Mary Beard sits at the desk in her study, a bronze bust of the Ancient Greek poet Sappho high on a shelf behind her.

It’s an arresting image. Sappho, after all, carved out everlasting fame in a world where women were effectively invisible - while Beard has taken the male-dominated world of the Classics, made it her own and become a star along the way.

Though, to think of Beard as a just another TV historian is rather like thinking of Sappho as just another ancient writer. Beard is probably Britain’s most influential public intellectual. She doesn’t just interpret the past, she’s a trenchant commentator on the here-and-now.

Her CV is imposing: dame of the British empire, Cambridge Classics professor, British Museum trustee, author of umpteen books on Ancient Rome, titan of TV documentaries, and a ‘must-follow’ on social media.

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Today, we’re discussing her new book Emperor of Rome, which pieces together what it meant to be the world’s most powerful ruler. However, there’s plenty of contemporary concerns on her mind too, among them the word woke, cancel culture, trans rights, and Scottish independence.

A thorough non-conformist, don’t expect dry or conservative takes on these lightning-rod issues. Beard is, if anything, one of Britain’s most radical university dons.


Beard is loath to draw too many direct comparisons between Roman Emperors and present-day rulers, but she does mischievously suggest there’s some crossover between Donald Trump and the little-known Elagabalus, a corrupt, licentious tyrant who took the narcissism of ancient dictators to bizarre levels.

Elagabalus favoured the murderous flourish, once dispatching enemies through suffocation-by-rose-petals. An act perhaps too artistic, one imagines, for Trump.

What does bear comparison is how both we and ancient Romans ‘imagine’ our leaders. “Our ‘fantasies’ absolutely overlap with Roman fantasies,” Beard says. She doesn’t mean ‘fantasy’ in the erotic sense - though there’s certainly some of that in both eras - rather she means the stories we tell ourselves about our leaders.

She uses Mark Antony and Cleopatra as an example. One story claimed their head cook always put eight boars on the spit at various intervals even if it was just dinner for two.

Nobody eats eight boars, so why? Because the poor cook didn’t know when the original power couple would sit down to eat - so he wanted at least one of those boars perfect.

“It’s a cute story,” says Beard, “but it’s exactly the story told about [King] Charles and his boiled eggs.” This story claims the royal chef always has eight boiled eggs on the bubble at different times so one will be just the way Charles likes it when he’s ready for breakfast.

Elagabalus - the petal-wielding proto-Trump - was said to have feed his dogs foie gras. “It’s just like the story of Queen Elizabeth II feeing her corgis from silver bowls,” Beard adds.

Not only are we in the modern world constantly myth-making about those in power, but like the Romans those myths focus on decadence, waste and unattainable luxury. Both ancient Romans and we today fixate on who our rulers sleep with, Beard says. “It puts the spotlight on us,” she adds. “We make celebrities as much as they make themselves.”

We turn our rulers into stars; Romans turned them into the ancient equivalent: Gods. Clearly, rising to the top of imperial Rome required utter ruthlessness, but like modern politicians, emperors cemented power through celebrity by “getting their image out there, parading themselves, making it look as if the world revolves around them”.


We can also be rather craven, just like the Romans, when it comes to power. When an emperor’s reign ended in ignominy - usually via an assassin’s blade or plate of poison mushrooms - ancient writers would suddenly start distancing themselves from his regime.

Beard points to events after the fall of 20th century dictatorships. “People would say, ‘oh I wasn’t really a collaborator. I thought he was awful. I was trying to fight the system from within’.

“We all like to think we’d be the freedom fighter. Rome reminds you most of us would probably just have gone along with it - cooperated, said ‘yes, sir’, and kept our heads down.”

Dictatorships function, Beard says, not because “cruel psychopaths kill all their enemies”, but because ordinary folk just accept it.

And, just like our House of Lords, Roman emperors “handed out honours” to keep elites happy. We forget that Roman emperors basically “ruled by consent”, she adds. The ones who lasted bribed the masses with ‘bread and circuses’ - free food and Gladiatorial combat - and kept the powerful onside. Roman emperors were, just like today’s politicians, “dependent on us”.

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To understand an emperor, we need to understand “their staff”, Beard adds. Similarly, we can evaluate Prime Ministers and Presidents through the advisors they surround themselves with. Are they good or bad?


The way Romans interacted with their rulers reveals much about ordinary lives in the ancient world. The same is true today. “It’s through the emperor’s eyes you get some of the best evidence of the anxieties of the ordinary man in the street.”

There were letters to the emperor, she explains, saying: ‘I’ve lost a cow in enemy action, what am I going to do?’ Or ‘this guy got killed by a falling chamber pot and they’re trying to blame me for murder but it was just an accident’.

These real letters to real emperors are, in a way, similar to the soundbites of discontent heard on shows like Question Time.

