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Lecture 5: Tyranny and Empire

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her fifth of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion both Dr Joanna Leidenhag and Sam Ellis will offer their initial reflections on the lecture. Joanna recently completed her PhD in Systematic and Philosophical Theology at the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of St Andrews. Sam is currently a second year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Beard’s lecture focused on tyranny and empire. More specifically it focused on “how the Roman empire has, or has not, been used to justify imperial domination in the modern world” with a particular interest in how “we see the British empire through a Roman template.”

She began by pointing out that Greece and Rome have often been perceived as opposite examples of political cultures to emulate (depending on the time and place in history one is generally seen to be a good example while the other is taken to be a bad example). As Beard noted, for several centuries Rome was the dominate example to emulate until around the time of the “revolutionary politics of the eighteenth century” and it wasn’t until “the nineteenth century that the tables turned – and as we saw yesterday – Athenian democracy (which had generally been written off before as a pretty disastrous experiment in mob rule) came to be seen as the preferential model.”

She acknowledged that on many levels this perceived opposition between Rome and Greece as either entirely bad or entirely good examples to emulate is simply a “silly binary” (some reasons mentioned being the omnipresence of slavery or the universal militarism that was a hallmark of international relations in the Greco Roman world). Both Roman and Greek political cultures were more nuanced and sullied than they have commonly been taken to be making a simplistic declaration of superiority of one over the other difficult. Both arguably have aspects worthy of emulation and aspects worth rejecting. However, as she went on to note, there is a key difference that makes a difference for our appreciating and adjudicating between Athens and Rome: namely, the “idea and practice of empire.” Alexander of Macedon (Beard took issue with referring to Alexander as “great”) conquered many territories but these territories were not maintained for a great length of time and the empire that Athens had was “slightly longer lasting, and hugely controversial . . . but it was relatively small by imperial standards.” The Roman empire, by contrast, was both more vast and more long-lasting: not only did the empire itself last longer (as late as the fifteenth century through the Byzantine Empire) but the idea of the Roman Empire had a longer lasting impact on many later civilizations attracted to a notion of imperial domination of one sort or another. The Holy Roman Empire and the British empire being just two examples.

At this point in her lecture she paused to inform us that she wanted to continue “to take a fresh look at this from the ancient side before thinking about the modern legacy of the Roman empire, and what role it plays for us, how far under its shadow we are living.” She went on to note that one of the most common questions about the Roman empire is “Why did it fall?” For Beard, however, the more interesting question is “How and why did the Roman empire get up and running in the first place?” Rome, after all, was a “second rank small town in the fourth century BC” so how and why did it become such a superpower within 300 years? Before moving on to begin to offer an answer to this she noted that “Rome actually acquired most of its empire when it was a Republican democracy” not later when it was ruled by emperors.


Despite the high value placed on military prestige/success by Roman elites Beard doubted that the success and growth of the Roman empire could simply be because “the Romans were just nastier or more militaristic than anyone else on the block.” As she went on to note, “there is no reason to think that they were more militaristic than anyone else” as “male militaristic ideology” was prevalent throughout the Greco Roman world. What did distinguish Rome, however, was the rate at which the Roman empire was successful in its military endeavors. How do we account for the prevalence of Rome’s military success? Despite some common and popular answers, it was not that the Romans were superior tacticians or that they had more advanced weaponry. Rather, as Beard stated, “for me the only convincing answer to this is that Romans soon had insuperable manpower because of their policy of incorporating into their military machine those they conquered . . . (that was part of their entirely  unconventional, in ancient terms, use of citizenship).” As she went on to say, “it meant that Romans lost battles (much more often than they want you to know) but didn’t lose wars” due to the quantity of soldiers they had available to them. Even given the vast military success that Rome enjoyed Beard noted that “there is no sign that Rome started out with an aim at systematic imperial control over conquered territories” so it is unsatisfactory to propose that as a primary answer to the question of why the Roman empire got up and running in the first place.

