Visions of Rome: An Interview with Mary Beard

Dame Mary Beard

Last year Mary Beard published Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern (Princeton UP, 2021), a work that reveals in brilliant detail how the Roman emperors have influenced and inspired art, culture and politics over two millennia. The book was ten years in the making, developing ultimately from her 2011 Mellon Lectures delivered at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington DC.

We’re very pleased to have been able to discuss with her some issues raised by Twelve Caesars, and to hear her thoughts on Classics and the present state of the discipline.

Your title Twelve Caesars of course calls to mind Suetonius’ gossip-filled biographies of Julius Caesar and the eleven emperors down to Domitian. The book makes abundantly clear how Suetonius can influence subsequent art. But what about Suetonius himself? Do you think he was influenced by busts and other visual art, as well as the written texts available to him? More generally, to what degree can portraits and statues change how people think of historical figures?

The relationship between the textual descriptions of emperors’ appearances in Suetonius and the standard forms of imperial portraiture is a real puzzle. I really don’t think it is any good to sit down with (e.g.) Suetonius’ description of Augustus and the portrait sculpture of the same emperor and say “which is right?” The different media are trying to capture ‘reality’ in a different way. (I think we are more familiar with this than we imagine – look at images and written descriptions of Queen Elizabeth II!)

And how do portraits change how we think of historical figures? That depends a bit on who the ‘we’ is/are. But one obvious response is that (with minor nuances: beard, no beard) they make most emperors up to the early 3rd century look the same. For the early empire in particular, I think we spend far too much effort trying to distinguish one emperor or princeling from another, when they were actually meant to look the same.

Your book reveals in detail how so many Renaissance aristocrats, and indeed more modern grandees, have styled themselves as togaed-up Caesars in art – if not so often in everyday life. In an obvious sense, this is delusional, almost parasitical behaviour. But do you think the unmistakeably imperial aesthetic they tapped into served any purpose that went beyond this desire to be associated with the ‘grandeur of Rome’?

At first sight it is delusional. But the more I explored the subject, the more I realised there was often a bit of a stand-off between different visions of Rome – that it wasn’t just admiration or an attempt to tap into Roman power. They knew as well as (or better than) we do how awkward these Roman autocrats were as role models for modern dynasts. Just think, of the first twelve Caesars, eleven were more or less plausibly alleged to have been murdered, and there were even a few doubts about the odd one out, Vespasian. It seems to me that the Caesars are always part of a dialogic discussion about how to rule. They are not templates for successful monarchy.

The Ara Pacis Augustae, consecrated under Emperor Augustus in 9 BC, Rome, Italy.

A couple of simpler questions, now. The book’s range is truly immense, travelling far over time and space. Which was the most fun part of the book to write or research? Was there anything that really surprised you?

I had no idea about some of the really important sculptural models for modern painters – partly because some of the key pieces of Roman imperial portraiture in the Renaissance and early modern period have been more or less forgotten. I think here particularly of the so-called ‘Grimani Vitellius’, a portrait excavated in the 16th century near Rome and given to the city of Venice by Cardinal Grimani.

The Grimani <Pseudo->Vitellius, Roman marble bust of someone important, 2nd cent. AD (acquired before 1523 by Cardinal Domenico Grimani, and now in the National Archaeological Museum, Venice, Italy).

It was identified as the emperor Vitellius, who reigned for a few months in 69 CE, because it seemed to match up with some coins of Vitellius. But it almost certainly is not him: stylistic and technical features suggest the sculpture dates from a 100 years later than Vitellius. That said, for hundreds of years after it was rediscovered it was believed to be Vitellius and was replicated everywhere in painting and sculpture. I now claim (I think it is more or less true!) that there is no major art gallery in the West where you can’t find the features of the Grimani Vitellius lurking somewhere – as a servant in Veronese’s biblical scene of the ‘Feast in the House of Levi’, or a slumbering banqueter in Thomas Couture’s ‘Romans of the Decadence’. I barely knew of this statue till I started working on this book.

Do you have a favourite Caesar (most of us do!) – not just from the canonical twelve but from the 87 (?) that take us through to Romulus Augustulus?

