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Winifred Mary Beard, OBE, FBA, FSA is an English Classical scholar. She is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of[…]

Did you know that despite their militaristic culture, soldiers weren’t allowed inside the city of Rome? Don’t worry — we didn’t either. 

We all have our ideas of what life in ancient Rome was really like, including sex, violence, food, and culture. But popular portrayals of the empire belie just how normal — and often kind of gross — life really was.

Preeminent Cambridge scholar Mary Beard shares what we know about the viciously expansive empire and what there is to learn, if anything, from its triumphs and mistakes.

NARRATOR: How did ancient Rome connect continents?

MARY BEARD: I think that we rely really heavily on Ancient Rome when it comes to communication. I think we've gotta put out of our minds, airplanes and fast cars, but I come from a country where the road system is still essentially the Roman road system that was established 2,000 years ago. And people often laugh at the Romans. They say, "Oh, what did the Romans do for us?" "Oh, they built roads and bridges," but you might say that was one of the most important things that they ever could do for us. 

Before the Roman world, Europe was not joined up. Now the Roman Empire joined up Europe and the Middle East and North Africa into a system that was linked. Big roads went across continents, linking one place with another in a way that was inconceivable before. Now in some ways, that was a horrible mark of Roman power. If you were a little peasant and you suddenly woke up one morning and you saw the Roman road builders coming in, just carving away through your territory to build a road from A to B, I think you'd think, "Blimey, this is the tough face of Roman power," but it meant that people were joined up more than they'd ever been before. And that, in the terms of the Roman Empire, facilitated all kinds of movements of people and trade and goods. 

Now, these roads probably were not built in order to facilitate the movements of ordinary people like me; they were built to move armies, and, in a sense, to mark Roman power on the landscape. But the effect was you could kind of get places for the first time. What we're just beginning to realize is how mobile a community the Roman Empire was. People moved around it, recent work on Roman skeletons, and really analyzing all the traces that you can find in a skeleton of where people have come from suggests that as many as 20% of people in Roman towns in Britain-and Britain was a backwater in the Roman Empire- 20% of people came probably from overseas, or at least far away. And that is all underpinned by a transport network. I think the Romans would have been hugely delighted if they'd ever thought that they could fly, or travel at supersonic speeds, or zoom across the Mediterranean in motor-powered boats, but leaving that aside, communication was absolutely central to what the Romans did.

NARRATOR: What kinds of ideas traveled along Roman roads?

BEARD: One of the ways you can see the Roman Empire is it's the worldwide web of its day. And it's linked and it enjoys communications which bring cultures together that have never been brought together before. You find people fetching up from really distant places, thousands of miles away. And one of my favorite guys is a man called Barates. We don't exactly know what he did, but he came from Palmyra in Syria, and he fetched up on Hadrian's Wall. Now you start to think, what on Earth must a Syrian from Palmyra have thought about the culture he discovered in the cold north of Britain? You can only start to imagine, but it does give you a hint of the kind of communication openings, the change of horizons and perspectives, the ability to meet new people and new ideas that the Roman Empire offered. 

Now, I think we shouldn't be hugely liberal about the Roman Empire. They weren't setting out somehow to connect the world for holy good and nice purposes. This was a conquering brutal empire, but one of the things that followed from that was a change in the way the world looked and the way people thought. I always find it rather touching that you see on the walls, painted on the walls of houses in Pompeii- which was also a bit of a backwater in the Roman Empire- it's very famous today, but it wasn't famous then, and only famous because it got destroyed. You find these quite ordinary houses, and what have they got on their walls? They have got scenes, exotic scenes of the Nile and of Egyptian life. Now, in some ways these are kind of slightly xenophobic scenes because according to the artists of Pompeii, very weird things happen on the Nile. It's a kind of topsy-turvy world where crocodiles might eat you at any turn, and little pygmies are tempted to play with the animals in rather disgusting ways, but if you were to think about an ordinary town of 12,000 people anywhere in Europe in let's say the 13th or 14th century, they wouldn't have had a vision at all. Even if it's a fantastic vision, they wouldn't have had a vision at all of what Egypt was like. So it's a world in which horizons have been opened. They might have been opened for bad, brutal, militaristic purposes, but they still opened.

