The classicist Mary Beard has weighed in on the TikTok trend of women asking their partners how often they think of the Roman Empire by claiming that men consider the era a “safe space to be macho”.
The author and broadcaster has said a new generation of men look fondly on the Roman Empire as a place to behave in a macho way without fear of any resistance by women.
Dame Mary, who launches her new book, Emperor Of Rome: Ruling The Ancient Roman World, on Thursday, was commenting on the surprising social media trend in which women post short videos asking their husbands or boyfriends how often they think about the Roman Empire – with many of them claiming to do so several times a week and even daily.
She said: “It’s extraordinary … one thing I think about that is [that the] Roman Empire is a sort of safe space for being macho in, you imagine that it’s so long ago, you can indulge your macho fantasies without it really mattering, I think is what’s going on there.”
But the 68-year-old historian suggested that Ancient Rome was not as one-dimensional as many men might imagine.
“I suppose I think that for people like me, women who work on the Roman Empire, this is our moment also to tell these blokes that the Roman Empire is a bit more interesting than perhaps they think it is,” she said.
Dame Mary, whose new book examines Roman rulers and what powers they wielded, also said that Carrie Johnson had frequently been portrayed as the real power behind Boris’s rule during the couple’s time in Downing Street, in the manner of a Roman Emperor’s wife.
Her comments coincide with a new Sky TV drama series about Livia Drusilla, the wife of Caesar Augustus, who became one of the most powerful women in the world in her own right.
‘Streak of misogyny’
Dame Mary said there was a “good streak of misogyny” in the way Drusilla was blamed for the intrigue within the palace walls and in particular the deaths of the Emperor’s many rivals.
She said: “Look for what is going wrong in the Roman Empire, right, in the palace, we can’t see inside, but look at how we imagine all this happened? Well I’ll tell you, it’s by a scheming, manipulative woman.
“Carrie Johnson was subjected to the same sort of gossip, wasn’t she? Why did Boris do that? Well, it’s because Carrie wanted it. And why did Augustus do that? Because Livia wanted it. What did Livia do? She poisons people. What’s poisoning? Well, poisoning is a kind of perverted form of cookery. The woman who should be the nurturer actually kills you.”
Dame Mary, who debated with Mr Johnson on the subject of Greece vs Rome at an Intelligence Squared session in November 2015, said: “In the end, I think Boris Johnson is someone who’s put the ancient world very much front in his image and I think we need to think about that, whether he’s getting it right, and whether it was all a pose.
“I think that there are more interesting things to think about in the ancient world than how Boris Johnson sees it, that’s for sure.”
Dame Mary said her new book examined the way the emperors were able to exercise power through more subtle means than fear alone and that lots of the empire’s citizens “probably disapproved” of the autocratic regime.
“Rome didn’t just survive because of violence or because they’re a police state, they survive because most people actually go along with them,” she said.