From Gladiator Duels To Caesar's Last Words: The Myths Of Ancient Rome

Nov 30, 2015
Originally published on January 26, 2016 5:06 pm

Historian Mary Beard has spent her career working through the texts and source materials of ancient Rome. She has written several books on the subject — including her most recent work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome — but she doesn't feel like she's close to being done with the topic.

"One of the great things about history is that it sort of isn't a done deal — ever," Beard tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The historical texts and the historical evidence that you use is always somehow giving you different answers because you're asking it different questions."

Beard notes that history is a shifting discipline, and that many of our popular notions of ancient Rome are based on culture rather than fact. Take, for instance, "Et tu, Brute?", William Shakespeare's version of Julius Caesar's final words. Beard says it's "one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history — except it certainly isn't what Caesar ever said."

Despite her tendency to "myth-bust" ancient Rome, Beard still enjoys popular cultural representations of the empire. "There's no reason not to enjoy those stereotypes and have all the fun with them," she says. "Just as long as we realize that that's what they are."


Interview Highlights

On her favorite films and TV shows set in ancient Rome

I'm a great fan of Roman movies. All the classics are — they might not be accurate, but they speak to me about Rome. I loved Gladiator and I thought its depiction of gladiatorial combat, although it was an aggrandizing picture, was cleverly and expertly done. And I love Life of Brian.

But I think if I was going to have anything I'd have that old I, Claudius television series, which was shown both in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the 1970s. And it's completely untrue, but it is such a marvelously slightly camp version of Roman empirical power.

On how Rome became a regional power

That is the big question about Rome, and I think it's an even bigger question than the one that we're more used to answering, which is: Why does it fall? I mean, why does it rise is such a puzzle. In the end, I think we can't give any simple answer to that, but I do have a very strong hunch about what's going on here and that ... Rome's success relates to its views about its own citizenship, about incorporating its enemies into the Roman network, the Roman project, the Roman power structure. I think you have to realize that most ancient warfare is really kind of hit and run, honestly. You go and you bash down the walls of some enemy 50 miles away and you take some slaves, you take some cattle, probably a bit of cash too, and then you say goodbye and go home and you probably do the same thing next year — or try to, or they do it to you.

Rome fundamentally changes the rules of that game. And when it bashes up one of its neighbors — and to begin with it really isn't much more than "cattle-raiding" in our terms — what they do is they establish a permanent relationship with the people that they have beaten, either making them allies or often making them Roman citizens. ... It may well be that the people they made Roman citizens didn't want to become Roman citizens, but that's the Roman model. And the consequence of that — because the main obligation of either alliance or citizenship was to provide troops for the Roman army — the consequence of that is very quickly Rome gets more boots on the ground than anybody else, and it's boots on the ground that win ancient campaigns. People don't win because they have clever military hardware, and they don't often win because they've got clever military tactics; they win because there's more of them.

On the architecture of ancient Rome

I think when we shut our eyes and think "What did ancient Rome look like?" we have a very Hollywood image in our minds of shining white marble and planned architecture developments — amphitheaters and theaters and temples. Rome eventually does become like that. If you went to Rome in the second century of the Common Era, you'd find bits of Rome that really did look grand in that way, but that kind of grandeur doesn't start until the very end of the first century B.C.E.

When Rome is actually conquering most of the world that it conquers from the third to the first century B.C.E., they're doing it from a city which is low-rise, built of brick, rather ramshackle — a warren of windy, twisty streets. Nothing like the Rome of our imagination. They've got a million people in it by the first century B.C.E., but it isn't the city of imperial grandeur that we have in our minds. That doesn't come until later, and particularly it doesn't come until they find some useful local marble supplies, which they exploit. ... As the first emperor, Augustus, says: He found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble.