Beard then moved on to talk about “some paradoxes and blind-spots in more general modern approaches and understanding of Rome’s empire.” First, she mentioned a “sneaking admiration for the Roman imperial project” when we talk about it as a precursor to modern globalization and connectivity and when we refer to its military accomplishments and military leaders with the adjective ‘great.’ Second, she mentioned that “we tend to downplay Roman opposition to, or at least anxieties about empire.” Even though Rome was a “warrior state” we can find examples of Roman authors aware of the downsides of its militarism and furthermore, as Beard mentioned, “that some of the sharpest critiques of empire come from within imperial states.” One example that she mentioned was that of the Caledonian freedom fighter Calgacus who, in the Roman historian Tacitus’ biography of his father-in-law, is portrayed as discussing the nature of Roman imperialism by saying that the Romans “make a desert and call it peace.” As Beard went on to state, “modern empires are still making deserts and calling them peace (and there are not enough Tacitus’s around to call them out).” Lastly, she spoke briefly about the jingoistic ceremony of triumph that was meant to be “the general’s finest hour” but often turned out to be a “poisoned chalice” (e.g. the example of Caesar or accounts where a general lost the admiration of the crowds when they instead took sympathy on the prisoners).


At this point in the lecture Beard mentioned that she wanted to “think harder about how the Roman empire has been replayed in the modern imagination and politics, and in particular how it has been used to justify modern imperial regimes.” This is particularly pertinent given the fact that “the Roman empire provided an historical and symbolic legitimation of imperialism,” and particularly to British imperialism. This is evidenced by that fact that “leading figures in British imperial expansion could present themselves quite literally in Roman guise” and by the fact that capital buildings were made in Roman likeness, and by the fact that the Roman empire and the ancient world “gave the British a language with which to talk about their imperial enterprise;” one example being that “gunboats were named after the gods and heroes of classical myth.” Furthermore, parallels were drawn between classical history and British successes and failures. Both by comparisons between specific events (like the Boer War and the invasion of Sicily by Athens) and by a more general comparison between Roman imperialism and British imperialism. As Beard mentioned, “more than those off the peg easy comparisons, there were strong assertions form leading scholars in the late nineteenth and early 20th centuries  that the practices and principles of Roman rule threw useful light on British rule, and vice versa: Rome helped you understand Britain and Britain Rome.”

Beard then went on to talk about other ways that Roman imperialism was drawn on for the purposes of British imperialism. In concluding this section of her lecture she admitted that “there are really important connections here between imperialism ancient and modern,” however, as she stated, “if you look more carefully, what you find is that it always proved impossible . . . to quite align Britain and Rome.” As she noted, the 20th century statue of Boudicca in London (the rebel against the Romans in the mid first century AD) is one of the key examples that shows this. As she went on to describe further, “Boudicca was the British queen who rose up against the Romans when they reneged on agreements after the death of her husband. . . . There was brief warfare, described in highly coloured tones, to put it mildly, by Roman writers. Boudicca is supposed to have won some very nasty victories (though we only have the Roman accounts of how nasty they were), but it ended almost inevitably in the suppression of the rebellion, and the abuse and death of Boudicca and her daughters.” Furthermore, there is an inscription on the statue that says, “Don’t worry Boudicca, your descendants will conquer and rule more territory than the Romans ever did.” As Beard went on to note, this statue “is the most aggressive monument to British imperialism in London” and it “points to two things that disrupt the simple imperial equivalence between Rome and Britain.” First, the statue is ambivalent about whether it is intended to make the observer side with the Romans or the Brits. Perhaps it is a bit of both in different ways. Second, “there was an inconvenient geographical or geopolitical disjunction between the two “great” empires. For the most part the territories that Britain held were not the same territories that the Roman empire controlled.

What these two points illustrate, according to Beard, is that there “are the symbolic problems . . . of conscripting the Romans to the British imperial cause.” As she went on to mention these symbolic problems further arose in debates concerning the British imperial cause in India and the proper course of training for those wishing to be in the Indian Civil Service. Not only were classical cultures more complicated than they were often taken to be, but so was the British acceptance and appropriation of Roman imperialism during the time of the British empire in the different places and cultures in the world that it extended itself into. As Beard later noted, “my point is to underline that the influence and legitimating power of the classical tradition was a matter of contemporary debate; it was disputed, argued over and denied too.”

In reflecting on this Beard began to conclude her lecture by stating that “we have in my view a terrible tendency  to want the Classics and the Classical tradition to be pretty monovalent – to mean just one thing, to support a single position (and now usually a reactionary one), when actually the real contribution of the classical tradition is to provide us with some of the tools of the arguments pro and con. Classics was neither for or against empire; its influence was debated and contested on all sides.”

