Winchester History Weekend 2018: 5 minutes with historian Guy de la Bédoyère

Were women the backbone of imperial Rome? At our Winchester History Weekend 2018, historian Guy de la Bédoyère will explain how the Julio-Claudian dynasty was carried down the female line

Guy de la Bédoyère.

We caught up with Guy de la Bédoyère to find out what we can expect from his talk, Domina: the Women Who Made Imperial Rome, at our Winchester History Weekend – and what has been intriguing him in the world of history recently…  

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Q: What can our audiences look forward to in your talk at our Winchester History Weekend 2018?

A: They can expect a completely new look at one of the most famous periods in Roman history: the Julio-Claudian dynasty. They’ll hear how the first and greatest line of Roman emperors – which included Claudius and Nero – only existed because of a female dynastic line. Without women, there would have been no dynasty at all and history would have been very different. Women had a very potent effect on events at the time, although they were constantly at the mercy of Roman beliefs about their gender and place in society.

Mosaic in the Roman villa of Casale, near Piazza Armerina, Sicily, Italy, showing women exercising. (Photo by Peter Thompson/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Q: What most interests you about this period of history?

A: The Julio-Claudian dynasty had a cast of the most extraordinary personalities – ranging from the political genius of Augustus to the brilliant and opportunistic Agrippina the Younger. The power of some of these figures was colossal, but it did expose their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. It is a magnificent period in which to investigate the effects of power and how women fought their corners.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history…

A: While researching my latest book, Domina: The Women Who Made Imperial Rome, I found it striking how negative depictions of empresses and other imperial women, written by Roman historians, seemed to influence how later medieval chroniclers portrayed women who held power. It is remarkable how long a shadow these Roman historians cast. I would argue that their effect on how women in power are seen is still evident today.

Q: What is going on in the world of history at the moment that people should know about?

A: Right now I am completely fascinated by the ships the Terror and Erebus, which were both found quite recently off the coast in northern Canada. They were used in John Franklin’s disastrous 1845 expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. For years people searched for the lost crews, finding only scattered bones and artefacts. It is as if the past has jumped up and out of the darkness to show that history is all around us. I am hoping the ships will be raised.

The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest passage. Illustrated London News, May 1845. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party and why?

A: Cleopatra VII of Egypt (d30 BC) would be one of my choices. It is patently clear that this woman had the most exceptional personal charisma and the ability to cast a spell over those around her. Powerful, brilliantly intelligent and highly educated, she must have been both fascinating to speak to and see. You cannot get that from history alone – it is something that is so difficult to assess from later centuries. Only a personal meeting would reveal what she was really like.

My next choice would be Pliny the Elder (d79 AD), the great Roman natural historian whose love and fascination with the world around him led him to write everything down in his Natural History. We still have this text and it is a fascinating trawl through the Roman world as he knew it. I admire his unrelenting curiosity and unconditional interest in everything. I wish today’s academics were as open-minded as him.

Finally, I would invite the diarist John Evelyn (1620–1706). He was, much like Pliny, a man with wide interests. It was my great privilege to publish Evelyn’s correspondence with Samuel Pepys about 20 years ago. When you get to know a person from the past like that, it is tantalising not to be able to speak to them in person. I also possess five of Evelyn’s personal copies of books. I like to feel that they are both here in my library and Evelyn’s at the same time.

A coin with the head of Cleopatra, Egypt. Ancient Egyptian. Graeco Roman period c 51 30 BC. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: This is an impossible choice! I’d try to pick an era of epic change, such as seeing the effect of the first railways and the ability of humans to move themselves with machines. If you had money in the Victorian period, it was a time of great optimism and a belief in our ability to improve lives with medicine and machines. Today we are hag-ridden by comparison, riven with guilt and worry about the future. And yet the Victorian era was really not that long ago.

I have to admit that I would also love to have seen ancient Rome at its height. They were like the Victorians in a way; both believed they could do almost anything, and both – on the whole – were right.

Q: Which history book(s) would you recommend (excluding your own)?

A: I shall recommend three.

1) Fergus Fleming’s Barrow’s Boys (1998). This is the brilliant story of the mad explorers in the Arctic and up the Niger in the early 1800s. Fleming’s prose is simply outstanding. I have read it dozens of times.

2) Alison Weir’s Wars of the Roses (1995). A totally compelling and superbly written narrative of this terrible civil war that convulsed England between 1455 and 1485. It’s not just a world of men with swords either; it recounts how ambitious women drove events just as forcefully.

3) Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard (2002). This is the tale of the terrible Lord of the Flies-type mutiny that followed the wrecking of the Dutch East Indiaman Batavia off the west coast of Australia in 1629. Brilliantly researched, it provoked me to go and see the wreck and the wreck site for myself.

Guy de la Bédoyère will be speaking about the women who made imperial Rome at BBC History Magazine’s Winchester History Weekend on Saturday 6 October. To find out more about his talk and to book tickets, click here.

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 To read more about the festival and other speakers, click here.