On the assassination of Julius Caesar

Assassination was up close and personal, unless you did it by poison, and poison was sometimes used. But [Caesar's] assassination, like most Roman assassinations, was stabbing. And the more you read about it — despite the heroic image we get in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, for example — the more seedy and tawdry and messy it seems to have been. Some of the assassins stab each other by mistake, and they escape with their lives, but with a lot of blood all over them. Caesar looks up at his friends who are killing him, and in Shakespeare's famous version, which we all remember, he says, "Et tu, Brute?," which ... was a marvelous invention by Shakespeare. What Caesar is supposed to have said — speaking in Greek, as he looked at Brutus — he said, "And you, my child?," suggesting probably that he was just shocked that his younger friends and his younger associates and colleagues could be doing this to him. And then he died.

On the status of women in ancient Rome

You can tell the good side of that or the bad side of that. The good side of that is that compared with most other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, it was an awful lot better. It's very clear that women had some property rights, they were sometimes entrepreneurs, they were renting out property, they were owning bars sometimes — and that's something that would never have happened, say, in fifth century Athenian democracy. However, the downside is that they had absolutely no formal political rights whatsoever. No women in ancient Rome ever had the vote. They had no formal political power at all, and even those imperial ladies like the famous Livia, who was the wife of the first emperor, Augustus ... although they're often written up as if they're pulling the strings behind the scenes, they probably weren't really. They were a convenient target to blame for what was going on, but actually they were out of the power structure.

On gladiatorial contests

I am going to be a bit of a downer on gladiatorial contests, I'm afraid. ... In a Hollywood imagination we have a very, very lurid view of gladiators and wild beast hunts. We imagine ourselves in the Colosseum, and hundreds of pairs of gladiators are fighting to the death in some appalling bloodbath that the awful Romans are sitting there cheering and enjoying. Now, I think occasionally that did happen. I have no doubt that once in a while an emperor would put on an extraordinary display of both gladiatorial contest and wild beast hunts. ... But I think we've got to be realistic, first of all, about how low-key most gladiatorial contests in most of the Roman world were. Gladiators are an expensive commodity, and they don't get killed very often. And nobody, apart from the emperor, can afford to bring lions to fight Christians. So I think an awful lot of the gladiatorial shows that you would have seen in the Roman world would have been more likely to be fighting wild boar from the local hills, and the gladiators would not have been fighting, usually, to the death.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JULIUS CAESAR")

CHARLTON HESTON: (As Mark Antony) Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.

GROSS: What many of us think we know about ancient Rome comes from theater, movies and TV, like that scene from the movie adaptation of Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," with Charlton Heston as Mark Antony, delivering Caesar's eulogy. And of course, there's this classic scene from "Spartacus," about the slave revolt led by Spartacus in ancient Rome.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SPARTACUS")

CARLETON YOUNG: (As Herald) I bring a message from your master, Marcus Licinius Crossus. Your lives are to be spared on the single condition that you identify the body or the living person of the slave called Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character)I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character)I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character)I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) I'm Spartacus.

GROSS: Our guest, historian Mary Beard, can give you the real story of the Spartacus uprising. And in a bit, she'll share what she thinks Julius Caesar really said as he was being stabbed by Roman senators. It wasn't et tu, Brute? Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, and she spent her career studying Rome. She's written a dozen books. She also does TV and radio documentaries, writes a well-read blog and has become somewhat famous for taking on Internet trolls. Beard's new book covers about a thousand years of Roman history, but it isn't just kings and emperors. She offers insights into the reasons for Rome's prosperity and military expansion and provides fresh interpretations of turning points in Roman history. Stay tuned for her take on bar culture in ancient Rome. Mary Beard spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies about her new book "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome."

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Mary Beard, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start with an interesting contrast you draw between two murders, one probably the most memorable event in Roman history - the assassination of Julius Caesar - and then another some decades later of the Emperor Gaius because it tells us something about the transition of Rome from a republic, when there was a senate and elected consuls who had some authority, to this era where there were truly strongman emperors. First, remind us of the circumstances of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