7 replies to “Lecture 5: Tyranny and Empire”

  1. Sam Ellis says:

    For the fifth lecture in the Gifford series, Professor Mary Beard chose to focus on concepts of tyranny and empire. In particular Professor Beard focused on the use of the Roman Empire as a method of justification for more recent imperialistic behaviour, specifically with regard to the British Empire. The fifth lecture was a perfect encapsulation of the lecture series titled “The Ancient World and Us: From Fear and Loathing to Enlightenment and Ethics” given its focus on the politics of memory. Beard raised numerous questions in this lecture, namely how has the heroization of certain historical figures and the manipulation of the past affected our behaviour today? To answer this, a case study of the British Empire and its use of the Roman Empire as a legitimating factor was provided.

    As a second-year PhD student in Classics whose research focuses on the discourse of sole rule in the ancient Greek world, I found this evening’s lecture particularly relevant. My research looks at how sole rulers were consciously reinterpreted in ancient sources following the advent of democracy and its association with the rule of law. Given my interest in sole rule I do wish there had been more discussion on tyrants, they were dealt with synonymously in this lecture with empires, but given the lecture took a militaristic rather than political approach the argument worked well. Throughout history we find instances of past events being reconfigured in order to cope with the present ideological consensus. Beard’s focus on ideological representations of the Roman Empire comes to the same conclusion – our understanding of it is often coloured by modern external influences.

    Beard begins with a brief discussion on the changing fortunes of Rome and Athens throughout history, noting that from the 19th century onwards Athenian democracy became emblematic of the Western ideal. The previous golden child, Rome, now became synonymous with the corrupt regime of emperors. Athenian democracy was examined more thoroughly in the previous lecture and Beard moved swiftly on to the main issue, that of the Roman Empire. For Beard, modern fascination with the fall of the Roman Empire is misplaced, believing it far more interesting to look at how Rome became an Empire in the first place. She is quick to point out here that Rome had an Empire long before it had Emperors, a caveat that often leads to confusion.

    To do this, Beard chose to focus on the militaristic side of Empire and argued that the Roman Empire was no more militaristic than any other, they were simply more successful. This success was not down to superior military skill but simply a greater, never-ending supply of manpower. Beard provided examples of media coverage of the Romans, and Julius Caesar in particular, as military geniuses, before proceeding to rubbish this, and their military tactics in general as rather rudimentary. The key to their success was their numerical advantage, which Beard points out was a specific consequence of their imperial policies. My own research covers perceptions of the Greeks and the Persian Empire and I was struck by the similarities in media bias. The glorification of Leonidas and the Spartans as militaristic heroes of Western civilisation is largely a construct of the Western imagination.

    Beard proceeded to talk about the heroization of certain individuals, namely Alexander III of Macedon (not the Great!) and Julius Caesar. Dubbing them ‘genocidal maniacs’, Beard looked at the willingness of modern society to overlook the atrocities of these tyrannical figures in favour of a misty-eyed romanticism. From my own research concerning Greek tyrants I have encountered numerous examples of sole rulers being portrayed as the ‘genocidal maniacs’ that their actions would suggest. The historical romanticism of Caesar, Alexander and Scipio is as dependent on the conquered victims, in this case Gaul, the Persian Empire, and Carthage. The language Beard used in the previous lecture of ‘us vs. them’ is relevant here, with the conquered nations depicted as stereotypically barbaric and the prototypical ‘Other’ whom the civilised Western heroes emerged victorious. Although as Beard points out, defeat does not equate with niceness, and the conquered nations were as militaristic as those who prevailed.

    Beard linked this with modern notions of identity and used the British Empire as an example. The legacy of the Roman Empire was used as vindication for British imperial policy. British propaganda sought to create links of descendance with the Roman Empire and thus glorified their achievements. When Beard displayed the image of Boudicca she pointed out the fallacy in this policy. Were the British supposed to see her as a rebel against the legitimate authority of the Roman Empire? Or as a courageous freedom fighter? The British were never able to create a direct alignment with the Roman Empire – the two empires shared little territory in common, and the Roman perception of Britain was negative to say the least. So what we see is a fictitious correlation of two Empires as a method of justification in military policy.

    One image that particularly struck me was the display of maps of the Roman Empire by Mussolini in Fascist Italy. Mussolini was heralding a return to the ‘glory days’ of Rome as a justification for his actions. The image brought to mind the political language used in the EU Referendum and the recent rise in nationalism and populism that has been sweeping Europe. Lessons clearly have not been learned on the dangers the manipulation of history can lead to. As Beard has pointed out throughout the Gifford series, these ‘glory days’ were not particularly glorious at all and need to be examined with a critical eye.