NARRATOR: Did they really eat anchovy-stuffed mice?

BEARD: One of the images that we have about Roman food comes from Roman imaginative literature and it presents something extremely exotic. People are eating dormice stuffed with anchovies and honey, and they're all like we all see in the movies, reclining on couches, and eating these rather strange concoctions, haute cuisine, and saying things like, "Oh, do pass the grapes, Marcus, this will be lovely." And it is certainly the case that some bits of Roman dining were like that. There is an extraordinary Roman cookery book that survives, which I think was probably as little used in the ancient world as most posh modern cookery books are used in our world. It was a kind of sense of what you might cook and all sorts of weird and wonderful mixtures with local, but also exotic ingredients. There were herbs that are coming from the East, spices, pepper, all mixed up together in extraordinary lavish concoctions, but most people didn't eat like that. 

And one of the things that has really transformed what we know about ordinary people's Roman eating, the kind of things that I would've eaten in the ancient world, is a whole range now of scientific analysis, particularly on the contents of Roman lavatories. In Herculaneum, the town which is very close to Pompeii, and was also destroyed in the eruption of 79, one of the most extraordinary recent discoveries has been a cesspit, which was underneath a pretty modest ordinary block of flats. And it was the cesspit that took completely unmediated the contents of every lavatory in the building and just let it rot there. Archeologists have recently found this cesspit and they bagged it all up and actually taken it from Italy to Oxford to be analyzed- it isn't quite as disgusting as you would imagine. I mean, human excrement after 2,000 years looks a bit like rather nice fine soil, actually, but what they've been able to do is to go microscopically through what was the content of the lavatory, what had gone through the digestive tracks of the people in this ordinary apartment block. And they're coming out with a wonderful picture from that of what real people really ate that isn't actually dormice stuffed with anchovy and honey. It is fruit and figs and pomegranates. A few kind of imported things like pepper, eggs, chicken, pork. And the people of Herculaneum, probably because they lived near the sea, were very good at exploiting sea life, too. And it's absolutely clear that one of their favorite foods was sea urchins, because there are very clear traces in this decomposed excrement of sea urchin spikes. Makes you think it might've been a bit uncomfortable, but it's certainly a good sign that these people were eating a standard local, pretty healthy diet, actually, although with a little bit of imported stuff mixed in. 

What you don't see so much of because of the way the analysis goes is the other staple, obviously for people in the ancient world, which is bread. And so people are eating bread, rather rough bread because if you look at their teeth, a lot of people in the ancient world had kind of better teeth than us because they're not drinking fizzy drinks, but they're not as good as people make out. And they do tend to get terribly worn down because all their life they're eating this bread, which basically got stones in it. And so they get very, very abraded teeth, but I think we can be fairly optimistic about a sort of decent kind of diet for people at the ordinary level of Roman society. That's not the very poor, but people with a job and living at a reasonable level of comfort were eating simply, but nicely.

NARRATOR: Was sex culture in ancient Rome as wild as everyone says?