MARY BEARD: Well, Julius Caesar, perhaps the most famous Roman of them all, had just conquered Gaul, you know, actually a brutal series of campaigns that even some Romans liken to genocide. He'd come back to Rome wanting to go straight into political office again, that was going to be a problem. So effectively he invades his hometown, and sooner rather than later establishes himself as dictator, one-man rule. The whole principal of the Roman Republic was opposed to anything that smacked of kingship, one-man rule for any long period. Julius Caesar flouts this. He's not around for very long. He's off fighting other things. He's not in Rome very much. But back in Rome, there is a very strong sense that liberty - the liberty of the Roman people is being removed by Caesar as an autocrat. And a group of actually his friends stab him in the Senate house in the middle of a public meeting in order to remove the tyrant. They say they're explicitly doing us in order to restore liberty to the people, to get over this small intermezzo of one-man rule in the history of Rome. What happens is further civil war, and they get one-man rule forever because the upshot is a series of autocratic emperors of which Julius Caesar in some way was the first.

DAVIES: Right. It's interesting, you point out that an assassination in Roman days meant you had to get close to your victim and - and things could go wrong.

BEARD: Yeah, there is no grassy knoll and shots. Assassination was up close and personal, unless you did it by poison, and poison was sometimes used. But this assassination, like most Roman assassinations, was stabbing. And the more you read about it, despite the heroic image we get in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," for example, the more seedy and tawdry and messy it seems to have been. Some of the assassins stab each other by mistake, and they escape with their lives but with a lot of blood all over them. Caesar looks up at his friends who are killing him, and Caesar - in Shakespeare's famous version, which we all remember - he says et tu, Brute, which is one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history, except it certainly isn't what Caesar ever said. It was a marvelous invention by Shakespeare. What Caesar is supposed to have said, speaking in Greek as he looked at Brutus - he said, and you, my child? Suggesting probably that he was just shocked that his younger friends and his younger associates and colleagues could be doing this to him. And then he died.

DAVIES: All right, so then some decades later, the Emperor Gaius - he was maybe the third or fourth of the Roman emperors of the imperial period - is himself assassinated. Tell us about that and why it's different.

BEARD: Yeah, well, Gaius we know best as Caligula - the monster Caligula who's been the star of many a Hollywood movie. And he is reputedly - though if this was ever true - one of the worst and most excessive emperors in the history of Rome. He's the third emperor, an enormous number of lurid and frightfully - to many modern reader's I think appealing anecdotes circle around Caligula's name. He made his horse a consul, he had incest with his sisters. You name it, Caligula did it.

DAVIES: And we believe this is true. I mean, there were a lot of stories that we doubt. You think that Caligula really was this twisted?

BEARD: I think it's very, very unlikely. But I think it's almost impossible now to know. The point is that once someone like Caligula's assassinated, the succeeding regime, in order to justify the assassination, builds up the wickedness of the guy they've killed. And you really can't see through that any longer. But Caligula was young, a golden boy and extremely popular with the people. But clearly there were issues, we might say, in his relationship to the aristocracy and to other members of his family who were often vying in the Roman imperial system to make themselves emperor instead. And Caligula is murdered in seedier circumstances than Julius Caesar. He was attending the theater one day just by his palace. He'd had a bit of a heavy night the evening before. And he decided he'd therefore skip lunch because he was feeling a bit queasy. He went off to his own private bath to try and, you know, make himself do something about his hangover, really. On the way, he gets jumped upon by some members of his own bodyguard, and he gets hacked to pieces. And his wife and daughter are killed, too. And I think what's interesting about that is that there's a nice or revealing contrast between Caesar's assassination and Caligula's, which I think tells you quite a lot about the changed political circumstances. Caesar in the end is killed in public. He's at a public meeting, members of the Senate - his friends and colleagues - do away with him in broad daylight in public view. It must've been a slightly unpleasant experience to watch if you're an ordinary Senator. But it's a very public occasion and it is done in the name of liberty. Caligula - or Gaius - he hated being called Caligula, so I think we have to try and call him Gaius because Caligula was the nickname that he had when he was a child. And he was going around army camps dressed in mockup soldiers' boots. And Caligula actually means boot kin (ph). And Caligula, from everything we know, thought being called Boot Kin when he was in his 20s was no fun. So he liked to be called Gaius, and we should try to remember that. He is done away with in a sense in a private murder. This isn't in public. It's in a corridor of the palace, in his own home when he's on his way to his baths. And he's done away with by people who are his own bodyguard effectively. And their reason - although later, I think it got built up into ridding Rome of the tyrant that was governing them - a lot of the reasons were personal vendettas. One of the leading assassins had apparently felt extremely angry with Caligula, who constantly insulted him in various ways - suggesting that he was, you know, a frightfully effeminate man. And so you get a whole sense of an imperial inward-looking power full of private grudges, not an assassination for political principle.

