Is America akin to Rome in decline? Was Trump like Caligula? What can the Antonine plague tell us about our response to Covid? These are questions that have been asked of late, but they’re only recent iterations of a longstanding impulse: When a seeming paradigm shift occurs, contemporary commentators will look to ancient Rome for parallels, lessons, warnings. But what do we truly hope to reveal with these comparisons to Rome? And what do those hopes say about us? Mary Beard has spent a lifetime examining such questions. The success with which the Cambridge classics professor, best-selling author, television documentary series host and feisty Twitter star has done so has elevated her to something akin to icon status — though, like the subjects she studies, that status is not free of complications, which she welcomes. “If I’ve got a function in life other than being a bloody dinosaur,” says Beard, who is 66, “then the job is to say things are complicated. They’re always complicated.”
Obviously we can refer back to ancient Rome and say we took positive influence from their ideas about, for example, law and government. These days, though, it seems that pundits are mostly inclined to look to Rome for cautionary tales. But have we ever really looked back and said, Boy, the Ancient Romans screwed that up, so let’s do things differently? The comparisons can just feel like a highfalutin parlor game. I’ll tell you where you see it: military campaigns. The aggressive or do-gooding West has a disastrous campaign in the Middle East and then people start to say, Ooh, Romans always had trouble there. It looks frightfully learned, and as if it’s rooting your distaste for that kind of military escapade in the terms of real history when, in fact, it’s using history to justify what you think anyway. But no, you don’t sit down and say, “Hmm, the ancient Roman Empire: These are people who were pro-migration. So I’m a bit worried about my strongly nationalist tendencies, because I’ve looked at Rome and they seemed to do rather well by taking a very different approach.” What the Romans are teaching is always at that meta level of what it might be like to take a view different from your own. But, “I’ve suddenly realized,” said somebody in the 1830s, “if the ancient Greeks finally got around to giving the vote to all adult males, why can’t we?” That never happened.
So why this almost instinctual urge to continue looking for parallels? You know, when people used to call me about Trump because they wanted to know which Roman emperor you’d compare him to, I always thought, This is damn stupid. The comparison wasn’t doing anybody any harm, but I would either give a little lesson about why this was not a sensible way forward or I would try to find a Roman emperor that I thought they wouldn’t have heard of. I usually picked on Elagabalus, who makes Nero look like a pussycat. So as long as it’s a parlor game, it’s harmless. Maybe you then say, So why bother? What is important for me about ancient Rome is two things. One is it provides a safe space for us to discuss issues about communal living, politics, exploitation, in which we’re not invested. We can talk about Nero putting the Christians to death brutally in a way that doesn’t impinge on modern Christians — it’s so far in the past. We can think about enslavement and empire because Rome, in a way, doesn’t matter at all. It’s a very long time ago; no one’s going to get hurt by them. We’re in charge of ancient Rome now. Second, Rome helps us stand outside ourselves. For me, Rome was a brutal and exploitative empire. But the idea of looking at a big, nasty imperial community who saw their origin in migration, in asylum, and that always traded on the incorporation of the foreign — it takes us out of some of our assumptions.
But on the idea of ancient Rome being a safe space, isn’t it a point of contention in contemporary classical scholarship that classics are inextricably intertwined with white supremacy? There is absolutely no doubt that ancient Rome in particular but also bits of ancient Greece have been used to validate fascism, dictatorship, white supremacy. There were things that were whited over: ancient slavery was talked about as if it was some kind of version of 19th-century domestic service. People have always been extremely good at not seeing what they didn’t want to see in the ancient world or using the ancient world to validate appalling stuff. That said, there has been a tendency to overestimate the “toxic” history of subjects, because academic subjects do not exist outside the culture in which they’re studied. So of course classics have a toxic history. Nuclear physics has a toxic history. Anthropology has a toxic history. It’s extremely important to look at it and face up to it, but classics wasn’t responsible for fascism. We use these things and these traditions, and we’ve used them for bad and good.