I can’t claim to have a ‘favourite’. But if people ask me to name one who is really worth exploring, I tend to say Elagabalus (ruled 218–222). That’s partly because many people haven’t really heard of him and I like to think of them going and looking him up. But also he raises all kinds of issues so clearly, about Roman transgression, about gender identity and whether we can believe anything we are told by ancient writers about him.

Elagablus (Heliogabalus), Capitoline Museums, Rome.

Let’s move to some wider issues. Towards the close of the book you reference the ‘sculpture wars’ of the present day – where the status of statuary in the public sphere is more contested than it has been for centuries, at least in the Anglophone West. You take the position that statues are not simply objects for admiration but can perform other, more negative and even apotropaic purposes. If we widen out this observation, and accept that part of the historian’s role is to try to tell the past as it was, do you think present-day students should be prohibited or protected from learning about any aspect of the Greek and Roman worlds, however distasteful?

The ‘sculpture wars’ are tricky. To be honest, I think it is right that some sculptures should come down (they always have). The question is, on what criteria and who decides. And we need to think harder about what statues are for. It isn’t only celebration of the individual concerned. My favourite example is the statue of Charles I, just off Trafalgar Square, looking down Whitehall to his place of execution. So far as I know, there have been no calls for its removal. But it’s not there for our admiration, or as a call for the return to the Divine Right of Kings. Most of us are pleased that Charles lost in the Civil War. As I see it, the point is to encourage us to reflect on the nature of political conflict, and the price we sometimes have to pay for progress (in this case, the life of the king).

Charles I, Hubert Le Sueur, cast in 1633, and moved to its present location in 1675 (on the site of the last of the twelve Eleanor crosses, before that was demolished in 1647); the roof of the Banqueting House, where he was executed in 1649, is visible just to the right of the horse’s raised hoof.

As for distasteful aspects of the Classics, I think it is my job to help students and the general public to see the ancient world for good and for bad – and not to pretend that it was an entirely rosy world. That would be, at best, intellectually dishonest. Do I put trigger warnings, as conventionally understood, on my lecture programmes? No. But do I think that shocking or distressing listeners is usually a good way of launching a constructive discussion? No. It is sensible and courteous to make sure, as far as you can, that people know the range of topics that will be discussed – whether that is on television or in a lecture theatre.

Your career has taken you to a position of great public prominence. In the UK, at least, it has been a generation or two since Classics has had such a high-profile spokesperson for the subject. Perhaps we could go back to the start of the journey by which you got here? When you studied Classics at school, were there any particular texts or episodes that captivated you especially? What – or who – was it that inspired you to head to university to read Classics?

My interest in the ancient world goes back almost as far as I can remember. The first eye-opening moment for me was when I visited the British Museum when I was five with my mother, and I wanted to see, in the Egyptian Galleries, a piece of carbonised bread or cake, thousands of years old (for me, that was much more exciting than the mummies). But it was at the very back of the case and hard for a kid to get close to, even though Mum tried to lift me up. Just as we were struggling a middle-aged man walked by and asked if I was wanting to look at anything in particular. I explained. He then reached into his pocket, found his keys, unlocked the case, and brought the cake out for me to inspect. It was a magic moment, and the message was people will open cases for you.

At school (a girls’ Direct Grant school in Shrewsbury) I am afraid part of me enjoyed just ‘being good’ at Latin and Greek. But there were other magic moments. I remember when I first read Tacitus’ Agricola I was completely struck by the phrase ‘they make a desert and call it peace’ (ubi solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant). There has been no sharper summing up of imperialism ever. At the time I really thought Tacitus was talking to me.

Three-cornered loaf of bread, baked c. 2000 BC (found near Luxor and now in the British Museum, London).

Over your career you have seen first-hand as an academic an evolution in the state of Classics in universities, a process which has perhaps moved at its fastest in this last decade. One of the major changes worldwide has been the steady decrease of the availability of Latin (and Greek) in secondary schools. You recently endowed some much-needed bursaries to support Classics students in Cambridge, which is a very welcome initiative. And you have also expressed your support for the UK government’s announcement last year to expand Latin in the state-school sector, a scheme that will be piloted in 40 schools. What practicable plan do you think UK education should seek to follow in order to keep study of these ancient languages healthy?

