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books The Crisis of Classical Studies: On Mary Beard’s “Emperor of Rome”

This book highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of classical studies at the present time.

Emperor of Rome
Ruling the Ancient Roman World

Mary Beard
ISBN: 978-1-324-09560-6

THE ACADEMIC DISCIPLINE of classics has had a rough couple of decades. Classics as we now understand it took shape in the 19th century as Northwestern European and Northeastern American scholars defined a canon of literary works written in Greek between the eighth and fourth centuries BC and in Latin between about 100 BC and 100 AD. They taught these works to the elite and aspiring elite in prestigious secondary schools and universities for more than a century and asserted that classical learning was a prerequisite for a person’s understanding of high culture. Well into the 1940s, embedded classical references animated everything from the plays of Albert Camus to the abstract art of Mark Rothko. That moment of cultural centrality passed long ago, however. For much of the second half of the 20th century, classics slowly retreated from its position near the center of university and high cultural life until it became a small, somewhat sleepy subject that emerged into popular consciousness only when a Hollywood blockbuster like Gladiator (2000) or Troy (2004) appeared.


Classics is no longer sleepy. The legacies of ancient Greece and Rome have reemerged as key cultural battlefields fought over by everyone from left-wing scholars to gun rights advocates. Among classics’ critics are university administrators keen to eliminate majors that do not lead directly to employment, and groups of scholars frustrated by the discipline’s historical exclusivity and Eurocentrism. Its champions include scholars fascinated by antiquity and its enduring influence, as well as tens of thousands of undergraduate students who sign up for classics courses each year, not to mention the many people who, social media has recently revealed, think about the Roman Empire at least once a day. Classics has never been more popular. Nor has it been more endangered.

This is, then, a moment when classics desperately needs another book by Mary Beard, the Cambridge scholar whom The Guardian once called “the world’s most famous classicist.” Better than anyone else in her generation, Beard has mastered the ability to explain to 21st-century audiences why the ancient world is interesting, instructive, and useful. She has waged social media battles against misinformed people of all political persuasions who seek to use the Roman past to make ill-founded judgments about our contemporary world. Her work on television and radio has introduced millions of people to the art, literature, and architecture of a beautifully complicated Roman world. Her essays challenge people to think in new and exciting ways about women, slaves, peasants, and other figures whose contributions to the ancient world have long gone unacknowledged. And Beard’s books, including her masterpiece SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015), prompt readers to consider the complexity of the Roman world that fascinates them.

Her latest book, Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World (2023), showcases many of the attributes that make her earlier works so appealing. Emperor of Rome tells the story of the lives, labors, and love affairs of the 26 men who ruled Rome between the reign of Augustus (27 BC–14 AD), Rome’s first and most famous emperor, and that of Alexander Severus (222–35), the mostly forgettable and largely forgotten child emperor with whom Rome’s fourth imperial dynasty concluded. Beard wisely decided not to make the work a chronicle of the life and deeds of men that most readers have never heard of and even fewer particularly care about. She says little about the short reigns of Galba (68–69), Pertinax (193), and Macrinus (217–18) while treating readers to long discussions of more famous rulers like Caligula (37–41), Claudius (41–54), and Nero (54–68). She is also well attuned to the need to make modern readers comfortable with the many unfamiliar names that pop up in her discussions. The book begins with a cast of characters in which images of Roman rulers are shown alongside regnal dates and a brief note describing how each man took power and died. It concludes with a short appendix that explains how Roman emperors got the names by which they are now known. These extremely useful tools help orient all readers, regardless of their familiarity with Roman history.

Emperor of Rome is not just about these emperors, however. Beard also introduces the wives, lovers, family members, household attendants, senators, slaves, and courtiers who made the professional and domestic lives of Roman emperors possible. We observe these people as they travel with the emperor across the vast world he controls. We trace the rise and fall of their fortunes as they labor to please their sovereign. And we dine with them at parties where the imperial host could be entertaining, terrifying, or outright bizarre. Sometimes, as when the emperor Elagabalus (218–22) served flamingo brains to diners and then allowed his pet leopard to wander around the couches on which his drunk guests had passed out, the parties could be all of these things at once.