But I guess the question is whether you think academia’s increasing awareness of and sensitivity to new perspectives on white supremacy — or even identity politics more broadly — requires a commensurate reorientation of how classics are taught? I don’t know how much weight you’re putting on commensurate.
Neither do I. [Laughs.] Well, to take a very tame example, when I was a student we barely did the history of women in the ancient world, never mind gender, gender identity, trans politics. That changed with second-wave feminism. It seems to me utterly obvious that you engage with and change the nature of what you teach as politics changes. It’s perhaps more contentious to see exactly how you approach that in relation to a more popular understanding of classics. Because there is a danger that if people get a glimpse of some of the battles in the modern academy and some of the loudest claims about the toxic history of classics, the subject loses support. Every academic subject, in order to survive, relies on people thinking it’s worth supporting. One thing that I’ve tried to do in my teleprograms is to say, Look, the subject is interesting and one of the reasons that we are still studying it is because it has been implicated in the history of the West, and some of that history you’ve got to look in the eye — and it’s not always nice.
You mentioned how second-wave feminism incurred new perspectives on the classics. Are there contemporary aspects of feminist thinking that you’ve since had to incorporate into your understanding of classics? I’m not sure I’d call it feminist, but: issues of gender. I was educationally brought up to see ancient Greece but also ancient Rome as a strongly binary-gendered culture that incorporated all kinds of homoeroticism — which is what Oscar Wilde and company picked up on. I was taught that there’s a fixed binary divide. Various bits of L.G.B.T.Q. theorizing made us keep our eyes open for ways in which that’s not true entirely. As one example, there’s a famous statue, and it comes in various versions, of a life-size marble Hermaphroditus lying down, and the figure has a penis and breasts. When I was a student, we were taught either that it was a very clever representation of a particularly odd Greek myth or an elegant Greco-Roman joke. There were times when I taught that. I wouldn’t today. And while you cannot take debates about gender fluidity, trans politics or whatever and just impose them on the ancient world, I’ve come to see that some Romans were fervently debating these things. That Hermaphroditus statue that I was taught was a joke is much more likely now to be seen in terms of a Roman debate about gender and sexual identity.
Speaking of which, a few weeks ago there was this kerfuffle on Twitter when people got mad at you for following TERFs, and your response was basically to say that you follow people not necessarily because you agree with their views but to understand what they think, which didn’t seem to satisfy anyone. What did that experience show you about social media? I see, in a way that I hadn’t before, that Twitter operates with very different microcommunities within it. Mostly those microcommunities jostle along quite happily with each other, but sometimes they come into conflict. I went on to Twitter 10 years ago because I did journalism with The Times Literary Supplement and was told to have a Twitter account. You’d tweet an article so people would click on it. You followed people that might be saying interesting things even if you disagreed with them. Or perhaps you’d follow people because you were going to disagree with them and that was a way in which you’d get information. That’s one version of Twitter, which quite a lot of people of my generation hold. It’s a version which is based in a degree of privilege. But it’s now clear to me that there are other people within Twitter who are using it as a support group. They block people they don’t want to hear, and they’ve created a micro-community within the platform. That’s a perfectly legitimate thing to do. But in my version of Twitter, if you spot somebody saying, “She follows some TERFs,” you think, Why are you trying to police whom I follow? So what you’ve brought up is a case in which two versions of Twitter came head to head, and they’re incompatible. I sort of knew that before, but now I’m able to describe it more clearly.
In this instance were your critics right in making the assumption that your following certain people on Twitter was evidence of ideological sympathy? I see the logic, but I don’t agree with it. You want to know what people you don’t agree with are saying, and you also want to know what people you don’t respect are saying. You don’t get a sense of where the argument lies by not looking or not interacting. I’m very pleased to think that there are people with whom I agree on some issues and not others. I don’t want a world in which we all agree. I want a world in which people feel that they have the standing and confidence to feel that they can disagree. I’m interested in why people think as they do. Whatever side of whatever political divide you are, you can’t just lock the other side up and put gags around their mouths — there’s too many of them! But what would it be for me to show them why I think as I do? That’s where history comes in. Look at people in the British 19th century crossing boundaries that we think are absolutely unacceptable: Who backed eugenics? Who opposed the rights of women to any voice in the public sphere? Who opposed the Factory Act? Some of those guys, in other aspects of their life, were doing things that we think of as part of the foundation of modern Britain. So we have to say, What would it be like to be a liberal-reforming late-Victorian male who fundamentally opposed giving women the vote? It could be that they’re all bastards. I just don’t think that’s true. I think they’re wrong. That’s different.
