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Death by a million rose petals

The crazy teenage emperor who suffocated his dinner guests with flowers. The great chamber pot murder riddle. Just two of the tales in Mary Beard’s endlessly entertaining new Roman history


Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World

Mary Beard Profile Books £30

We all know, or think we know, something about the Roman emperors: they were mad and depraved, or got up to unspeakable things with their own sisters. Meanwhile the Roman Empire itself somehow carried on, century after century, unaffected by the fact that its rulers were so unhinged. But can this really be right?

Thus classical scholar and well-known TV presenter Mary Beard begins her close-up examination of Rome’s greatest or most notorious figures, and asks some searching questions along the way about power and politics, and the carefully scripted ‘theatre’ of it all.

The wisest of them were well aware of this. On his death bed, Augustus (63BC– 14AD), the first emperor, is said to have asked his friends ‘if he had played his part in the comedy of life properly,’ adding a couple of lines in Greek: ‘Since the play has gone down well, give us a clap/ and send us away with applause.’

Mary Beard’s survey covers almost 300 years, from 44 BC to 235 AD, taking in such acknowledged ‘bywords for excess, cruelty and casual sadism’ as Caligula and Nero, as well as the dignified philosopheremperor Marcus Aurelius, whose personal book of Meditations remains an international bestseller to this day.

But she starts with a lesser known figure, but one of the most scandalous of all: Elagabalus, ‘a Syrian teenager’ and emperor from 218–222AD. During those four years he gave dinners boasting such ludicrous delicacies as camels’ heels and flamingos’ brains, thought it was simply hilarious to invite for dinner eight bald men or eight men with hernias, and once showered his guests with so many rose petals that they suffocated to death.

He was also said to have ‘asked doctors to give him female private parts by means of an incision’ and to have practised child sacrifice. But couldn’t all this just be malignant gossip? A long-established way for an unhappy populace to express its dislike of corrupt or evil rulers is to spread malicious lies about them, or ‘conspiracy theories’. It was ever thus.

As Mary Beard pointedly reminds us, almost everyone today ‘knows’ that Imelda Marcos, the wife of disgraced Filipino leader Ferdinand Marcos, owned 3,000 pairs of shoes while her people struggled to eat. But did she really? ‘Suspiciously, rather fewer have ever been tracked down.’

Meanwhile, for every madcap teenager like Elagabalus, there were any number of diligent bureaucrat-emperors. How would the Empire have endured otherwise? Vespasian regularly rose before dawn to read letters and reports, while Alexander Severus kept documents in his bedroom, to ‘go over the budgets and the troop deployments when he was on his own’.

We even have records of the kind of legal disputes that Roman emperors might become involved in – and they were not exactly the stuff of world-bestriding statesmanship. In 6BC, Augustus was asked to adjudicate in a family feud in Knidos, modern Turkey, in which a chamber pot had been dropped on someone’s head – fatally. He ruled that the killing was legitimate self-defence. Did the victim’s family think the decision was potty? (Sorry.)

Augustus died peacefully in his bed but far more emperors were assassinated and the whole business of imperial succession was a muddle. The role wasn’t hereditary. Instead, each emperor was supposed to nominate his successor, often an adopted son or a nephew. But there could still be assassination, skulduggery and coups to defy his wishes.

Once he had seized the throne, any new

emperor should move fast to pacify the Roman mob with those famous bread and circuses, ie free food and trashy entertainment, so they wouldn’t think to interfere in politics. He should also throw money at the palace guard, says Beard, and lavish the legions with gold.

He might then live to enjoy many years of stability, especially if he could boast plenty of military victories over the ‘barbarians’, such as those tattooed, meat-eating, milk-drinking Britons, who almost uniquely among all the provinces of Rome never supplied a single senator to the Imperial City. Backwardness, or a kind of mulish rebelliousness against belonging to a European empire centred far, far away?

The successful emperor might then enjoy lavish dinners, any number of lovers – male or female – and numerous palaces. Just one of these palaces, Nero’s colossal Golden House, was at least twice the size of Buckingham Palace, house and gardens combined – and maybe much larger still.

However, one imperial dinner party became legendary: Domitian’s infamous Black Dinner, perhaps the most terrifying party ever given. Around 88AD, he invited a number of Rome’s most wealthy and powerful citizens. When they entered the dining room they found it draped entirely in black. The couches were painted black, and even the naked slave boys serving them. Still worse, their individual place settings were marked with individual tombstones!

They were given solely black dishes to eat and, throughout the ordeal, the emperor talked unceasingly about death. Shortly after the traumatised guests returned home, there came a knock on the door – and each was presented with his own personal tombstone, as a kind of permanent reminder.

What a brilliant and chilling performance! And these terror tactics kept Domitian in power for a respectable 15 years, during which he even found time to write a little book On Care Of The Hair, with sections on coping with baldness. Sadly it has not survived.

Finally his enemies got to him, though, stabbing him to death in his bedroom. An undignified end but no more than that of Caracalla, stabbed ‘while he was having a pee’, or Antoninus Pius, who died in 161AD of a surfeit of Alpine cheese.

This is a wonderfully entertaining read and, throughout, Mary Beard is never afraid to hint of modern parallels with the world of Ancient Rome, which can superficially seem so remote from our own.

She observes that Roman citizens had profound fears that their state, behind all the pomp and pageantry and propaganda, was in truth ‘a strange and unsettling dystopia built on deception and fakery’. Reading these words, any thoughtful reader is bound to ask: how different is our society today?





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