edited) account of his achievements and a master class in the interactive, ubiquitous P.R. needed to legitimize what was originally an extra-constitutional position. Presenting himself as pater patriae, the guardian of the nation, Augustus waged a campaign to embed himself into the landscape of the city he ruled as a natural, inevitable and omnipresent element.

Augustus’s performance effectively became the playbook for all who followed—a model for those who sought a copacetic relationship with Rome’s political stakeholders and for those who crafted a persona at the extremes. Beard takes us through the different facets of this performance, the different genres in which an emperor could present his version of imperial power.

The royal family was central to such narratives. With a back story contaminated by civil war, the legitimacy of imperial rule depended on a smooth and stable succession plan that could avoid such conflict. This, however, was complicated by Roman legal precedent. With no fixed law of primogeniture, each emperor had both greater flexibility in choosing his heir and no way of guaranteeing that his plans would take place.

So too did the concept of dynastic rule conflict with the Roman ethos of meritocracy. To thread this needle, adoption became the primary mechanism of imperial inheritance. It worked as a safeguard for those emperors—and there were many, Augustus included—who had no suitable heir. Regardless, the proliferation of stories about manipulated successions points to the Romans’ existential uncertainty and anxiety around issues of imperial transition.

Likewise, the sensationalization of imperial sex lives and marital relations took on a life of its own as a space where the emperors’ subjects could imagine and project the extremes of his character. As Beard remarks, “It was almost an ancient cliché that the court was dominated by women trying to exercise control.” Beyond issues of female adultery and consequent concerns about paternity, the behavior of imperial women became a locus for Roman conversations about the various powers behind each throne—in effect, a way to voice fears about who was really calling the shots. By advertising their submission and restraint, the women of the imperial household could reaffirm their husband’s/father’s/brother’s adherence to traditional norms; by taking a more public stance, they could signal his subversion of them.

This intrinsically Roman intertwining of the political and personal offers Beard much fodder for drawing connections between the ancient and modern worlds. For example, Chapter 3, “Power Dining,” is an entertaining and detailed unpacking of the dining room as a performance space for taste, wealth, power, status, generosity, culture—a place where, by definition, everyone must look at everyone else for hours on end, a captive audience at the mercy of their host.

The theatricality of both the presentation and the consumption of food lends itself to Beard’s project of sifting out the truths of history-telling rather than of actual history. She examines literary representations of the dinner host’s control as a microcosm of imperial rule. As a display of wealth and power, the dinner itself might reflect international reach, the labor of highly specialized slaves and the refinement of taste in both food and entertainment. At the same time, the seating arrangements could define the social status of each guest with (at times mortifying) precision.

In this space, the possibility of violence, whether by poison, assassination or—in one memorable instance—drowning in rose petals, only heightened the sense of menace underlying such festive occasions. In this regard, the dining room offered Roman authors and emperors a stage on which to act out their anxieties about imperial rule.

To the emperors they offered a chance to gauge how their iteration of the imperial role was landing with their guests/subjects; to the guests and onlookers they offered a window into how far their ruler was willing to disrupt or enforce social norms and, perhaps, a way to present future emperors with lessons about how not to handle such interactions. The symbolic significance of such spaces (familiar to any fan of “Downton Abbey” or “The Gilded Age”) lends itself to comparison—between classes, tastes, bodies, morals—and offers the historian access to a room where self-reflection and performance are as much on the table as any stuffed dormouse or conger eel.

I would be remiss if I failed to remark on the striking blurbs included on the book’s jacket, which are a testament to Beard’s role as public intellectual rather than to the work at hand: “a folk hero,” “irresistible salty charm,” “troll slayer” (this last taken from a 2014 New Yorker profile of Beard as scholar, feminist and public figure). These somewhat combative characterizations provide a fine capstone to the author’s study of the larger-than-life personae attributed to the men in this book who lived, breathed, bathed and blundered. A trailblazer indeed, Mary Beard shows her audience the significance of the (hi)stories we tell, for ourselves as well as our subjects.

The latest from america

In 1975, Leo O'Donovan, S.J., a theologian and former student of Karl Rahner, reviewed the renowned German theologian Jürgen Moltmann’s ‘The Crucified God.’ Jürgen Moltmann died on June 3, 2024, at the age of 98.
Books about World War II are ubiquitous in the nonfiction section, but "Hitler's American Gamble" is the rare recent work with a genuinely new contribution to make, not just to our understanding of the past but also to our understanding of the present.
Lauren Groff's new novel inverts Defoe’s "Robinson Crusoe" by casting a girl—and only briefly, much later on in the novel, the woman—as its heroine.
Joseph PeschelMay 16, 2024
In "All the Kingdoms of the World¸" Kevin Vallier engages with Catholic integralists, but he opens a bigger question: Is there such a thing as a Catholic politics?