Money is crucial here. I fear that all governments like to think that you can get good education on the cheap. You can’t. Beyond that, Classicists should seize every opportunity they are offered. I was disappointed that some people looked askance at the government’s recent proposals for reintroducing Latin into some state schools. Yes, I am sure that many of us do not share all the aims of the scheme, and it is right to be a little bit wary. But don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, folks.

We should remember too that Classics is something of a nostalgic subject that has thought of itself as failing from about the 2nd century CE! More seriously, the Classical Association was founded in the UK in the early 20th century because it was believed that the subject was going down the tubes. Think on that – the very moment when we imagine that Classics was at its self-confident zenith, they thought it was failing. A sense of perilousness can keep a subject on its toes.

There is a widely perceived difficulty in Classical academia when it comes to the simple issue of jobs. Far more Classicists are completing PhDs with the expectation of future academic employment than the number of posts actually available – too many perhaps even when we include jobs in the school and museum sectors. Do you feel that this is a problem, and what routes forward may exist? Do we need to reconceive the purpose or value of a PhD?

This is a tricky one. I certainly don’t think that the PhD should be solely a professional qualification, more or less guaranteeing an academic job. There are many reasons for doing a PhD, and we should think of it as a more varied pathway, and be open about that. My real concerns at the moment are with the ‘precariate’, those people in their early career who find themselves moving from temporary job to temporary job, never getting the chance to put down roots, or to have the mental space for research, always on the move. One of the reasons I am glad to be retiring is that it will open up a job for a younger colleague.

The Romans in their decadence, Thomas Couture, 1847 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France).

Many have worried about the apparent disconnect between the humanities, as studied formally in the world of academic scholarship, and the general public. Your own television shows have done much to bridge this gap, but this rift may be growing steadily wider. What do you think can be done to rekindle the public’s imagination and engagement with Classical history, literature, and the Greco-Roman worlds at large?

I don’t think that in Classics the rift is growing wider – if anything a bit narrower. There is a huge popular appetite for the ancient world, and we have a duty to satisfy that in an intellectually challenging way. Public history is not simplified history. I think that we might be more aware of how some Classical topics are a very useful intellectual toolkit for thinking about problems of the modern world. (I choose my words carefully there; I’m not saying ‘relevant’).

I have recently made a two-part series on ‘Forbidden Art’, which is being shown on BBC 2 at the beginning of February. It explores art from antiquity to now, and the head of Medusa and the famous Laocoon sculpture have starring roles next to Tracey Emin and Anselm Kiefer. They help us raise the issue of the dangers of looking, and the tricky representation of the body in agony.

Laocoon and his Sons, Roman but date and sculptor(s?) uncertain (Vatican Museums, Vatican City).

It’s a core principle of academia that ideas be debated in the open and on cordial terms. We all learn some of our most important information from those who have different opinions, even on difficult and emotive issues. Twitter, for all its virtues, seems to operate on rather different terms; it can be a vehicle not just for mass engagement but also for communal pile-ons and prejudicial scapegoating. Were you suddenly to become a social media mogul, is there anything that you would seek to do in order to foster civil discussion and to minimise the risk of bullying and abuse?

Overall I have gained more from social media than I have lost (otherwise I wouldn’t do it!). I have, however, been the object of mass pile-ins which are pretty hard to take. When you are getting a dozen vile attacks a minute it is a bit like being pummelled, and yet very difficult to turn away from. There is something about Twitter which erodes nuance, encourages self-righteousness, and removes inhibition. It is a relatively new medium and I hope we will get better (and kinder) at using it. Meanwhile, it’s a good idea not to tweet anything that you wouldn’t say to the person’s face.

Finally, if we may, you will know that Antigone seeks to tackle the ancient world from many angles. Are there any pieces on the site that you have enjoyed in particular, and are there areas which you think we should pursue in the coming year?

Ooh, I am much too wise to be drawn into picking my favourites. But I would like to congratulate you for getting Antigone off the ground, and for representing such a wide range of viewpoints with style and quality. Well done all.

Thank you!

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, and Fellow of Newnham College. Her most recent book, Twelve Caesars, is an exploration of images of Roman emperors in modern art from the 15th century on, and is published by Princeton University Press. Her new television series, Forbidden Art, airs on BBC 2 this February.