DAVIES: So this all happens in a few decades before the Common Era. That's when Caesar's assassination occurs, and then Gaius is a bit after. I want to go back centuries before, when Rome was just one of a bunch of villages in the Italian countryside. Why did Rome - as opposed to any other village - become a regional power, acquiring territory, taking over its neighbors.

BEARD: That is the big question about Rome. And I think it's an even a bigger question than the one that we're more used to asking, which - why did it fall? But why does it rise is such a puzzle. In the end, I think we can't give any simple answer to that. But I do have a very strong hunch about what's going on here. And it relates - Rome's success relates to its views about its own citizenship, about incorporating its enemies into the Roman network, the Roman project, the Roman power structure. And I think you have to realize that most ancient warfare is really kind of hit-and-run, honestly. You go and you bash down the walls of some enemy 50 miles away, you take some slaves, you take some cattle - probably a bit of cash, too - and then you say goodbye and go home. And you probably do the same thing next year - or try to - or they do it to you. Now, Rome fundamentally changes the rules of that game. And when it bashes up one of its neighbors - and to begin with, it really isn't much more than cattle raiding in our terms - what they do is they establish a permanent relationship with the people that they have beaten, either making them allies or often making them Roman citizens. I don't think that's a generous move, particularly. It may well be that the people made Roman citizens did not want to become Roman citizens, but that's the Roman model. And the consequence of that because the main obligation of either alliance or citizenship was to provide troops for the Roman army. The consequence of that is very quickly Rome gets more boots on the ground than anybody else. And it's boots on the ground that win ancient campaigns. And people don't win because they have clever military hardware, and they don't often win because they have clever military tactics. They win because there's more of them. And they can - and actually often do - lose battles. And they lose battles rather more often I think than we imagine - we imagine the Romans always winning - they don't, but they don't lose wars. Once they've lost a battle, they've got more troops in reserve to bring up. And in a sense, it becomes a spiraling, self-feeding thing. They conquer more people, they get more resources in terms of manpower. They get a bigger beginnings of an empire, and it goes on and on and on.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mary Beard. She is a professor of classics at Cambridge University. She has a new history of ancient Rome called "SPQR." We will continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mary Beard; she is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has written many books about ancient Rome. Her newest is called "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome," which examines a lot of familiar territory but brings us some new insights.

We were talking about early Rome. And there's a fascinating difference in the way Rome developed. You know, I always think of - that before the Industrial Revolution, there was just never enough food or other goods to make everybody in any society comfortable. So scarcity was a fact of life. Most people were poor and exploited. And, you know, conflicts were decided by verdicts of force. And so things tended towards strongmen and dictators. It was a brutal world. But Rome, somehow, goes a different direction and develops ideas of citizenship. Even when they had kings, they weren't hereditary. They were chosen. A Senate develops. What's happening here?

BEARD: You know, it's a very, very different model from what we often imagine about a primitive community. And Athens - 5th century Athens - developed something we now call democracy. Rome never quite has that, but it appears to very quickly see that what is absolutely central to being Roman and to being a Roman citizen is the liberty of the Roman citizen, their right to independence and their right, crucially, not to be subject to arbitrary violence from their own officials. You've got - one thing that goes with Roman citizenship is the right to a fair and free trial. Why they did this - it's a different model from Athens - there must be something very deep in Roman history which is pushing them away from the idea of one-man rule. But it becomes the founding principle of their republic.