In Rome, we also see shades of how modern-day power overlaps with fame. Consider Nero, says Beard. He did the unthinkable, taking to the stage as an actor. In Rome, actors were one step up from sex workers and gladiators. “I couldn’t help but think of Boris Johnson’s performance on Have I Got News for You,” she says.

Johnson’s appearance is seen as key to the public image he sculpted of the jovial, bantering ‘guy you’d have a pint with’. Many, though, saw it as utterly undignified; others loved the performance.

She refers to Johnson proroguing parliament and says when it comes to democracy “you can never be complacent”. Similar thoughts may well have crossed the minds of Roman academics as Julius Caesar snuffed out their Republic and its limited democracy.


There’s one vast difference between us and Romans though: our attitudes to ‘outsiders’. Emperor Caracalla - “not a particularly nice piece of work,” says Beard - carried out an astonishing act in 212AD when he gave full citizenship to every non-slave in the Empire. “It’s one of world history’s most extraordinary events,” Beard says. “At a stroke, millions were made full citizens.”

Romans had no problem seeing someone like Septimius Severus, of Libyan descent, ascend the throne. “The message of Rome is that you bring people into the centre,” Beard says. “Rome governs by diversifying … making everybody Roman.”

Britons could be British, Greeks Greek. “There’s no attempt to impose cultural unity.” It’s one of the reasons for the empire’s longevity.

Is Beard subtly alluding to the treatment of refugees? To racism? “I think it’s dangerous to make very specific comparisons,” she says, “but if you were to say to a Roman ‘we’ve a problem with illegal migrants’, they wouldn’t have a clue what you were talking about. Rome saw itself as a city founded by migrants.” Rome’s origin story goes back to refugees from the Trojan War.

Romans “didn’t see a world in which racial distinction was a key demarcation”. So was it a pre-racist society? “Broadly, yes,” she says. “If you were to say to Romans ‘imagine a slave’, they’d just as likely imagine a ginger-haired German as a black African. Both might be slaves. Race wasn’t the defining feature.” The transatlantic slave trade was the “key change” in altering how Europeans saw race and slavery.

Romans “wondered why some people had black skin, but they didn’t see an hierarchical divide. They didn’t have racist prejudice”. That said, however, they could be highly contemptuous of foreign cultures, sneering at Greeks for wearing too much perfume for instance.


We also need to rein in our 21st century beliefs that Romans were a uniquely awful bunch: ruthless empire-builders butchering their way around the Mediterranean. Firstly, says Beard, many Romans were highly critical of empire, so they didn’t all think alike.

When it comes to the notion that Rome was an especially wicked “proto-fascist state”, we forget what was happening elsewhere. Beard calls it “the Asterix fallacy”: the idea that other people, like the Gauls, lived some bucolic idyll. One Greek philosopher’s journeys, Beard says, provide “a good antidote to the idea the Gauls were cute”. He describes human skulls hanging outside every Gaulish home he sees.

“Nobody was innocent in the ancient world. The level of violence was unthinkable to us.” Just because “the Romans were super-successful,” she adds, “it doesn’t necessarily mean they were nastier. It’s very easy to paint Romans as jingoistic, military maniacs.”

They also had their “culture wars”, just like us. “In the first century BC,” says Beard, Romans bitterly argued about Greek influence undermining traditional Roman society. “Liberal” poets, she says, “would be taking up Greek habits”, while “old Conservatives” were uttering the Latin equivalent to “how woke is that?”.


Using ‘woke’ as an insult doesn’t impress Beard. She recalls the 1980s and 90s when tabloids screamed about “political correctness gone mad”.

Cancel culture is, she feels, “wildly exaggerated. I’m not saying it doesn’t entirely exist. But when I look back to when I was a student, we were doing cancel culture. We’d demonstrate in the hope of getting people no-platformed”.

Vietnam was a culture war flashpoint for the young Beard. “Certainly, if Enoch Powell had turned up to speak we would’ve been outside with our placards … That’s what generational conflict is about. We want the young to think differently to us, and also, occasionally, want them to listen to us when we say, ‘you haven’t thought this through, my dear’.

“These kind of clashes are productive. Imagine a world where every university student thought like their parents, that would be awful … It’s how we push ideas on, how we challenge each other."

What’s different to generational clashes in early decades, “is that [today] this seems to be stoked by some sections of the media, to exaggerate the clash, make it a bigger political issue than it should be. It’s not the case that I walk though university buildings hiding in case my non-acceptable views came to the fore”.


There has, she says, “been one or two very bad cases where people have been hounded out, but if you read some newspapers you’d think every university curriculum is having every white male author removed and there’s trigger warnings everywhere”.

She notes that when the acclaimed 1970s BBC series I, Claudius - full of sex and violence - was first introduced to America is came with trigger warnings. What’s sometimes labelled ‘woke’, says Beard, “is often just politeness”.