BEARD: Sex is one of the things that's always absolutely enticed us about the Roman Empire. And the Roman Empire was always represented, the place where people did frightful things and where in a sense there were no sexual rules, anything went, everybody had a good time. And there are indeed wonderful stories about the excesses of Roman emperors and their wives. There's a very famous Roman Empress, Messalina, who was the wife of the slightly dodgery old Emperor Claudius. And she is supposed to have challenged the prostitutes of Rome to a competition to see how many men they could sleep with in a single night. And, of course, Messalina beat all the prostitutes. Now some of this might be going on, some of this, but I suspect that just as those kind of exploits of Roman emperors are our fantasies, you know, can we think of the most amazing things that people can get up to? So, also, they would have fantasies of Roman writers, too, when they kind of invented these stories about people in power. And I think there are very, very important differences between ancient sexual behavior and our own, but they're not quite so clearly in the level of absolute excess. And I think for a woman the biggest thing, the biggest difference you'd see is a complete double standard. In an ordinary Roman household, the woman was expected to be absolutely faithful to her husband, no sex with anyone else. The husband, it was quite all right for him to sleep with the slaves, male and female, anybody he fancied, there was no such restraint on him. And, of course, that relates in a way back to the basic anxieties and worries of a very patriarchal community such as Rome; that the man's anxiety was always that his wife's child was really his. So you make sure that your wife sleeps with nobody else, but as for you, it really doesn't matter. 

And I think one of the bleakest places, actually, that you can go to in the whole of the Roman world now is the one surviving purpose-built brothel in Pompeii. And it's certainly a brothel there's absolutely no mistaking it. You walk into the front door and there's five little cubicles, narrow, dark, just a single bed in them, sort of wide single bed. And you got one lavatory at the back, and very crude, but erotic paintings all over the walls. And it's the biggest tourist attraction naturally now in Pompeii. And people go in and they tend to think of the clients coming here and visiting, choosing which girl to have. And there's lots of graffiti on the walls, explaining in quite graphic detail what they got up to, what kind of good time they had, but I go in and I think, "Gosh, some people were working here." The working girls were spending their life tending to the sexual freedom, allowing the sexual freedom of the male population while they lived in what was essentially a cupboard, dark gloomy cupboard. I think it's quite an eye-opener when it comes to ancient sexual norms, which is a bit more down-to-Earth than the sexual exploits of Roman emperors and their wives.

NARRATOR: How did average Romans make money?

BEARD: The Roman Empire is a very highly monetized economy. We know that because everywhere you dig up a Roman building, a Roman site, what do you find? You find coins. Lots of coins changing hands. People carrying coins around in their pocket. They're shopping much like we do now. To a very large extent, the Roman Empire is a big single market. You can use Roman coinage wherever you go from Spain to Syria. That I think is something which was really entirely new. The Empire brought some sort of economic unity, but I think we have to be a bit careful before we assume it's too much like us. 

First of all, the Roman state doesn't have any monetary policy. We're used to there being a department in the government which controls minting policy, coinage, the money supply, economic activity- there was nothing like that in Rome. And the main reason for minting money was not actually to facilitate trade, certainly not small-scale buying and selling. The Roman government, the Roman emperors minted money in order to basically pay the army, and to pay for public services, and to do things like build roads and temples and aqueducts. It was state financing, and trade was a kind of offshoot of that. So there's a strained ambivalence there I think that it seems very much like us. People are shopping in the streets and they're paying a couple of pence for a glass of wine in the bars that line the city streets, but there isn't any direction of that economy. It's a kind of entirely unregulated economy. And I think that trade is hugely important in the Roman Empire. 

The Mediterranean is a big crossover point of shipping going from one end of the sea to the other. There is enormous amounts of stuff coming into Rome itself. Olives and olive oil from Spain and from North Africa, and grain pouring in. And Rome by the time you get to the first century B.C., the era let's say of Julius Caesar, is a city of a million people. And it's really sucking in enormous quantities of material that people are making a lot of cash out of, actually, there are people getting rich on the back of this. There's a lovely little town I visited recently really inside Turkey about three hours from the coast, the town of Hierapolis. And you can tell that from the way the people of Hierapolis commemorate themselves, they've got a fantastic textile industry going on thousands of miles away from Rome. There's one guy who boasts on his tombstone that he's made over 80 journeys to Italy in the course of his lifetime, presumably taking textiles to flog in Rome. So there is a lot of this stuff going on. There's a lot of movement. There are a lot of fortunes being made, honestly, but it still isn't anything like what we have now. I think there's still a big difference in that most people actually are not living in towns. They're living in the country. Towns are very highly trading communities, very economically generated. In the country, the amount of trading that's going on is not much. The amount of stuff that people are eating on little farms has not come from anywhere else but the radius of about 10 miles. And there is always an expense, a big expense in the kind of long-term, long-distance trade that in some ways marks out the very upper echelons of the trading market at Rome. It does cost a lot of money to move things from one end of the Roman Empire to another. There are people with a lot of money to buy, so that's fine, but it is expensive and it's quite dangerous. And one of the ways that we've got some of the best glimpses into the sort of trading activities that's going on are from shipwrecks at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, which, of course, tells its own tale that an awful lot of these cargoes didn't actually make it. So in some ways, very like ourselves, it's a monetized world that we could feel pretty familiar with, but there are some definite distinct differences from our own day.

