Mary Beard is retiring. But only from one of her many jobs, the one in which she has invested more years and to which she professes more affection: teaching. The professor leaves the University of Cambridge, leaving room for those at the bottom and having turned the academic sector upside down. If today we know better how women lived in Ancient Rome and we look at history from a different perspective, it is, in part, thanks to her.
“Livia was evil for poisoning ten people but her husband was a hero for his genocides.”
Beard chose to make many of her colleagues uncomfortable from the faculty lectern, a BBC television programme or an opinion column in The Times Literary Supplement. But above all from her vast research, which encompasses much more than gender issues. And from this task, at 66, she still has no plans to retire.
One example is Twelve Caesars ( Crítica), the latest book she has come to Spain to present. In it he does not detail who were the autocrats who controlled the Roman Empire from the Julio-Claudian to the Flavian dynasty. The classicist focuses on the representations that were made of them long afterwards as symbols of hegemony and power. Why were they made with such profusion? What do the faces of long-dead emperors, many of them with infamous reputations, mean to the modern public?
Again, the British popularizer puts the focus on us, “those who look”, and how we interpret history. The book is full of anecdotes, photographs, false attributions and fictitious representations of Rome that say more about the society that falsifies them than about the one they represent. “It is more important to understand ourselves than to understand the Romans.” Mary Beard welcomes us surrounded by statues and classical busts in room 60 of the Prado Museum. The day before she had been “honoured” as the “ninth muse” of the Spanish art gallery, but not even that makes her lose her smile, her sense of humour or her sharp wit.
Last week you were named “muse” of the Prado Museum. What do you think of this title, being one of the biggest critics of the term?
As you can imagine, I have said on numerous occasions that it is not good to be a muse. I want to be the artist and the writer, not the muse. But all in all, how can you not feel grateful for this lovely, innocent teasing? I don’t take it so seriously because it doesn’t make me a passive figure of inspiration. Although I will always be fervently feminist when talking about the nature of the muse, I am very grateful. It’s nice to receive more imaginative recognition than usual.
You often say that the ancient Romans don’t have much to teach us. But what lessons about power do you draw from analyzing images of emperors?
The Romans can’t give us lessons or solve our problems. We are better at that than they are. But they can help us to know ourselves better. It’s very important to know where these symbols of power come from and why we take them for granted today. Look at these guys for a moment (points to a room full of statues of emperors). They don’t surprise us. However, at the time they were something innovative. It was a new way of reflecting power and communicating with the masses.
Throughout history, in both Western art and literature, every generation has used Roman emperors as a way to discuss power and corruption. They are not simply figures placed there to be admired, but to be talked about and challenged. Whether to legitimize them or satirize them, the emperors are still relevant, and the more we understand them, the better.
Do you think it’s problematic to venerate Roman statues or to have them in public places or important reception rooms? Should they be in a museum with their appropriate inscription?
We shouldn’t treat museums as dumping grounds for statues. If we are going to continue to use sculpture as a public good, it should represent more varied versions of different people. In the end they are just blocks of marble. They are not real. The ones who are real are us.
Do you see any parallels between this issue and the current demolition of theAre representations of power destined to fall?
The idea that all representations must remain forever is madness. Statues have been torn down, moved, changed, thrown in the river or placed in a museum for centuries. The problem is not that some statues have to be torn down, but which ones. I think we need to answer the question of what a statue is for before we decide whether we want it in the street, in a museum or at the bottom of the river.
Most modern representations of emperors, from the 15th century onwards, were not there to be admired. They were there to be debated. No one with basic notions of classical history would decide that a collection of beautiful and very expensive busts of the twelve Caesars was a good way to legitimize their power. They don’t boast about their power, they warn us about it. They force us to think about the relationship between the face of power and the behaviour of the emperor reflected. It is a mistake to believe that the function of public images is simple admiration. It has never been.
I think we have to answer the question of what a statue is for before we decide whether we want it in the street, in a museum or at the bottom of the river.
He considers Ancient Rome as a kind of “safe place” because it’s too far away to offend anyone. But we’ve seen that even art inspired by that mythology continues to spark debate.
