Mary Beard says Roman Empire a ‘safe space for being macho’ amid TikTok trend

Classicist and author Mary Beard has said a lot of men prefer to think about the Roman Empire because the time period is a “safe space for being macho”.

The 68-year-old historian, who has presented BBC documentaries about the Romans, was speaking amid a trend on social media that highlights how often men ponder the time of togas, swords and emperors.

Dame Mary is launching her new book, Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World, on Thursday, which is published by Profile Books and looks at Roman rulers through a non-chronological account.

While speaking to the PA news agency about the TikTok sensation, she said: “It’s extraordinary… one thing I think about that is, Roman Empire is a sort of safe space for being macho in, you imagine that it’s so long ago, you can indulge your macho fantasies without it really mattering, I think is what’s going on there.

“I suppose I think that people like me, women who work on the Roman Empire, this is our moment also to tell these blokes that the Roman Empire is a bit more interesting than perhaps they think it is.”

When asked about the Sky series Domina re-examining the role of Emperor Augustus’s wife Livia as a powerful political player who was behind a lot of deaths of their rivals, Dame Mary said there is a “good streak of misogyny in that”.

She added: “Look for what is going wrong in the Roman Empire, right, in the palace, we can’t see inside but look at how do we imagine all this happened? Well I’ll tell you, it’s by a scheming, manipulative woman.

“(The wife of Boris Johnson) Carrie Johnson was subjected to the same sort of gossip, wasn’t she? Why did Boris do that? Well, it’s because Carrie wanted it. And why did Augustus do that? Because Livia wanted it. What did Livia do? She poisons people. What’s poisoning? Well, poisoning is a kind of perverted form of cookery. The woman who should be the nurturer actually kills you.”

Dame Mary, who previously announced she would retire as professor of classics at Cambridge in 2022, debated with Mr Johnson, who studied classics, on the subject of Greece vs Rome at an Intelligence Squared session in November 2015.

The host of the session, presenter Andrew Marr, said the audience voted for Dame Mary, who argued for Rome.

Speaking about being asked about Mr Johnson since then, Dame Mary said: “In the end, I think Boris Johnson is someone who’s put the ancient world very much front in his image and I think we need to think about that, whether he’s getting it right, and whether it was all a pose.

“I don’t really get fed up… I think that there are more interesting things to think about in the ancient world than how Boris Johnson sees it, that’s for sure.”

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard.
Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World by Mary Beard (Profile Books)

Dame Mary also said that people “still think of power” in the same Roman terms but she wants people to consider more how political control would have worked.

She said: “One of the funniest stories of two of them who get told off really because they go to the races… they take their correspondence with them and that’s thought to be terribly insulting to the people who were watching the races… they’re insulting the people.

“I thought that is exactly like the kind of scene you’d have if a member of the royal family went to the cup final and was caught out texting when he should have been watching the game… we share some of our prejudices with them.”

Dame Mary said she is trying to use the “emperor as a lens on to the ordinary people as well” and that “lots of people probably disapproved” of the autocratic regime.

She said: “Rome didn’t just survive because of violence or because they’re a police state, they survive because most people actually go along with them.”

When asked if she would have been outspoken, Dame Mary said: “I hope I’d speak out… the history of some of the most awful regimes have been bolstered by people prepared to co-operate.”

Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World is out on Thursday in bookshops and online.