DAVIES: Well, we can't talk about ancient Rome without playing a movie clip. I mean, it's been portrayed in so many films and TV series. And there are, you know, a lot of famous ones - "Ben-Hur," "I, Claudius." Here at FRESH AIR, where we aspire to elevated dialogue, we're going to go with Mel Brooks and Monty Python (laughter). This is a scene from "Life Of Brian." It's the famous moment when a bunch of Judean rebels, led by John Cleese, are talking about how much they hate the Romans. Let's listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LIFE OF BRIAN")

JOHN CLEESE: (As Reg) They've bled us white, the bastards. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Stan) And from our fathers' fathers' fathers' fathers.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah. All right, Stan, don't labor the point. And what have they ever given us in return?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The aqueduct?

CLEESE: (As Reg) What?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) The aqueduct.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Oh, yeah, yeah. They did give us that. That's true, yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And the sanitation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Stan) Oh, yeah, the sanitation, Reg. Remember what the city used to be like?

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, all right. I'll grant you the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans have done.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) And the roads.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Well, yeah. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads...

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Irrigation.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Medicine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Education.

CLEESE: (As Reg) Yeah, yeah, all right. Fair enough.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) And the wine.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Oh, yes. Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Yeah, yeah. That's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Public baths.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As Stan) And it's safe to walk in the streets at night now, Reg.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Yeah, they certainly know how to keep order. Let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEESE: (As Reg) All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?

DAVIES: (Laughter) It's still funny. The Monty Python crew playing Judean rebels in "Life Of Brian." It's very funny. And, you know, it brings up this question of Romans and their relationships with foreigners. And you've talked about how the early Romans, after they conquered folks in other communities in Italy, would require that they serve in their armies. But it seems that, in general, they embraced foreigners far more than other ancient societies did. I mean, it's - as slaves and as conquered people and - it just was a different perspective on other people.

BEARD: Yes. They seem to be entirely unique, so far as we can tell, in the ancient Mediterranean world. Now, that doesn't mean that they were nice. I mean, we have to put out of our heads any sense that the Romans were nice, lovely liberals. But when they conquered, their general pattern was to embrace and incorporate the foreigner, not to exclude them. And like every other ancient community, they took slaves, originally, as the fruit of Roman conquest. But the Romans regularly freed their slaves. I mean, slavery for most urban slaves in the Roman world was a temporary status, not a permanent one. And - but what was really extraordinary was that when they freed their slaves, they made them pretty well full Roman citizens. So you get the most radically mixed community in the ancient world. Estimates - and they are only very much guesstimates, I think - reckon that by the first or second centuries of the Common Era, roughly half the population of Rome are descended from slaves. And that means they're also ethnically diverse because the slaves are often the fruits of Roman conquest into the near East, in North Africa, across the Mediterranean. So probably more by accident than by design, Rome - the city - ends up as being a place where a million people are living. It's the biggest conurbation in the West until London in the early 19th century. It's a vast metropolis but a vast, diverse mixed and very ethnically mixed and culturally mixed metropolis.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Mary Beard about her new book, "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome." After we take a short break, Beard will describe what gladiator fights were really like and talk about the status of women in ancient Rome. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies recorded with Mary Beard about her new book "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome." She's a professor of classics at Cambridge University and has spent her career studying Rome.

DAVIES: Let's talk about the city of Rome and life there for a bit. You know, it's interesting. When you were talking about the time of Julius Caesar, you said that Rome itself, although it was a big city, it didn't have these huge, monumental buildings that we think of. There was a lot of concrete.

BEARD: Yeah. I mean, I think when we shut our eyes and think what did ancient Rome look like, we have a very Hollywood image in our minds of, you know, shining white marble and planned architectural developments, amphitheaters and theaters and temples. And Rome eventually does become like that. If you went to Rome in the 2nd century of the common era, you'd find bits of Rome that really did look grand in that way. But that kind of grandeur doesn't start until the very and of the 1st century B.C.E. And when Rome is actually conquering most of the world that it conquers in the - from the 3rd to the 1st century B.C.E., they're doing it from a city which is low-rise, built of brick, rather ramshackle, a warren of winding, twisty streets - nothing like the Rome of our imagination. They've got a million people in it by the 1st century B.C.E., but it isn't the city of imperial grandeur that we have in our minds. That doesn't come till later and particularly it doesn't come until they find some useful, local marble suppliers, which they exploit, and they do start, as the first Emperor Gustavus says - he said he found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble. And that is when the change comes and when it starts to look like we imagine it.