Indeed, and one example is Titian’s paintings of mythological rape. We find all sorts of legacies of the ancient world today, and I think the worst ones are the acceptance of sexual violence, the power of men being men, or the silencing of women. I’ve written a lot about those. But not wanting to look at these paintings, as challenging as they are, doesn’t help us face the problem. We have to look them straight in the eye and ask ourselves what was going on in the past. Why do we take things like nudity or female abuse in painting for granted. But there is no need to hide it.
In the book you tell the story of the sarcophagus of Alexander Severus as an example of oblivion. Do you think that the Roman legacy is becoming less and less important and that the public is only interested in stories of depraved emperors to compare them with today’s politicians?
I hope not. We tend to deny our interest and knowledge about the ancient world. If you ask in the street, theost people will instantly tell you they don’t know anything. And it’s almost always a lie. People know a lot more than they pretend to. Just by watching a blockbuster like Gladiator , we question ourselves about power in a very interesting way.
When I was writing the book I looked at how people reacted to Roman busts 150 years ago. People would spend three hours looking at the emperors. Now people walk past them. Knowledge about the ancient world is seen as a kind of social privilege and elitist education. And it’s partly true. If you’re rich, if you’re Boris Johnson, you know who these guys were (points to the room). That’s why I like to help get everybody involved. Millions of people watch my TV shows and I find it very productive. It’s a “safe space” to debate and it’s a hell of a lot easier to get to the bottom of the Roman Empire than the British or Spanish Empire. We can talk more freely.
In relation to the latter, right now there is a dispute between what is called imperiophilia and imperiophobia. What is your view as a historian?
Again, this binary distinction seems terrible to me. It’s like tearing down statues or keeping statues – do you applaud an empire or do you hate it? I don’t think polarizing like this is helpful in moving to the next stage. All empires are equal in terms of exploitation. do we justify the British colonization of Africa? Not at all. was everyone who participated evil? Well, history doesn’t exactly work that way. We have to be careful about placing moral blame on the individual. Nor do we want to see who makes our smartphones and under what conditions. A hundred years from now there will be people who say we benefit from a modern form of slavery. The study of imperialism should help us better understand human blindness.
A hundred years from now there will be people who say that we benefit from a modern form of slavery. The study of imperialism should help us better understand human blindness.
In the book he compares the self-representation of emperors to that of monarchy. Why do they need to reinforce their power through these superior images of themselves?
It is difficult to simplify, but in general these images serve several purposes. For one thing, they speak to the monarch. I am a Republican, but writing about these symbols of power has made me understand the dilemmas of the autocrat. Sympathy for kings and monarchs is old-fashioned. But looking at them you realize that they are very ordinary, fragile human beings. They on the other hand have to believe that they are superior. It is veryIt is more difficult to convince the monarch that he has something special than it is to convince his subjects. The monarchy is an institution with a huge vacuum inside it.
And how do you relate them to the ancient Romans?
Some of the best imperial busts were found in the private estates of Roman emperors. That means that emperors learned to behave like emperors by looking at themselves. Similarly, when Princess Diana looked at herself every morning in the British press, which many interpreted as a symbol of vanity, she was remembering how to be a princess. How to be Princess Diana. Those images spoke as much to her as they did to us.
In the book she says that the first person to engrave her face on a coin was Julius Caesar. But we still see kings and queens stamped on banknotes today. Why has this act of propaganda been maintained?
Because we don’t even realize it. When Julius Caesar was the first person to put his living face on coins, it was impressive and shocking. A sign of his enormous power. Now we have our pockets full of coins with the faces of monarchs and we don’t even notice it. We don’t think it is anything dangerous, but it is striking. Outside the monarchical system, if a president says he is going to put his face on a coin, there would be a revolution.
Looking at monarchs you realize that they are very ordinary, fragile human beings. They, on the other hand, have to believe that they are superior.
You are a republican woman in a monarchist and feminist country in an academic environment that has long been sexist. Has this been a problem in your career?
Yes and no. Being a feminist has been more of a problem for me than being a Republican. But because I’m a soft Republican. If I invented the English political system and I was asked if I would create the monarchy, I would say no. Absolutely not. Absolutely not. Is the former among my priorities for political reform? Neither is it. I don’t want a French Revolution-style power shift, although I think monarchy is a bit silly.
