Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

There is the thought that not much more can be said about the history of the Roman Empire. Mary Beard though breaks through this thought and has dug a little deeper to reveal more about the Emperors between Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) and Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 CE).

Beard though is not concentrating on each Emperor of the period individually. She is more interested in examining the position of Emperor and in the process tries to decipher where true power lay when it came to making decisions that affected the government of the Empire.

She also introduces us to the complex personalities who eventually came to the top job  no matter how short their time on the throne ended up being.

One thing stands out via Beard’s meticulous research. There was no specific position description when it came to being the leader of the largest empire of the then known western world. Though Augustus laid the foundation of a one-person centralised rule with some codification, it was left to his successors to muddle through as best they could. This often meant that to keep order an Emperor needed a large retinue of people to assist him along the way.

It was often they who held the power because the new incumbent, on taking the throne, found himself beholden to those who put him there in the first place. Those who held the power were also a mixed lot. They included slaves, ex-slaves, officers of the army, and wives, mothers and occasionally grandmothers of the Emperor himself.

Beard’s research had to cut through the often self-serving tone of published materials in order to find the real person behind the rhetoric. Just as modern leaders have public relations people to show them in the best light, so Emperors had them as well. Some went as far as to proclaim their successes, real or not, on stone pillars and reliefs that have survived to the present time. Others, like Augustus, produced a book or two to highlight their achievements.

One of the interesting examinations in the book is how people living in the outer parts of the Empire viewed the Emperor as they went about their daily lives. After all, many would have never seen him except via coinage and the occasional statue that often projected a flattering light. Even those living in Rome often had difficulty recognising their leader since some hid themselves away from the public eye while others could not get enough of being in it.

The Emperor’s availability to the people is also examined by Beard. She highlights the difficulties an incumbent had in being able to take time off for individual pursuits because of the expectation that all subjects could access him whenever they wished.

As one who has read a lot of Roman history, I found Beard’s book interesting and useful. It will assist researchers who are looking for a closer look at the ways in which the Emperors of Rome went about their business in what was, no doubt, the toughest job of the age.

Mary Beard is Professor Emerita of Classics at Cambridge, and the classics editor of the TLS. She has worldwide academic acclaim. Her previous books include Wolfson, prize winning Pompeii, Confronting the Classics, SPQR, and most recently Women & Power and Twelve Caesars. She had made numerous television series and her books have been published in over thirty languages.

Emperor of Rome

by Mary Beard


Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 184668 378 7

$65.00; 396pp

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