Your new book covers a swathe of the history of ancient Rome, from Julius Caesar to Septimius Severus and beyond, but starts by introducing a less familiar figure. Who is he, and why did you lead with him?

The book kicks off with the story of a teenager from Syria who came to the Roman throne in AD 218 and who was assassinated in 222. Known as Elagabalus [officially Marcus Aurelius Antoninus], he certainly wasn’t one of Rome’s greatest hits, but he is an emperor around whom the most extravagant stories have collected. If you think Nero or Caligula were over the top, you ain’t seen nothing until you’ve looked at Elagabalus! We’re told that when he invited people to dinner, he showered them with rose petals – with so many petals that his guests were smothered and died. He is said to have been the earliest known user of the whoopee cushion in western history: he would have his slaves go around and let the air out of dinner guests’ cushions so that they ended up on the floor. He’s also reputed to have married a Vestal Virgin [a priestess sworn to chastity] and made a human sacrifice. In short, Nero was a pussycat in comparison.


I start the book with Elagabalus because the point about such stories isn’t whether or not they’re true. (My guess is that they’re not, but were invented after Elagabalus’s time to besmirch his memory.) My pitch is that, in a way, it doesn’t matter if they are literally true, because they’re true in another sense: they represent Roman fears about what the worst kind of emperor would be like. They’re saying that you never know where you are with a bad emperor – that emperors are never what they seem, and that some of what lies at the heart of Roman imperial power is deceit, deception and fakery. In the orbit of the emperor, you can never believe your eyes.

Even nature might be corrupted. Elagabalus’s alleged tricks included only eating fish when he was inland, and having snow brought to his summer gardens. Again, these stories paint a picture of a mad, capricious emperor – but what they’re actually saying is that the problem at the root of imperial power is its subversion of nature. You can learn a lot about what people thought about emperors from these tales, even if they are true only at the level of ideology.

You write that Rome was an empire before it had an emperor. Could you elaborate on that point?

People sometimes think that the Roman empire was acquired and governed by a Roman emperor. It was absolutely the reverse: though it’s completely counter-intuitive, the Roman emperor inherited an empire.

The previous political system, generally known as the Republic, ended with Julius Caesar’s dictatorship. It was a sort of – and I mean sort of – democracy, with very ‘sort-of’ elections: it wasn’t exactly one-man, one-vote equality. One of the things about the Republic that forever marked out Rome from almost any other early western power is that it was stunningly successful in conquest. People have always wondered why: some argue that it’s because the Romans were simply nastier than everyone else, though I think that everyone was nasty, really. But certainly the Romans were hugely successful at defeating their neighbours and expanding their territory. By the second century BC – long before Rome had an emperor – it had acquired a huge land-based empire stretching around the Mediterranean from what’s now Portugal and Spain to Greece and Turkey.

The key point here is that it was the enormous size of this empire that destroyed Roman democracy. The Republic was based on notional equality among the elite, and on the basic rule that nobody held any political office for more than a year, and that any such office was always shared with someone else. But although that system helped the Romans acquire that vast swathe of territory, it proved unworkable as a means to govern or keep it. Long before there was an emperor, unprecedented power ended up being handed to individuals, in order to put down rebellions or clear the sea of pirates or whatever the problem was in that moment. At the same time, the notional equality of the elite was being destroyed because so much wealth was being acquired from the empire, and some people were making themselves so much bigger than others. So, from the second century BC, a series of civil wars erupted, with kind-of prequels to emperors taking power. Out of all of that, one-man rule was established.

A carving depicting Roman soldiers.
A carving depicting Roman soldiers. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

That change in system did help solve practical problems of governing the empire. Some provinces lay several months’ travel from Rome, and if you held office for only one year, you could barely get out to such distant realms and back again during that time. Ultimately, Julius Caesar cut through all of this bureaucracy to be made dictator – and, eventually, dictator for life. As a single ruler, he founded the political system we know as the empire. But it really was a case of the empire producing emperors, not emperors producing the empire. After Caesar’s assassination, someone you’ve described as “a particularly nasty young man” rose to power: Octavian.

Why was he so very nasty, and how did he become Rome’s first emperor?