NARRATOR: Tell us more about war and the military.

BEARD: Rome is an extremely, highly militarized society in a way that is, I think, inconceivable to us. The level of military activity, it sort of approaches what we were familiar with in the First and Second World Wars, but kind of for long stretches of time. I think one of the things that you should always remember about Rome is that it was a culture in which it wasn't war that broke out, it was peace that broke out. The standard kind of position that Roman society was in was one that was at war. That said, we do have to realize that Rome probably wasn't much different in its militaristic ambitions from other cultures. We tend to think of the Romans as unusually devoted to warfare, conquest, pretty brutal and bloody conquests. And they certainly were devoted to that, but so was everybody in the ancient world. There was no culture in Mediterranean antiquity, Greece, Rome anyway, Italy, where people were a nice pacific sort of society where they'd much rather get on with doing their knitting than going out and thrashing their neighbors. This was a world in which disputes were fought out. 

There wasn't much, there was a bit, but not much diplomacy. It was the rule of warfare that in a way affects almost every way in which Roman society saw itself. You go to the top, the upper echelons of Roman culture and you say, "What would a rich, young boy in a powerful family what would be his greatest ambition in life?" Those ambitions I think would include getting rich, getting richer, getting elected to office, a nice villa on the coast, whatever, but the crowning glory for a young Roman, as he looked at his future, his dream would've been to celebrate a triumphal procession. And that was something that was granted only to Roman generals who were superbly successful. If you went and you thrashed loads of the enemy, in other words, you could come back to Rome, you could process through the streets in a fantastically elaborate chariot. You would have your soldiers behind you kind of cheering you on, and you would have your prisoners and all the loot that you got in front processed through the streets to the admiring crowds. We think of little kids dreaming of being president, or in the U.K. dreaming of being prime minister. Little kids in Rome would've dreamt about military glory and the triumphal procession as the acme of their ambitions. 

There's two things which strike me as quite odd, given that intense militarism: And one is that soldiers were not allowed in the city of Rome itself. So if you had come to visit Rome, you would, I think, in many cases been struck by how that it was a demilitarized zone. The only occasion that soldiers were allowed into the city was actually on the occasion of triumph when they cheered their general on. Otherwise, they were kept out. And so you've got a very strong sense of the center of the Roman Empire being entirely, almost entirely soldier-free. The emperors eventually got a few Praetorian Guard to be effectively bodyguards, but you don't get legions; the Roman legions don't come into the city. And as the Roman Empire goes on, as it ceases to be actively doing very much conquest in terms of expanding into new territory, but becomes much more a sort of low-level occupying policing force, then you find these army barracks being much more family-friendly than most army barracks that we're used to. 

There have been some very interesting excavations recently. The little fort very near Hadrian's Wall in the north of Britain, a place called Vindolanda, where one of the units that was essentially manning Hadrian's Wall, a kinda big wall, defensive wall, that ran along the north of Britain. What's been discovered at Vindolanda has shown quite how mixed and rather domestic community it was. So not only do you find loads and loads of little shoes which show there must have been quite a few children running around this apparently rather bloke-ish army camp, but a whole range of personal letters on wax tablets, or on what remains of the wood of wax tablets have been found where you can see that their wives up there, you know, having perfectly ordinary lives right in the middle of an army camp. So in due course, I think, and I don't imagine that this is the case when the Romans are really actively pushing out the boundaries of the Empire, but in due course, this militarism comes quite domesticated in its way, it's quite a family sort of enterprise, even though soldiers technically weren't allowed to marry, it's clear that they effectively did.

