Book Box | Mary Beard spills the tea (and rose petals) on Roman emperors - Hindustan Times

Book Box | Mary Beard spills the tea (and rose petals) on Roman emperors

Mar 16, 2024 08:40 PM IST

From power plays to poolside passion, this classics don reveals what we can learn from Roman history

Dear Reader,

Mary Beard (Author) PREMIUM
Mary Beard (Author)

Mary Beard is everybody’s favourite poster girl. A classics don from Cambridge, Beard is revered for rescuing Roman history from a dusty discipline, elevating it to a primer on personality and power. Beard is erudite and entertaining; she writes expansively on ancient Rome – everything from laughter to shoes to sex in the swimming pool.

A good place to start reading Mary Beard is It’s a Don’s Life. This memoir began as a blog on her life as a don (a lecturer) in Cambridge. I found it zippy and sparkly; it talks about everything from sanitary pads for schoolgirls in Kenya and David Beckham’s new tattoo to the real identity of that statue pulled from the Rhône.

Or if you prefer to start with something short and punchy, head for Beard’s Women and Power: A Manifesto.

At the recent Jaipur Literature Festival, Beard captivated audiences with tales of Roman emperors. A story stood out: Elagabalus, an emperor known for smothering dinner guests with rose petals. Beard even used an 1888 painting to illustrate the scene, see below The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema.

The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema(Superb magazine, The Désirs & Volupté exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André/ Wikimedia Commons)
The Roses of Heliogabalus by Lawrence Alma-Tadema(Superb magazine, The Désirs & Volupté exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart-André/ Wikimedia Commons)

But Beard isn't just about the sensational. She connects the past to the present, making ancient stories relevant to our modern world. The 69-year-old Cambridge don spoke with me after her session, on reading, writing and the courage to speak your mind, even if it’s about sex in the swimming pool. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

What was your early reading like?

I loved reading dictionaries of quotations, things like the Guinness Book of Records, compilations of facts, and encyclopedias. So it was very non-fiction.

I did my bit of Enid Blyton and all the other kinds of trash that kids read. I remember my mother banned me from reading Enid Blyton because she thought that it was very bad literature and had a terrible ideology. But, in fact, as soon as I got some money to spend on my own, I went off and bought loads of Enid Blyton. Later, my mother said it was really stupid of her, especially as she was a teacher. She said she should have been wise enough to know, it doesn't matter what kids read, as long as they read something.

You are known for the rare quality of being unafraid to speak your mind. What helped you be this kind of person?

I didn't have any sort of public profile until I was middle-aged. By then I was reasonably confident that I knew things. I knew enough about ancient history to contribute to the conversation. And I grew up with a mum who was the kind of person who thought women should speak up and not be bullied.

Of course, I am anxious about all kinds of things. It's very easy, you know, to not quite say what you mean. I'll still say something in the course of a conversation, and it will get extracted. And then it looks terrible.

In the session at JLF, you painted vivid pictures of ancient Roman life, including a reference to the sex-in-the-swimming pool. How did you develop this distinctive voice?

When I began teaching in Cambridge, it was a very male-dominated world. It would have been very easy to get intimidated by it. And I did start out thinking I had to fit in with that world, to lecture like a man. But then I came to see that there's no point in pretending to be a man. I'm going to tell it as I see it.

Mary Beard (left) in conversation with Peter Frankopan at Jaipur
Mary Beard (left) in conversation with Peter Frankopan at Jaipur

In your book Women and Power, you speak about the kind of vicious backlash you’ve faced for speaking on issues of public debate. What gives you the courage to carry on?

If you've been lucky enough to spend your life being paid to do what you really want to do, then there's a bit of payback. I've been paid to teach and research in ancient history and ancient literature, all my life. I've got a duty to pay back. As somebody who works on Roman history, I think I have got something to add to today's debate, by talking to popular audiences and being on television. We need public voices to be heard in many different ways, women, especially older women, have got something to say, and the debate ought to have lots of people participating. It becomes better if you do.

Tell us a story of a modern woman in power

This is not a very good story, but it has a moral actually. I once was invited to a concert in the Victoria and Albert Museum. And it was with a whole group of people. And one of the other people there was Theresa May when she was prime minister of the UK. We sat down, I was just a little bit along from her, and I noticed that she had fallen asleep. And I disagree with almost everything she has done, like creating a hostile environment against illegal immigrants. But you can't help but feel human sympathy for this woman, she is so tired. She's come to this concert, she sits down. And she drops asleep. It's very easy to see people in power as good or bad, you know, angels or demons. And I thought it was a lesson in remembering that people in power are also human beings.

You are married to an art historian, you have a daughter and a son who are both history scholars, and you have such an eclectic family. I'm curious to know, what's the conversation at the dining table like?

We don't sit down and say, do you think Plato was right about that? It’s everyday conversation, it's arguing about who didn't put the dustbins out. We do recommend books to each other. When I was writing what became Women in Power, it was my son, who told me to read Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. I think you might find it useful, he said casually. It’s a wonderful story, about a society composed entirely of women. They have created a perfect world with child care, and no debris anywhere, but they think they are hopeless.

And finally, a question on shoes. You spoke earlier today about the shoes Roman emperors wore. I read somewhere you are friends with the shoe designer Manolo Blahnik – tell us about your best shoes

I’ve got my favourite ones - a pair of Manolos, flat red shoes.

On that peripatetic note, it’s a wrap for now. Until next week, happy reading!

Sonya Dutta Choudhury is a Mumbai-based journalist and the founder of Sonya’s Book Box, a bespoke book service. Each week, she brings you specially curated books to give you an immersive understanding of people and places. If you have any reading recommendations or suggestions, write to her at

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