DAVIES: Right, and the emperors had a big interest in big buildings. How does a city of a million people function without electricity?

BEARD: With extreme difficulty. Again, the other reason that this image that we have in our heads of Rome being all nice, clean, white, shining, sparkling marble public buildings and so on - why that must be wrong is that even if pockets of the city were like that, you were dealing with people in high-rise buildings without proper - you know, despite what (laughter) what the "Life Of Brian" would have you imagine.

DAVIES: Like aqueducts (laughter).

BEARD: You know, there was water coming in, but they didn't have - you know, if you're living on the fifth floor of an apartment block, you don't have, you know, a lavatory with running water. And you probably don't have any cooking equipment. Or if you do have cooking equipment, you're really in danger of burning the whole place down when your brazier hearth falls over. So we're dealing with the most extraordinary mixture in our terms of public grandeur and real private slums and squalor. And we have wonderful accounts - probably rather exaggerated accounts - by Romans who talk about all the dangers of living in the city. You know, watch out if you go out at night because not only are there nasty criminals and muggers about who are going to try and rob you, but as you walk down the street, you know, you better watch what's coming from above because there are people pouring the contents of their chamber pots out of their upper window onto your head. And you may well get hit by the pot itself, and then you're dead.

DAVIES: (Laughter) You have a whole section about bar culture in Rome. What were the bars like? How common were they?

BEARD: Well, if I was an elite Roman, I would've looked at these bars and I would've said they were real dens of iniquity. They were places where people went to get extremely drunk, to gamble and to pick up women and men. And the Roman elite were very, very sniffy about bars. The elite are often sniffy about the non-elite's pleasures. But actually, if you tried to see Roman culture a bit from the bottom up, the local bar or the local cafe was where people spent a lot of their time. They're living in very cramped conditions, often without proper cooking equipment and facilities. and they go out to get their, not only pleasures, but their basic food and drink and stuff like that. And I think you have to imagine the bars that you can still see very clearly in Pompeii kind of clinging around the crossroads as being a place of real popular culture in ancient Rome where people gambled, told jokes, had a good time relatively cheaply.

DAVIES: Do we know what a bar menu looks like? I mean, food was served, right? What would people eat?

BEARD: Yeah, sausages, cheese, wine, water and I'm afraid sometimes the barmaid was on the menu, too, so it seems from such graffiti that we have. It was good plain food and good plain enjoyment.

DAVIES: And that raises another question. What was the status of women in Rome? I'm sure it varied by class.

BEARD: (Laughter) Well, you can tell the good side of that or the bad side of that. The good side of that is that compared with most other cultures in the ancient Mediterranean, it was an awful lot better. It's very clear that women had some property rights. They were sometimes entrepreneurs. They were renting out property. They were owning bars sometimes. And that's something that would never have happened, say, in 5th century Athenian democracy. However, the downside is absolutely no formal political rights whatsoever. No woman in ancient Rome ever had the vote. They had no formal political power at all. And even those imperial ladies, like the famous Olivia, who was the wife of the first emperor, Augustus - even they were often written up as if they were pulling the strings behind the scenes. They probably weren't really. They were a convenient target to blame for what was going on. But actually, they were out of the power structure.

DAVIES: And the story is among the elites, marriages were arranged, often to cement alliances. What about among non-elites, among the plebeians?

BEARD: It's very hard to know what - how marriage arrangements were made amongst those who weren't rich and those who don't tell us about them because one of the problems looking at the poor in Rome is that the rich write about themselves and we've still got that material; the poor don't except in things like their tombstones and very few bits of literature. It's often imagined that the poor would have had - or the ordinary, let's say, not necessarily the poor - wouldn't have been quite so constrained by political matchmaking. The rich were. And I'm sure that's to some extent true. But my guess would be that if you've got a local peasant farmer who wants to do a deal with another local peasant farmer, one way of cementing that was to marry off your daughter to his son. So I suspect that even the ordinary don't escape that sense of arranged marriages that we know were the case for the rich - and also very young - there were people getting married at 12 and 13.