“Students can be irritating - they’re supposed to be. Bits of their soundbites get eagerly taken up by conservative papers who treat this as if it’s somehow typical.”

Beard didn’t use trigger warnings on her courses, and Roman literature, is, as she explains, replete with “sexual violence”. She feels “it’s convenient for some sections of the media” to inflame tensions, rather than “engage constructively”.

Beard stresses she’s “not in favour of cancel culture. Anybody who’s within the law - not inciting racial hatred or whatever - deserves a platform. You don’t have to go, you can demonstrate”.

Cancel culture exists, she points out, “both on the left and right, perhaps more on the right. There’s a ‘banning-the-books’ tendency’. It’s not restricted to one side”.


On trans rights, Beard says: “I don’t fully understand why, more than anything else, it’s proved to be an issue we find very hard to discuss. Why did this, of all issues, become so toxic? There may be, and I’m sure there are, some transphobes, trans-haters, out there, but most people I think aren’t in that category. Many of them are puzzled, worried, about where this leaves cis women.

“Those are utterly reasonable questions that we ought to be able to raise, but that’s proved impossible, and I’m not clear why … I want to explore what’s preventing us managing to have a conversation about this.”

Beard says she’d like to make a programme about the difficulties around discussing the issue, but adds: “I’m probably too much of a coward. That’s a shame as we need to find a way in which this can be talked about because people get terribly damaged on all sides - not just one side.”

As a feminist, does she perceive a clash between ‘trans rights and women’s rights’? “I hope there isn’t,” she says. “It’s presented as if there is, and I can see where people are coming from, but what we ought to be thinking is ‘how do we square the circle here?’. I hope in 20 years time we aren’t talking like this.”

Social media has clearly “played its part”, Beard feels, in creating this mood of “outraged standoff, where nuance and complexity is rejected”.

That’s why Beard feels we need plenty of liberal arts students. Humanities subjects, she believes, encourage sophisticated and balanced debate.

She detests Conservative attacks on arts degrees, on the grounds that law or science graduates may earn higher salaries. “For crying out loud,” she says, “of course we want science and law, but we also want people whose training provides foundations to talk about difficult things.”


Beard has faced disgraceful misogynistic attacks, both online and from professional writers like AA Gill who tried to belittle her appearance. Nevertheless, she feels feminism has taken extraordinary strides in her lifetime. Beard was the first in her family to go to university, winning a place at Cambridge.

“In practical terms, there’s been revolutionary change,” Beard says. “If my mum was alive today she wouldn’t believe it.” However, there’s still much that needs to improve from equal pay to the “the language used about men and women: when a man’s ambitious, that’s a compliment; talk about a woman who’s ambitious, well, I’m not sure that’s a compliment really”.

The “way women are processed by people, the way they imagine themselves, the way women get gendered”, means “there’s still much to be fought for”.

Beard says she doesn’t fear women’s rights being “revoked”, though adds: “I’m expressing a very British perspective. I’d think differently if I was in [an American] state where abortion rights were curtailed”. She believes this “cruelty”, however, “won’t last”.

For Beard, one of society’s biggest leaps forward was equal marriage. Seeing older, socially conservative people “proudly introduce their son and his husband … gives me such cause for optimism because what would once have seemed almost unthinkable radicalism is now [part of the fabric of our life] without granny batting an eyelid. That’s not to say that, as with women’s rights, gay rights are all sorted, they’re not.”


The discussion can’t end without touching on Scotland. Beard was among 200 famous names who signed a 2014 open letter urging Scotland to vote ‘No’. Have her views changed?

“Personally,” she says, “and this is selfish, I want the union to continue as I think England needs Scotland. What Scotland adds to the union is really important. I’d like that to continue.

“Now, could I stand up to my Scottish friends and say that? I’m not sure. I had to say to myself after Brexit that although I still wanted [the union to continue] I could see why an awful lot of people didn’t.

“I think ‘please don’t go, Scotland, don’t leave us for God’s sake, we need you, think of us as a bit of a basket case you can help out’. But after Brexit, and some of the politics of the years since Brexit, I have to say, if someone in Scotland said they wanted to leave, I’d say, ‘I can see why. I still don’t want you to go but I see why’.”

Inevitably, Beard receives tsunamis of online hate for all manner of opinions. Her tweets, though, are archived in case Twitter under Elon Musk collapses and postings by well-known figures vanish. She thinks “Musk is totally capable of pressing the destruct button on Twitter”.

If Twitter implodes, though, Beard won’t “join another platform. I’d say ‘it was great while it lasted, but I’d feel, ‘okay, move on’.”

Read Neil Mackay’s review of Mary Beard’s new book Emperor of Rome in next Saturday’s magazine