    Throughout the series Professor Beard has emphasised the continued importance of Classics in contemporary life, and this evening’s lecture was no different. Beard’s warning that the reinterpretation of problematic figures as idolised heroes and the use of past imperialistic behaviour as justification for modern warfare is more relevant now than ever. In particular, by looking at how imperialism has been appropriated by modern societies we may gain a clearer understanding of how present ideological beliefs have come to be dependent on the politics of memory and the glorification of the past.

    1. Mary Beard says:

      thanks for that… really useful. sorry about the short shrift given to tyrants (they were a bit of a casualty of my tinkering with lectures 4 and 5).

  2. Joanna Leidenhag says:

    Mary Beard’s fifth lecture continued the approach of exploring an aspect of Roman civilisation that the modern West has tended to admire; military prowess and imperial domination. This is not only to question the gloss historians have placed on Rome’s empire building-success, but perhaps more subtly, to question the smug narrative that in the liberal post-colonialist sentiments of the 21st century we have ‘progressed’ past Roman brutality.

    I will focus on two of the central questions posed by Beard within this lecture.
    The first question is: “How and why did the Roman empire ever get up and running in the first place?” This question is a deliberate contrast to Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the contrast is telling. For Gibbon built the conceptual bridge from pagan Rome to Enlightenment Britain (avoiding the murk of medieval Christendom) that Beard seeks to dismantle. Gibbon asked, ‘Why did Rome fall?’ and in this question lies an anxiety to preserve empire and depictions of its decline as a great tragedy (more on the word ‘great’ shortly). Gibbon’s thesis was that Rome fell for a lack of civic virtue, thus implying that a virtuous empire – but not a Christian empire – was not only possible, but desirable. [1] And so, as Beard acknowledges, Gibbon’s history of the Roman empire, “became the essential guide for Britons anxious to plot their own imperial trajectory. They found the key to understanding the British Empire in the ruins of Rome.” [2] Yet, Beard argues, this blurring between the Roman and British empires was never a perfect fit; Briton’s never fully decided if they would side with Rome or with Boadciea, whose descendants would conqueror “Regions Ceasar never know” [sic]. I suspect that part of the misfit between the Roman and British empires lay in the role of religion, pagan and Christian, which seem (again in stark contrast to Gibbon’s preoccupation with the question) a missing piece from Beard’s argument.

    Unlike Gibbon, Beard’s primary goal is not to understand the British empire, and certainly not to preserve some idealised memory of it, but to reveal the anxieties about empire that were present in ancient Rome, present in Victorian Britain, and are present today. And so, Beard deflates Roman military prowess and draws attention to the Roman’s own anxiety about their empire; “They make a desert and call it peace” (Tactitus, Agricola 30). Beard does not examine Rome’s fall, which presupposes greatness, but examines its rise and so presupposes smallness. Just how did an average size village come to govern a territory from Scotland to the Sahara in the space of about 300 years? And how did they feel about it?

    Contemporary “sneaking admirations” for Rome are found in the answers that we give to this question; answers that Beard rejects. The early Romans were not brilliant tacticians (ancient military tactics is summarised by ‘going around the back’). The Roman army did not have ingenious inventions that their opponents wouldn’t have quickly replicated, nor did they stand out for their vicious militarism, which was widespread in the ancient world. The Romans did not (for the first few centuries) have a large administrative network or infrastructure (beyond the capacity to build roads), nor ambitions for a coco-cola style globalisation. (At this point in the lecture, I felt quite betrayed by every history lesson and televised depiction of Rome I had ever seen). Instead, Beard suspects that the only realistic answer to the question of how Rome built its empire is that, unlike the hit-and-run skirmishes of the time, the Romans established an ongoing relationship with those conquered by demanding that the young men be conscripted into the Roman army. The Romans, then, simply had more boots on the ground and threw more bodies at the problem – and there is little glory or admiration to be found in that.

    Even in the victorious processions where generals were dressed up as Jupiter, the pinnacle of personal military ambition, we are told that ancient commentators were aware that the celebration of the godlike-general could be upstaged by the pity the crowd felt for the bound and beaten prisoners. Perhaps Rome was not so ‘great’, and perhaps liberal sensibilities are not a matter of linear ‘progress’, as we like to imagine.