DAVIES: You know, I think about what you do, and you look back over centuries at a society that existed over centuries. And you have a very rich written record - I mean, more writings, you tell us, than anyone could read in a lifetime. But they come from very specific perspectives. And there's an evolving archaeological record. And a lot of what you do in this book is look at the events and say is there something else going on here? What can we see might really be happening? What are the different motivations? And I wonder do you at times picture yourself in ancient Rome - wearing clothes that they wore, the smell, the feel - and if that ever gives you any insight into your view of the history?

BEARD: I think you'd be a very dull person if you didn't sometimes say to yourself, you know, I wonder what it would've been like actually to be there. And yeah, occasionally, what would it have been like in this amphitheater when it was full of 50,000 people watching a gladiatorial display? And I do that - I also do that, you know, fully in the knowledge that I would not likely to have been a powerful rich person. And if I was a woman, it wouldn't have been a great place to be. But I think that kind of attempt to say I wonder what it was actually like is something that helps you read some of this literature a bit against the grain, like you say. And I think what makes Rome fun for me is partly saying well, I wonder what the other people thought who weren't saying that. And that's where I think that exercise of the imagination - the what it would it have been like to be there - does come in. What would it have been like to listen the Cicero speaking, you know, orating in the forum? You know, some people would've cheered. But what about the ones that wanted to throw eggs at him? That kind of thing. I think it's something that helps.

DAVIES: We're speaking with Mary Beard. She's a professor of classics at Cambridge University. She's studied Rome for decades. Her new book is "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're speaking about ancient Rome with Mary Beard. She's a historian and a professor of classics at Cambridge University. She has a new history of Rome called "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome." Tell us about gladiator contests. I mean, that - you know, sports are a part of a lot of societies, but they're usually not duels to the death. I mean, why - where did this come from?

BEARD: I am going to be a bit of a downer on gladiatorial contests, I'm afraid, because we do have - again, in the Hollywood imagination, we have a very, very lurid view of gladiators and wild beast hunts. We imagine ourselves in the Coliseum and, you know, hundreds of pairs of gladiators are fighting to the death in some appalling bloodbath that the awful Romans are sitting there cheering and enjoying. Now, I think occasionally that did happen. In fact, I have no doubt that once in a while, an emperor would put on an extraordinary display of - both of gladiatorial contest and wild beast hunts with ostriches and hippopotamuses and rhinoceroses and so forth - a display of imperial power. But I think we've got to be realistic, first of all, about how low-key most gladiatorial contests in most of the Roman world were. Gladiators are an expensive commodity. They don't get killed very often. And nobody apart from the emperor can afford to bring lions to fight Christians, right. So I think an awful lot of the gladiatorial shows that you would have seen in the Roman world would have been more likely to be fighting wild boar from the local hills. And the gladiators would not have been fighting - usually - to the death, no.

DAVIES: So something more like modern wrestling, where it's an entertaining show but everybody knows that we're going to walk out of here - walk out of this?

BEARD: That is the example I would use. This is more like boxing than wrestling most of the time. Now, of course, you know, you can't just sanitize it all over like that. And there were some really appalling bloodbaths. And I think it's part - it's part of the Roman culture that we can't understand. We can't understand the level of casual violence where we like to think we are not violent. We can't understand the fact that the Romans would've thrown unwanted babies away onto rubbish tips or would occasionally have watched people killing each other in the amphitheater. But I think we have to be a bit careful here about the - you know, our own grounds for criticism. And I once spent a long time in the Coliseum listening to teachers talk to their pupils about what happened. And every teacher would say to their class, almost universally, what happened here? And they'd say, oh, people killed each each other. And then the teacher would say, do we do that now? And they'd all say, no, Miss, we don't. And they all went away feeling very cheerful and very convinced that there had been a huge amount of human progress. I suspect we have to think a bit more carefully about the different forms of violence and cruelty we have on one another which aren't gladiatorial but aren't necessarily much better.