Beard is at her best when she overlays the testimony of Roman authors with her interpretation of the archaeological remains of the structures they describe. She meticulously reconstructs the various imperial palaces of ever-increasing size that consumed more and more of the Palatine Hill in the course of the first century AD and devotes considerable attention to the villas, vacation homes, and private islands where emperors relaxed outside of Rome. Beard brings readers into the Sperlonga grotto on the western coast where the emperor Tiberius (14–37) dined surrounded by priceless sculptures. She uses photographs, plans, and vivid literary descriptions to uncover the structures and artworks that once comprised the massive villa complex built on the orders of Hadrian (117–38) in the Roman suburb of Tivoli. And she encourages us to look anew at the Colosseum and the Circus Maximus as places where the emperor and his subjects interacted in a fashion that simultaneously reinforced Roman social hierarchies and permitted the people to speak freely, as a group, to their emperor.

Most of all, though, Emperor of Rome offers a series of interesting vignettes presented by a masterful storyteller with a perfect sense of dramatic and comic timing. Beard knows how to introduce the lives and work of unfamiliar characters in a fashion that concisely provides both general historical background and intricate detail about their actions. She has arranged these stories into thematically focused chapters about things like imperial dinner parties (Chapter Three: “Power Dining”) or the imperial court (Chapter Five: “Palace People: The Emperor in His Court”), but Beard has also stacked each tale so that it introduces a character or idea that she often returns to later. This economical narrative style ensures that readers feel they are always walking on firm ground as they journey deeper into the world of Rome’s early emperors.

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Despite the excellent qualities of this book, and it has a great many, I fear that Emperor of Rome represents something of a missed opportunity to speak more broadly to the crisis the field of classics now faces. Although it claims to be a history of Roman emperors, Beard herself acknowledges, in both the work’s introduction and its epilogue, that she has been quite selective in the range of emperors and the span of time the book covers. Emperor of Rome covers a little more than 15 percent of the 1,500 years that emperors ruled the Roman Empire, a situation that would be akin to writing a book called President of the United States and stopping with John Quincy Adams.

Beard acknowledges that “there was an unbroken succession of Roman rulers down to 1453,” when the Eastern Roman Empire finally collapsed, and explains her decision to stop her profile of Roman emperors when she does because, “[w]ith the death of Alexander, the job description began to change” and “what it was to be a Roman emperor shifted dramatically” between 235 and the reigns of Diocletian (284–305) and that of Constantine (306–37). This empire of the later third and fourth centuries was, she writes, “a strange and unfamiliar place.” It was also very different from the period Emperor of Rome covers, a span of time during which, Beard claims, “not much changed on a grand scale for over 250 years: the Roman empire hardly grew in size; it was administered in more or less the same way; and political life in Rome itself followed the same broad pattern.”

While it is true that the Roman Empire in 337 was quite different from what it was in 235, there were also significant differences between the empire when Augustus took power in the 20s BCE and when Severus died in 235. Augustus assumed control of a Roman state that had yet to define the Rhine and Danube as its northern frontiers. Large parts of coastal northwest Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East sat outside the emperor’s direct control; these were under the authority of a constellation of allied states and client kings. Rome had not yet conquered Britain, Dacia, or Arabia. Perhaps as little as 10 percent of the 50 million or so people living within Rome’s boundaries were Roman citizens, and the senate was almost exclusively drawn from Italy.

By 235, the Rhine border was well established and the client kingdoms in Africa, Asia Minor, and the Middle East—as well as the independent regions of Britain, Dacia, and Arabia—had all become Roman provinces. Severus directly controlled far more land than Augustus ever had. The nature of the citizen body to whom the emperor answered also shifted. In 235, every one of the tens of millions of free people in the empire was a Roman citizen and nearly every province provided senators to the Roman Senate. These changes made Augustus’s job at least as dissimilar to that of Severus as Alexander’s was to Constantine’s.

