Mary Beard brings her Roman Emperor documentary to the BBC

​There were cruel Roman Emperors, stupid ones and some that were just very good at PR. For example – Marcus Aurelius was known as the philosophising ruler who oversaw a period of peace, but his reign was heavily punctuated by bloody imperial expansion and persecuting Christians.
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​In her new BBC programme Meet The Roman Emperor With Mary Beard, Dame Mary Beard peels back the layers of Roman propaganda to show how power was wielded, and rather than chronicling events, she takes us inside the palace where smutty graffiti was written by slaves and Augustus, Nero, Hadrian or Marcus Aurelius and lesser known oddballs like Domitian and Elagabalus terrified their dining guests.

The historian and classicist, 69, is concerned with what stories – such as short-lived Elagabalus never wearing the same pair of shoes twice – tells us about his subjects, and how the mundane acts like paperwork took up much of an emperor’s time.

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Dame Mary says the name recognition of figures like Nero and Julius Caesar means “we’ve got a pretty kind of clear idea about the lurid excesses of, and cruelty of Roman imperial power”, and by trying to get “behind that mask” viewers can visit the palaces in the Palatine Hill where we can more accurately find out how they ate, slept and plotted.

Mary Beard peels back the layers of Roman propagandaMary Beard peels back the layers of Roman propaganda
Mary Beard peels back the layers of Roman propaganda

There are, of course, tales of “luxurious and stupid” dining, where the emperor and his subjects would sometimes sit in the middle of the sea and have their food floated down to them on little boats, in the TV production but she cautions that many written accounts are not based on reality and the tales are “a bit similar” to “celebrity gossip”.

“There all these stories about Roman emperors – the emperor Domitian skewering flies with his pen, or Caligula deciding that he would make his horse a consul (a magistrate),” Dame Mary says. “I think the brutal truth is we don’t know if they’re true.”

Much like the inner lives of today’s movie stars and royalty, she says they are vehicles for historians to understand how we projected “our own questions and anxieties and aspirations onto them”.

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Dame Mary says: “I see both now, in celebrity terms, and in the ancient world, tons of people thinking, what would I do if I was the most powerful person in the world? If I could sleep with anybody, who would it be?

“And if I had more money and more wealth than anybody else, what would I eat? How would I dine? What would my dinner party look like? And to some extent, I think that in all of this, what you’re seeing is people’s attempts to imagine what it’s like.”

Meet The Roman Emperor With Mary Beard will air on BBC Two and iPlayer at 9pm on Monday, April 8.

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