Caesar was assassinated in the name of ‘liberty’ – ha ha – by some privileged aristocrats whom William Shakespeare glorified. A decade of civil war followed, during which Caesar’s supporters – notably Mark Antony and Octavian – defeated his killers, then turned on each other. Octavian eventually emerged victorious and became the first emperor proper, changing his name to Augustus [and reigning 27 BC to AD 14]. But he was a thug, at least in the first instance. He illegally raised his own private militia and joined forces with Mark Antony. He was then part and parcel of some extremely nasty civil violence and lawless killing. He is well known as being a violent young bloke: one story tells how he tore out the eyes of one of his enemies with his bare hands.

A statue of Augustus in Copenhagen.
A statue of Augustus in Copenhagen. (Photo by: Prisma/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

One of the great mysteries of Roman history is how, after starting out in that way, Augustus was able to rebrand himself as a founding father and elder statesman. Some of that early violence might have been a bit exaggerated by his enemies, but some of it certainly wasn’t. There are plenty of other terrorists and radicals who, after winning the fight for power – pretty nastily, sometimes – turned themselves into revered elder statesmen, but Augustus’s must count as one of the biggest and most unexplained turnarounds. He ruled for 40 years, making him the longest-serving Roman emperor – and yet, if you’d encountered him in the 30s BC, you’d have steered well clear. Not only did Octavian rule for a long time, but he also established principles of emperorship that endured for centuries.

Why were they so successful, and how did he change what rule meant?

Quite how much of a ready-made plan he had, when he’d just been fighting a civil war, I don’t know. No doubt his most pressing aim was to not get a dagger in the back. Though ancient writers suggest he was working to a template that he already had in mind, I think he improvised a set of measures that lasted, and which are relatively clear.

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One that was absolutely crucial was nationalising the army. Part of the problem that had emerged in Rome in the first century BC was that a whole series of ambitious men were raising their own private legions that were loyal to them, not to the state. That’s how Augustus had operated during the civil war, and he must have seen that was a big problem. So he jettisoned the notion of temporary armies built by leading men, and replaced it with a professional army, with limited terms of service and a retirement package at the end. That broke the link between ambitious and powerful generals and their troops, and was very successful – but also hugely expensive. It’s reckoned that paying the troops, plus retirement packages, cost around half the entire revenue of the Roman empire. But I think that’s an indication of just how important Augustus regarded making the army the force of the state, not of individual generals. He also continued the traditional Roman conquests.

With the money that was left, he was phenomenally generous to the Roman people – not only in terms of cash handouts and providing shows and spectacles, but also of rebuilding the ceremonial centre of Rome, which had been rather higgledy-piggledy and not very well planned. He erected new buildings, many with decorations featuring Augustus himself. He flooded the Roman world with his image, both on coins and in marble. It’s reckoned that there were between 25,000 and 50,000 depictions of him across the world. Though immortalised in these sculptures, eventually Augustus’s rule – like all others – had to end.

How did succession work? Could anyone become an emperor if they wanted it enough?

You could say that Augustus was successful and lucky in everything apart from succession planning. That’s where you see the big fault-lines in the system. Part of the problem was that he and his wife, Livia, had no living children of their own. They each had children from previous marriages, but didn’t have children between them to take over the throne.

What happened instead was a series of adoptions, and failed attempts to marry off Augustus’s daughter to potential heirs – none of whom lived long enough to succeed as emperor. Eventually, Augustus was left with only Livia’s son from her first marriage, Tiberius, whom he adopted and who took over the throne. It’s not hard to see why some historians imagined that Livia was angling for her son’s succession all along, and had a hand in the premature deaths of the other potential candidates – though there’s no evidence for that, only gossip.

So succession was a mess from the very beginning. As to whether anyone could become emperor: in theory, yes – but what really happened was that successors were chosen via adoption, first from the wider family of the emperor and then, from the second century AD, from a wider range of the elite. So it certainly wasn’t like the way any American can dream of inhabiting the White House.

Did that expanding pool lead to more diverse figures becoming emperor? And is some of that diversity obscured by the fact that statues of emperors now seem to us to be universally white?

One feature of the Roman empire, right from its origins, was that Rome gradually allowed people from its empire into full citizenship and power. And, as the elite of the Roman empire became more diverse, so the diversity of the people on the throne also increased. Trajan came from Spain, for instance, while Elagabalus was from a Syrian family.