Does all the time you’ve spent in trying to understand historical peoples’ mind-sets give you any insight into how we might end up being understood? That, you see, is the $64,000 question. One of the things that history is good for is puncturing our sanctimonious self-satisfaction about our own moral rectitude. In all sorts of ways, we are better than the people who came before us, but one thing that I ask my undergraduates to do is to fast-forward 200 years: What do you think people will be writing essays about us on? What will they find deplorable or puzzling? And once they start to think about it, they get many answers: How can you possibly treat the old in that way? We have dumping grounds for the elderly. History is about learning to put yourself in proportion to a rather longer time span.
My understanding is that the cutting-edge research now on ancient Rome — and I don’t mean this glibly — is on things like the kind of fish scales found in the latrines at Pompeii. That’s a question we’d like to answer, but it’s not going to change our fundamental thinking. So are there still big questions remaining for you about Rome? The book that I’ve just finished is about modern images of Roman emperors from the Renaissance to now. I think that provides an example of new questions about classics. I was curious about the lineups of the 12 Caesars on museum shelves. I’d walk past those and wouldn’t give them another look. I’m a bloody classicist, and I thought, Oh, god, another lineup of the 12 Caesars. I don’t quite know how I came to work on it, but as soon as you look at how these lineups of boring old busts were put together — they knew these guys were foul. They weren’t sitting there saying, We can all model ourselves on the Caesars. They knew that they were nasty, and they still had them there. Why do you have statues of people you hate? We’ve always thought that, Oh, gosh, we’ve just opened our eyes to this; we know that Domitian was nasty. But our predecessors knew perfectly well, too! I’m probably not the first person to have asked the question, but I’m the first person to have asked the question recently very publicly, which is: What are these statues doing? What is our investment in a lineup of monsters? How does it relate to our anxieties about statues of people involved in the slave trade? What do we think statues are for, and can the ancient world help us think afresh about this? It isn’t novel in the sense that counting the fish scales in a Pompeiian lavatory has a certain novelty about it. But it’s new for me.
Without spoiling your book, can you share some possible answers to those questions? I think these statues are warnings against self-satisfaction. I look at these statues of people I very much dislike, and I think, first of all, You’re wrong and I’m right. You might be up on that [expletive] pedestal, but you’re wrong. Then I think, But you’re a warning to me. One day I’ll be wrong. It engenders a little bit of humility. What is amazing about this whole debate is that statues are always being changed around. X is being taken down and we’re bringing someone else because we think they’re nicer. Even in great ceremonial places like Trafalgar Square, apart from Nelson, hardly any of them were ever intended to be there. They’re all temp residents. Statues are works in progress.
I don’t know if this is novel to you, but in the last few years there has been a real resurgence of popular interest in Stoic philosophy — why’d you just roll your eyes? All to the good when people are interested in the ancient world, but this is one of the more mystifying bits of interest: clichéd self-help from a philosophy that, if you looked at it really hard, was nasty, fatalistic, bordering on fascist.
But what’s your hunch about why people are being drawn to Stoicism? What comes out in Marcus Aurelius particularly is rather clichéd thoughts: Never take a major decision when your mind is troubled. We can all agree with clichés like that. And they come with the rubber stamp of great antiquity because they were written by an emperor — an emperor who was about as brutal in massacring the enemy as Julius Caesar. But we tend to forget that side of him because he’s a bearded “philosopher.” It’s not very salutary to look at your Amazon ratings, but I always feel terribly pleased — though it doesn’t happen often — when I’m higher up than Marcus Aurelius.
Opening illustration: Source photograph by Geraint Lewis/Writer Pictures, via Associated Press
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.