cover image Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World

Mary Beard. Liveright, $37.95 (512p) ISBN 978-0-871-40422-0

Cambridge University classicist Beard (SPQR) provides a captivating examination of the social lives of the Roman emperors, beginning with Julius Caesar (assassinated 44 BCE) and ending with Alexander Severus (assassinated 235 CE). Covering almost three centuries and close to 30 emperors, Beard explores the day-to-day practicalities and pastimes of imperial rule. She highlights the “fraught relations” between emperors and senators, who did not take well to Rome’s transformation from republic to autocratic empire; takes readers on a tour of the emperors’ public works (including the Circus Maximus and the Colosseum); and recreates their palaces and gardens, “from the service corridors to the ornamental lakes,” explaining how “Roman palaces were built for dining, with multiple entertainment suites.” Beard follows emperors on their travels (Hadrian managed to visit most of the empire), depicts them at chariot races, introduces their spouses and lovers, and describes the massive retinue of slaves, freedmen, soldiers, and secretaries who kept the imperial system going. Noting that the way emperors were remembered depended on the attitude of their successors (they were glorified after a peaceful succession, vilified as tyrants and perverts when violently replaced), Beard acknowledges how uncertain the modern picture of them remains, despite vast archival and archaeological evidence. Still, she manages to paint a nuanced and holistic portrait. This immersive account is a treat for history buffs. (Oct.)