Septimius Severus, shown on a coin.
Septimius Severus, shown on a coin. (Photo by Heritage Art/Heritage Images via Getty Images)

I think you’re right: the fact that visitors to museums now see loads and loads of white marble statues can give us a misleading impression of the kinds of people who were Roman emperors. The exact ethnicity of Septimius Severus has been much debated, for instance, but he certainly wasn’t what we might now term ‘pale, male and stale’. And of course those statues might have looked different when they were painted to reflect a range of skin tones and facial characteristics. So yes: looking at ancient statues, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that all emperors were white. You’ve mentioned Elagabalus again there. In your book, you make the point that it’s vital to see these individuals not just as characters in macabre stories but as hard-working bureaucrats.

What tasks did they perform, and just how hard-working were they?

Some rulers must have been more hard-working than others. A key point of my book, though, is that, despite our tendency to see Roman emperors as a series of psychopaths, it just doesn’t make sense to understand the Roman empire in these terms. The empire cannot have been governed by a series of psychopaths, because in that case it just would not have survived.

As to what emperors actually did, I think the job description would probably have been the same in AD 210 as it was in 10 BC – though some would have been better at doing it than others. As the emperor Marcus Aurelius put it in the second century AD, when he was looking back at his predecessors: Roman imperial power, and imperial power more generally, is “the same play, just a different cast”.

Some jobs would always have had to be done, regardless of who was emperor – and one of those was dealing with correspondence. The emperor’s postbag must have been enormous, crammed full of petitions, begging letters, and reports from leaders and governors. Some missives would have been about matters of great geopolitical import, while others would have been about lost cows. There is no doubt that somebody in the royal palace was looking at those questions and signing them off. We don’t know how many letters were actually dealt with by the emperor himself – just as we know that if we write to the prime minister now and get a reply, it wasn’t actually written by the PM. But when Romans imagined the emperor, they imagined him with his red boxes adjudicating legal cases just as much as they pictured him having sex in the swimming pool. We talked earlier about Caesar’s assassination, a fate that also befell plenty of his successors.

It certainly made an enormous difference. I think that modern readers of Roman history, me included, have tended to be a bit naive about this. We’ve assumed, for instance, that Domitian [ruled AD 81–96] was very nasty, and that’s why he was assassinated, to be succeeded by the elderly but steady Nerva. Well, you could spin that: you could say that because Domitian was assassinated in a palace coup – with most of the conspirators coming from inside the palace – it was in the interests of Nerva and others to spread vile stories about Domitian. Now, we don’t know which story is right, and I think it’s always a bit too simple to somehow pretend that these monsters were really nice. None of them were nice in our terms, but it’s still useful to remember that good men and bad men alike are assassinated. You end the book by writing that researching and writing it has opened your eyes to aspects of modern politics.

Without naming any specific present-day politicians, in what ways do you mean that?

On the one hand, writing the book made me hate autocracy more. It’s a system in which everybody is engaged in a fiction, a fake – even the emperor. He’s the one person to whom no one will ever tell the truth. So I felt more distaste for autocratic power. At the same time, I felt a bit more sympathy on an individual basis for the probably very ordinary person on the throne. How do you live in a culture in which there is no truth? But I sympathised also with all those others caught up in that culture, right down to the bottom of the pile.

I suppose it’s also made me think slightly differently about modern politics in this country and elsewhere. I could do an analysis of the hypocrisy of the British political system – its preponderance of soundbites, its lies and systematic untruths – but I have sympathy for the men and women caught up in that system, too. Most of them probably didn’t go into politics to be part of a sham facade of untruthfulness, but instead to try to make things better. And in a sense, we’re all implicated in their problems, because we don’t ever let them off the hook – we don’t ever let them make a mistake. We’re there on social media – me included – trying to out them and to cancel them. I felt a little more sympathy for them as people, while decrying some of the deplorable structural aspects of British or American politics – indeed, probably any big political system in the modern world.

The one thing you can say, however – and this has got to make us pleased – is that we’ve got the ballot boxes and general elections, and we can vote the buggers out, whoever they may be. If we choose not to, that’s our problem. No one could vote out an emperor, though, and of course one of the reasons why that world looks so bloody from our perspective is that there was only one way of solving a problem in the ancient world – which was death. So we’re in a better position, and we should perhaps use our democratic rights more enthusiastically.


You can listen to Mary Beard talk to Matt Elton on the HistoryExtra podcast here. This article was first published in the November 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine