A Tale Of Two Very Different Ancient Romes

The figure of the Roman emperor still conjures up an array of familiar images, monuments and (often sordid) tales. These bygone rulers feature in our films; their portraits line our museums; and the stories of their wars, dinners, sex lives and brutality continue to stir our imagination and fuel our fears of unbounded power. It is this figure — not of any particular emperor, but of the emperor as a position, or even an idea — that forms the basis of “Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World,” the latest book by Mary Beard, whose previous works include the wildly popular Roman history book “SPQR.” Throughout, it is clear that Beard — a decorated retired Cambridge professor (and blogger and TV presenter), who excels at making the ancient world accessible to nonspecialist audiences — is herself deeply intrigued by the Roman emperor.

Writing about such a figure is potentially fraught. A book spotlighting the Roman emperor even as an idea could all too easily play into the hands of those who see in him, and in Rome more generally, an ideal, a fantasy through which to fetishize masculine conquest and power. Conversely, to center the emperor, the richest and most elite individual in the Roman world, departs from the growing, and welcome, tendency of ancient historians to illuminate instead the lives of those on the periphery of Roman society — women, the enslaved, the formerly enslaved, resident foreigners, sex workers, business-owners and tradespeople — or those on the periphery of the Roman empire, in places like North Africa or Mesopotamia.

Beard treads this ground carefully, drawing on a rich plethora of literary and material evidence from both the center and the edges of the Roman world. No masculine power fantasy, the emperor appears here more as an overworked bureaucrat set on maintaining the status quo than as a conquering general bringing the world under his sway. One of the book’s major goals is to dig into the “job description” of being emperor: what was expected of him and how did he spend his time? How do the stories about him speak to Roman expectations for, and anxieties about, one-man rule? As Beard puts it, thinking about how the Romans “constructed the figure of the emperor” is an effective way to enter their “thought-world.”

Perhaps most interestingly, a study of the emperor illuminates the lives of the nonelite in surprising ways. Beard offers a wealth of information about the imperial household workforce that made the emperor’s job possible, from the secretariat (staffed largely by liberti, a term Beard translates throughout as “ex-slaves”) that answered his mail to the enslaved persons who served his dinner, styled his hair and nursed him as a baby. She shows how the presence of such individuals gave fodder to senatorial suspicions that the emperor was something of a puppet controlled by those over whom he should wield power. Two opposing visions emerge. In one, painted by the male elite, Rome under the emperor becomes a nightmare vision of a world turned topsy-turvy. In the other, articulated by the tombstones of cooks and tasters and wet-nurses, imperial structures provided opportunities for new hierarchies, and new avenues to distinction, to develop.

Beard depicts a system that was largely improvised as Julius Caesar and his heir Augustus came to power in the first-century B.C., then subsequently maintained within roughly the same basic parameters until the reign of Alexander Severus in mid-third century A.D. — the timespan that forms the book’s focus. Chapter by chapter, she scrutinizes both the idea and the reality of rule, beginning with the key role of succession from one emperor to another and how this contributed to the mythical creation of “good” and “bad” emperors. She takes us into the imperial dining room as a real and imagined space, into the palace as a symbol of power and a site for administration, and into the physical structures — such as the Colosseum — that emperors built to showcase and shore up their power. We get glimpses of how the emperors spent their free time, often alongside those they ruled, and we travel abroad with them, both for tourism and for war, as they leave their marks, some temporary and some lasting, on the landscape.

Along the way, we gain a sense of how ubiquitous the emperor and his family were throughout the empire, if not in the flesh then in portraiture, which filled both public spaces and private homes, from expensive statues and jewelry to humble pottery, medallions and even pastry molds. Beard takes us all the way to the end of emperors’ lives, which often concluded with triumphant funerals and deification. One of the most compelling motifs that runs through the book is the fakery required by autocracy, from Commodus pretending to be a gladiator to the people pretending that a wax mannequin of Trajan being paraded in a triumphal procession was somehow the real thing. Beard reminds us throughout that being emperor was a kind of theatrical act, and that his power largely depended on whether the populace believed, or professed to believe, that the pageantries of power they viewed amounted to something real.

Beard’s writing is, as always, deeply engaging and informed by what seems to be an encyclopedic knowledge of the ancient world. Due to the sheer amount of evidence from which she draws, and the vast ground she covers, she inevitably has to condense her sources. She touches on a slew of literature that typically receives little attention from general readers, such as the writings of Galen, Pliny and Augustus himself. Yet at times, I wanted her to linger longer over these sources. In her reading of a poem by Statius (Silvae 1.6) describing a banquet (or as she puts it, “picnic”) that Domitian hosted for the populace in the Colosseum, Beard rightly observes that this event allowed the emperor to display his generosity, and power, to 50,000 Romans of varying ranks, “from lofty senator to the man in the street.” But Beard elides the occasion for this dinner: the Saturnalia, a kind of precursor to Christmas, during which the normal hierarchies of Roman society purportedly were suspended and libertas (“liberty”) was temporarily granted, at least nominally, to the enslaved. Statius even proclaims that, during this banquet, “libertas reverentiam remisit” (“liberty slackened reverence”). By lauding Domitian for extending this moment of equality, and even freedom, to his subjects, Statius subtly makes the disturbing suggestion that Rome’s citizens are like slaves to an imperial master. Highlighting this detail would give new depth to a poet often seen as nothing more than a court toady.

A book with as ambitious a scope as this one cannot, of course scrutinize all sources equally. And Beard offers ample resources, labeled “Further Reading,” for curious readers who want to discover more for themselves. What ultimately emerges in these rigorously researched pages is an account that gives life to an often shadowy yet captivating figure. Beard uses the enduring fascination that the Roman emperor generates as a hook to get us to think more deeply about how the Romans articulated and exercised power, and how one-man rule reverberated through every level of society. Above all, she makes her readers rethink any simplistic notions they may have about what it meant to be the emperor of Rome.

Stephanie McCarter is a classics professor at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tenn. Her new translation of Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is now available.

Ruling the Ancient Roman World

Liveright. 493 pp. $39.99

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