    The second question is: What role should classicists and historians play in contemporary politics? For classical history promises to give modern politics a language, a logic, and a map to understand the chaos of our times. And yet, if this map is too neat, if the lines are drawn straight (as the maps of the British empire too often were), then the map of classical history only serves to mask reality, not illuminate it. This might lead to the elitist perspective of Benjamin Jowett that Oxford classicists should rule empires (I’m related to two, so this is a terrifying thought), or the argument of C.P. Scott that classicists should use their knowledge to stand apart and denounce empire for all its barbarity. It is clear that the Jowett vs. Scott view of the purpose of higher education still resounds in halls of university and government. It seems that for Beard both approaches are too simplistic – for whilst she alerts academics to the potential legitimizing force that historical narratives can give to atrocities against humanity; she also argues that the best critiques come from within. Only when we stand within an empire – and, they is room to say we still stand inside reconfigured ‘empires’ today – can you see and unpick the internal logic of empire, the logic of ‘greatness’.

    Why do we call Alexander III of Macedon, ‘the great’ – when he was (in Beard’s words) “a murderous young thug”, a “nasty piece of work”, a “genocidal maniac”? What are we covering up, then, when we call Britain “Great”, or we campaign to make America “Great” again? Greatness, it seems, can cover a multitude of sins.
    [1] It is notable that the vices that Christianity introduced to Rome, thus corrupting it from the inside out, were the vices of charity, devotion, patience, demilitarisation and peace, such that “the last remains of military spirit were buried in the cloister” and “soldier’s pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes.” Edward Gibbon, “General Observations On the Fall of the Roman Empire in the West”, in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, p.580.

    [2] Piers Brendon, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, 1781-1997. (Jonathan Cape: 2007), p.xv.

  3. Gerard Vila says:

    Just watched this brilliant and insightful lecture on YouTube. (Thanks!)
    But – being French myself – it seems to me worth mentioning the other side of the coin of the Roman legacy, that is the admiration for the Republic and therefore for Caesar’s assassins, which seemed to be prominent in both the American and French revolutions – e.g., one French guy started calling himself “Brutus” (I don’t remember whether it was before or after they executed the king, but you get the idea.) Obviously they got rather more mileage out this in the US than in France, after a certain General Bonaparte decided he would rather be an Emperor than a Consul, but it probably did help them formulate what they were doing as something more and nobler than getting rid of a useless ruler.
    Later French republics were a less strident; the IInd one morphed into the second Empire via a referendum, the IIIrd only failed to become a kingdom because the heir to the throne was even stupider than Louis XVI had been, and the IVth became the current Vth when De Gaulle stepped in. But as far as I know, none of the Algérie Française types who were trying to bump him off in the early 60s thought of themselves as ancient romans.

    1. Mary Beard says:

      Indeed… I think it would be true to say that the Republican heroism was present in British art, but not as prominent as in other (french, american) traditions. Though one of my favourite images is the bust of Thomas Hollis in National Portrait Gallery, London…it has images of the cap of liberty and daggers (the logo of assassins of Caesar) on its base.

  4. Daniel Lamont says:

    As others have said, this was an excellent and stimulating lecture. Mary Beard referred to Benjamin Jowett, Master of Balliol College, Oxford who had a powerful effect on the ruling class of the late nineteenth century and contemporaries spoke of him as a great moral teacher. I am also aware of the damaging effects of this and that his influence could be seen as baleful. Dorothy Sayers puts the word ‘Balliolatry’ in the mouth of Peter Wimsey. Mary Beard referred to him as ‘antediluvian’, if my notes are right. However, it is only fair to point out that in his early days, he was almost revolutionary. He was one of the people behind the controversial volume ‘Essays and Reviews’ in 1860. Jowett was, unlike most British theologians of the time, familiar with German biblical scholarship and the work of F. C. Baur. His own essay ‘On the Interpretation of Scripture’ argued that the books of the Bible should be treated in the same way as classical texts, proposing that it should be read just like any other book. He was arguing for the freedom of scholarship.This caused huge controversy. There was pressure for him to be dismissed from his Regius Chair of Greek and his salary was held at £40 a year until 1865. He was humiliatingly bought before the Vice-Chancellor’s Court for teaching contrary to the doctrines of the Church of England. Even now, there are those who seek to refute Jowett’s arguments in this essay. Thus the younger Jowett managed to alienate the establishment of the time. Later, of course, he became central to it. Interestingly, another essay in the volume was by the Oxford Professor of Geometry, on Christian evidences in which he flatly denied the possibility of miracles. The Professor in question was Baden Powell, whose son Robert, can be thought of as the epitome of Empire.

  5. Mary Beard says:

    Yes absolutely. It has become too easy to think of Jowett as a mad traditionalist, which he wasnt! Thanks for filling in all that.

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