The Roman Empire changed continuously across the 15 centuries it existed, and as it did, the job of ruling its lands and peoples changed too. Stopping a study of Roman emperors in 235 because the empire had changed seems arbitrary. It is, however, perfectly in keeping with the way classics has defined Roman antiquity since the 19th century. Many classical Roman historians hesitate to venture beyond the comfort of the early Roman Empire and engage in detail with the other 85 percent of the empire’s history. Beard does better than most by extending her study into the 230s, but there is still a period of over 1,200 years to go.

Roman history did not always work this way. When the Viennese scholar Johannes Cuspinianus wrote his history of Roman emperors for the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 1510s, it stretched from Julius Caesar to the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In the early 18th century, Montesquieu’s history of the Roman state similarly extended into the 15th century. So too did Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which appeared in 1776. Stopping Roman imperial history nearer to its beginning than its end is, relatively speaking, a recent phenomenon.

The brevity of Beard’s coverage is also unfortunate because an exhaustive history of Roman emperors would dramatically change some aspects of this book. Beard’s comment that “[n]o woman in Rome ever had any formal, executive power in the state” would make no sense to the Romans living under the reigns of empresses Irene (797–802), Zoe (1042), or Theodora (1055–56). Eleventh-century visitors to the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople would also be puzzled by her claim that “the ashes of most emperors and their families ended up in one of two huge mausolea” in the city of Rome. These medieval Romans could look around that Constantinopolitan church and see the sarcophagi of more than 50 different emperors and imperial family members interred there between the death of Constantine I in 337 and that of Constantine VIII in 1028.

Expanding Emperor of Rome’s chronological footprint would also have extended its story in ways that could bring classics out of the cul-de-sac in which it currently finds itself. Until she reaches the Severan dynasty (which began in 193 and included emperors of North African and Syrian descent), all of the emperors Beard treats are Europeans from Italy, Spain, and Southern France. They fit quite neatly into the comfortable, 19th-century, Northwestern European ideals about what antiquity ought to be. This is why they, and the empire they ruled, resonated so much with 19th-century Western Europeans and North Americans. But, as Beard acknowledges briefly, many of the emperors who ruled Rome in later centuries came from places outside of Western Europe. They were much more important in shaping the cultural, political, and religious legacies of communities living in the Caucasus Mountains, the Horn of Africa, the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and South Asia.

A book that included those emperors could show how the legacy of Constantine I influenced views of Christian monarchy in places as diverse as Axum (an ancient kingdom centered on land now part of Eritrea and Ethiopia), Armenia, and Merovingian France. It could explain why church councils called by Roman emperors such as Constantine and Theodosius I (379–95) provided some of the fundamental legal framework that governed medieval Christian communities in Iraq, Iran, and Kerala. It could reveal that Coptic church services in Egypt still commemorate the orthodoxy of emperor Theodosius II (402–50) and condemn the heresy of his sister Pulcheria and her husband, the emperor Marcian (450–57). It could also describe the painful decision that the emperor Basil II (976–1025) made when he sent his sister Anna off to marry Grand Prince (and later Saint) Volodymyr of Kiev Rus, a decision that many Russian Orthodox Christians believe led to their king’s baptism and their nation’s conversion to Christianity. We could, in short, understand a lot better why Roman emperors still matter so much to so many people across the world—both within and outside Europe. This is a way that classics can simultaneously answer the criticisms that it is too Eurocentric and elitist while retaining the fervent interest of those students and general readers who love ancient Rome.

That is not the book Beard wanted to write, however. Every author has the prerogative to set the terms of their own work, and Emperor of Rome is excellently done according to the terms its author set. Beard has put together a wonderful narrative that enlivens, in brilliant color, the world of a group of Roman emperors that readers already fascinated by a classical version of Roman antiquity will certainly love. It is absolutely not Beard’s fault that classics finds itself in its current troubles. But I do hope that someone of her stature will choose to write the sort of book that might pull the discipline back from the brink.


Edward J. Watts holds the Alkiviadis Vassiliadis Endowed Chair and is professor of history at the University of California, San Diego. The author and editor of several prize-winning books, including The Final Pagan Generation (2015), he lives in Carlsbad, California.