DAVIES: And do we know - were Christians actually fed to lions?

BEARD: Some Christians were sent to the wild beasts. One thing that's fascinating is although that probably did happen in the Coliseum at Rome, we have no positive authenticated example of any Christian martyr being fed to the lions actually in the Coliseum. It's very likely to have happened, and we know about it elsewhere in the Roman Empire. It's not for a very long period. There isn't - there is not mass persecution of Christians except at very isolated moments. But I think we've got to look at it in the eye and say, yes, it did sometimes happen.

DAVIES: You know, there's this notion that the Roman Empire fell because its leaders and citizens got fat and lazy and morally corrupt and took its security for granted. And this is a narrative that gets applied to the British Empire and to the United States by some. I'm sure the decline of Rome is a complicated thing, but how much truth is there to this idea of decadence having undermined the glory of Rome?

BEARD: I think almost nothing. The Romans themselves were very conscious that empires came and went. There was a cycle of empires, and if you went up, you would eventually come down. And there's a lovely story of the - Scipio, who destroyed the city of Carthage in 146, watching that city go up in flames and weeping. And when somebody - in fact an eyewitness - said Scipio, why are you crying? He sort of said, well, because that's going to happen to us one day. You know, empires rise, and they fall. And I think with Rome, it's always been everybody's, you know, Holy Grail of some bits of history has always been to say, why did the Roman Empire fall? And I think the answer to that is always much more complicated than any of the stories of, you know, too much sex, too little sex, water pipes having been made of lead or decadence in many forms. For a start, in the Eastern Roman Empire, the empire didn't fall until 1453. We call the empire - based on Constantinople - we call it the Byzantine Empire as if it was different. They called themselves the Romans, and they went on being a Roman empire until the 15th century. And in the West, what you have is a very, very puzzling disaggregation of power. And what emerges is not, again, the sort of Hollywood myth of vulgar barbarians coming in and squashing Roman culture and destroying civilization as we know it. You get, over most of the West, a series of mini Romes, in a way. They don't have much political power. But people in the sixth and seventh centuries are still sitting there writing Latin poetry, using Roman law and also, on a small scale, thinking of themselves as Roman. They've lost the big imperial power in the West, but there's still an awful lot of Rome that survives.

DAVIES: I have to ask you which films or television productions involving Rome you would recommend as authentic or just worth watching. And are there any that really annoy you?

BEARD: Actually, I'm a great fan of Roman movies. I mean, I think that, you know, all the classics are - they might not be accurate. But they really - they, you know - they get - they speak to me about Rome. And, you know, I did actually - I have to say - I loved "Gladiator," and I thought that it's depiction of gladiatorial combat, although it was an aggrandizing picture, was rather cleverly and expertly done. And I love the "Life Of Brian," but I think - and if I was going to have anything, I'd have that old "I, Claudius" television series, where - which was shown both in the U.K. and the U.S. in the 1970s, where everybody - and it's completely untrue - but it is such a marvelously, slightly camp version of Roman imperial power with Sian Phillips as Livia, apparently poisoning everybody else on the way to getting her boy, Tiberius, into imperial power and Claudius being a rather dodgy old scholar and everybody playing their stereotypes - 'cause I think the important thing about Rome is, you know - I think, you know - I'm very into myth-busting. And I want to say, look, it wasn't like that. That's not how it really was. But at the same time, there's no reason not to enjoy those stereotypes and, you know, have all the fun with them that we've always had just as long as we realize that that's what they are.

DAVIES: Oh, thank you for giving us permission to enjoy those movies.

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BEARD: You know, people like me are supposed to be downers on this. I'm supposed to say, no, no, no, you can't do that. Yes, you can; just know it's not true.

DAVIES: OK. Mary Beard, it's been fun. Thanks so much.

BEARD: Thank you.

GROSS: Mary Beard is the author of the new book, "SPQR: A History Of Ancient Rome." She spoke with FRESH AIR contributor Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. Coming up, John Powers reviews the new film, "Mustang" about sisters in Turkey resisting the constraints of conservative Islam. That's after a break. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.