Instead, I do think feminism has gotten me into trouble. And I’m much more vehement about it than I am about the Queen of England. And while I’m sure the Queen isn’t a feminist, at least not in the way I understand feminism, that the head of state was a woman changed me as a child. As a feminist you get in trouble for being a feminist, for speaking your mind, and for not being a feminist.I have a lot of problems on the net because some men think I don’t have the right to speak out. A lot of the problems I have in networks are because some men think I don’t have the right to speak.
Thanks to your work and that of other female historians, do you think that justice has finally been done to the figure of women in classical Rome?
I think we understand things better now. For example, as far as marriage is concerned. The first Roman marriage began with the abduction and rape of the Sabine women. Or the rape of Lucretia, a virtuous woman who was attacked by a Roman soldier. She then committed suicide and that led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the development of a kind of Roman democracy. It is a very famous story, repeated over the centuries. At first glance it seems like an anecdote. But if we take a closer look, we realize that the Roman authors also debated things similar to what we are discussing now. They wondered whether she was innocent, whether she resisted her rapist, or what was the relationship between her suicide, her innocence and her consent. I don’t think we like most of their answers, but at least they asked the question. They paid attention to these issues. And now we know.
Now new debates are emerging around LGBT, transgender, or queer issues. Is anything known about this in Ancient Rome?
Yes, and it’s very interesting. People imagine that Rome and Greece were worlds where the gender division was sharply binary. And of course the foundations of Greco-Roman culture are built on a binary division between female and male. But the trans movement has been really influential in the study of the ancient world. Mythology has really questioned the division between male and female. Can they be combined? Are they really that far apart?
One of the most famous statues from the ancient world is the one that was titled Hermaphrodite, which shows a person with a penis and breasts. The academic world has always interpreted it as a kind of joke. But there are characters who already presented themselves as a man and a woman at the same time, such as Tiresias. Or the case of the emperor Heliogabalus, the first transgender. If you open your eyes wide, there are all kinds of explorations of gender fluidity in the classical world.
The trans movement has been really influential in the study of the ancient world. Mythology has really questioned the division between masculine and feminine.
The more conservative branch of history considers these debates to be anachronistic. How would you respond to this?
There have always been people who say that history is an anachronism in itself and nothing has ever happened. I think the biggest problem with history is the educational curriculum. It’s easy to say that our children should learn computer science and not Latin. The idea has taken hold that history is useless or, even worse, that it is a mere unimportant pleasure. But keeping an eye on the past helps us to have a more sophisticated and subtle point of view. Politicians don’t understand this and prefer to reduce education to a utilitarian version.
One of the things we have to learn after the pandemic is to value history. Science is crucial to developing a vaccine, of course. But we can’t understand everything from practical thinking. Homer’s Iliad, the first book of Western literature, begins with a plague. This whole culture has helped us deal with pandemics. We have to put ourselves in context if we want to look forward.
I suppose you’ll be asked this all the time, but what do you still have to find out about the Romans?
There’s a lot we still don’t know and will never know. I think we need to reconstruct better the Rome of the women or the Rome of the slaves from their point of view. There are also big questions that we have been asking ourselves for centuries and that remain unanswered: why did the Romans create an empire? I don’t think it was because they were more violent than others. And even more important: why did the Empire fall? There will be things we will never fully know and others we will. A third of Pompeii is still buried. When we get there we will know more about what they ate, what diseases they had, how long they lived, where they came from, what their mobility depended on, what climates they suffered.
You have announced that you are retiring from the university, how would you like to be remembered by your students? And as a nod to your book, what would you think if they honored you with a bust or a statue?
(Laughs) I’d be shocked! If they did something like that I would prefer it to be something generic about women or racialized people. I’m really looking forward to retirement. I’ve spent 40 years teaching and I still enjoy it, but it’s time for young people who need a job or who are at the bottom of the ladder to take over. It’s not fair for people like me to settle at the top.
And I would like to be remembered as a decent old woman who did her best and tried to change what is unfair. All you can do is try to speak your mind. Sometimes you can change opinions and mindsets by speaking out. I hope my students have learned to try hard and not to be intimidated by the power of others.
It is easy to say that children should learn computer science and not Latin. The idea has taken hold that history is useless or, even worse, a mere unimportant pleasure.