The Cambridge classicist on owning her TV image, dealing with internet trolls, and why her new book on Roman emperors sheds light on our preoccupation with statues
In her new book, Twelve Caesars, Mary Beard touches enticingly on the life of Elagabalus, a man whose excesses seemingly outstripped even those of Caligula or Nero. Elagabalus, also known as Heliogabalus, was only briefly emperor of Rome – he was assassinated by the Praetorian Guard when he was still a teenager – but he has a special place in Beard’s head, if not her heart. Should a journalist casually inquire which emperor some modern-day politician might bring to mind, his is the name she often gives in reply. Beard likes to unsettle those in search of lazy analogies and hardly anyone, she says, has heard of this bloke. Even better, she can then send the baffled and the bemused to Roses of Heliogabalus, a painting of 1888 by Lawrence Alma-Tadema that depicts the emperor’s party trick, which was to smother his guests to death beneath piles of rose petals. “Once you know that story, you understand tyranny much better,” she says, with predictable relish. “There is no safe point. Even the generosity of emperors could be lethal.”
To be frank, I hadn’t heard of Elagabalus either, or not before I read her book, and the same, alas, goes for almost everyone else in it. But to my amazement, this hardly mattered. Twelve Caesars is fascinating and not only because its author writes so engagingly. Many years in the making, the world into which it will be born is not quite the same as the one in which it was conceived. Its preoccupations – essentially, it’s about the way that images of Roman emperors from Caesar to Domitian have influenced culture across the centuries – are suddenly and newly of the moment in a Britain that has become completely fixated with statues.