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The Most Famous Historian of Rome on Why Men Are Obsessed

7 minute read

To a historian of ancient Rome like Mary Beard, it’s always timely to talk about the empire. But her new book about the daily lives of Roman Emperors, Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World, is due to come out in the U.S. when the Roman Empire has been trending on TikTok.

Women have been posting videos of themselves asking the men in their lives how often they think about the Roman Empire and expressing shock as these boyfriends and husbands say they think about the Roman world all of the time. Beard, meanwhile, does not need to ask her husband how often he thinks about the Roman Empire—he is an art historian who studies Roman art.

Whether these men on TikTok are serious or joking, the reasons why they say they think about the ancient Roman world offer Beard a starting point for discussing what modern conveniences we can attribute to the ancient Romans and what’s the stuff of myth.

In a phone conversation with TIME on Sept. 26, Beard, also the author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, explained the proper way to wear a toga and set the record straight on other misconceptions about the Roman Empire running rampant on TikTok.

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The following conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.

book jacket of “Emperor of Rome” by Mary Beard

Does the Roman Empire have a special appeal among men? Why or why not?

In some ways, ancient Rome is a kind of safe place for macho fantasies. It's where men can pretend to be macho men. That must be part of the appeal, I suppose. And people say to me, 'Well, you must think that's awful, don't you?' Anything that brings people to be interested in the ancient world is fine by me. But I'm very keen that they should see that there's more to the ancient world than macho fantasies. I think my job is to say, 'Okay, you've gotten interested in Rome. Now, I'm going to tell you it's more interesting than you thought.'

What should people be thinking about when they think about the Roman Empire?

It was not all generals and posh white men. This was a culture built on slavery. Last week, I went to Rome and I went to the Palatine palace—the kind of mission control of the Roman Empire. There's one little area there, which must have been an area for the staff, the slaves, the service quarters. The [servants] have written all over the walls of this area in graffiti scrawls. There is a parody of the crucifixion of Jesus. It was probably done in the late second century CE. It might be the earliest representation of the crucifixion of Jesus that we have. There's a man being crucified on the cross, but he has a donkey's head. There is a figure in a tunic next to him clearly praying to him. We can also see that the slaves are into Christianity before the Emperors—it was another 100 years before any emperor became a Christian. So there are other stories to tell, not just stories about the big guys.

One guy on TikTok says he thinks about the Roman Empire because men at their core are warriors and have to be ready for battle and the Roman Empire is all about battle.

The Roman Empire is partly about battle. We've got to remember that those emperors didn't conquer the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire had been brutally acquired when Rome was still a democracy. And actually not many Roman emperors do much conquering at all, and they make a kind of show of the image of the brand. They have loads of statues of themselves dressed up as warriors. But in some ways, that's a substitute for conquering. They're not actually doing very much.

Other guys on TikTok have said they associate Romans with togas and think about Rome when they use the bathroom because of their role developing sewage systems. How accurate is that?

Roman people did not wear the toga every day. They wore the toga on special occasions. If you went to the Colosseum, that's a bit like going to the opera in London, so you wear your toga just like you’d wear a tuxedo. But most Romans wore tunics and they wore all white and probably wore trousers, actually. This idea that Rome was a nation in which everybody wore togas—that's simply untrue. I also think that we overestimate the sophistication of Roman sewage work and Roman drainage. In the middle of a flood, things like octopuses came up in people's lavatories.

Now let’s talk about your new book Emperor of Rome. You talk about the cross-dressing ruler Elagabalus. What do you want readers to take away from his story?

Some of our questions about gender fluidity —what counts as male and what counts as female—they're not new. I don't think the Romans give us an answer to that. But I do think it's helpful for us to realize that our issues weren't invented 20 years ago. It's really important to see that these questions go back millennia.  I don't think there has been a human culture that hasn't wondered about the nature of what it is to be male or what it is to be female. 

I was disappointed to learn in your book that Caligula did not really appoint his horse consul. How did that myth become so widespread?

There are sources which say Caligula threatened the Senate that he would appoint his horse consul, and that always gets quoted as, “Caligula made his horse consul.” He’s one of a whole series of emperors who treat their horses almost like people.

Why does Julius Caesar get so much attention?

The answer is probably because he was assassinated. Shakespeare writes up that moment as an absolutely crucial moment in thinking about political justice and political fairness. But Julius Caesar wasn't around very long as dictator. He was mostly not in Rome. He mostly didn't finish things. 

Who was the most overrated Roman emperor?

I would say that Claudius has been very lucky, partly because of Robert Graves, between I, Claudius and Claudius the God and the TV series. They turned Claudius into a slightly charming, old academic emperor, a kind of Uncle Claudius, a sort of nice guy. That was fiction. If you go back and you read what Romans were saying about Claudius, he was a murderous bastard.

Who was the most important Roman Emperor? 

Augustus, the first proper Roman Emperor after Caesar, because he sets the whole system up. He rules for 40 years. And he actually ensures that there is a system that will last. The emperors don't last, but the autocratic system lasts, and Augustus is very largely responsible for that.

What would Romans have thought of TikTok and social media?

They would have loved it. Romans like graffiti. They would have loved sharing the equivalent of graffiti. Rome was a master of image creation and image replication You see these idealizing—in our terms, Photoshopped—images of the Emperor Augustus all over the place. In that sense, they're very modern. They certainly want to leave them on any wall they post. They want to say, 'Marcus was here.'

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Write to Olivia B. Waxman at olivia.waxman@time.com