NARRATOR: What is there to learn from Ancient Rome?

BEARD: I think it's always very hard to learn lessons from Rome, learn direct lessons. I don't think that certainly there's much where we can say, "Oh look, the Romans did that and we should do it too." There are I have to say quite a lot of things that the Romans did things extremely badly. I wouldn't have fancied being a woman in the Roman Empire, and I certainly wouldn't have fancied being a slave. So we can see them as offering a rather anti-model of how you should treat women and the conquered. And I think that Rome makes us think differently about some of the problems that we have and which they face, too. 

One of those most obviously, and particularly relevant, at the beginning of the 21st century is ideas of migration and citizenship. Currently, refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, one of the biggest crises that certainly the continent of Europe, but also the world more widely faces. I think for me very instructive to look back to Rome, and to see in Rome a world where there was no such thing as an illegal migrant. That would've been absolutely incomprehensible to a Roman, where there was free movement of people, where people were granted citizenship by the Romans very freely. There was no such thing as a citizenship test. You didn't have to salute the flag. You didn't have to sing the national anthem. You didn't have to pay a fee. Rome was an incorporating society. And indeed, when Rome thought about its very origins, who founded Rome, and they told elaborate fantastic mythical stories, like the story of Romulus and Remus who founded Rome for being discovered and suckled by the wolf on the banks of the Tiber, or a different story, but equally popular, how the Roman race was founded by Aeneas who had been a Trojan hero in the great war between the Greeks and the Trojans at Troy. Aeneas had fled from Troy to find a new city in Italy when his own had been defeated. 

You look at those kind of stories, you discover that Romans are imagining their origins in terms of being a home for refugees like Aeneas. And very interestingly, when Romulus actually found the city that was on the site of Rome itself, and he looks around and he thinks, 'Help, I haven't got any citizens apart from a couple of lads and nothing much more, what does he do?' He puts up a notice and sends messages around saying, 'Rome is a place of asylum. Any runaway, any criminal, any asylum seeker can come to Rome and be a Roman citizen.' It's extraordinary- and perhaps rather more like some American founding myths than some British founding myths- it's quite extraordinary to see for me a culture which traces its origin back to migrants and refugees and asylum seekers. Now I think it's very important to say we can't just take that as a model of what to do ourselves. It would be slightly crazy to say, "Oh, because Rome was an open city and welcomed asylum seekers, etc., so should we." We're living in a different world, but I think what's important is simply the realization that there is another culture back then that had a very, very different view from the view that we now tend to hold. And it helps you put that view, your own view in perspective. It helps you to see that view from the outside. The Romans would look at us and they'd look at what's happening on the beaches of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, their world, and they would be amazed and horrified, just as we are horrified by some of the things that they did.

NARRATOR: What drew you to study this particular period in history?

BEARD: I first got into ancient history, I think, one's always rather suspicious of one's own memories of one's childhood, but I think I first got into it when I was about five. I lived in very rural parts of the United Kingdom about 200 miles from London. And my mum decided when I was five that I should go to the British Museum and see the British Museum. And I remember two things about that visit: One was she took me to see the Elgin Marbles, the sculpture from the Parthenon, which is actually quite controversially held in Britain, and much wanted back by the Greeks- that's quite another story. She took me to see this fifth-century B.C. sculpture. And I remember being absolutely bowled over by it for one very simple reason: that I'd always imagined that people in the past couldn't do things as well as us. Somehow I picked up, I had a very basic crude image of human progress. And here two-and-a-half thousand years ago, in fifth century Athens, was this amazing sculpture that I couldn't imagine anybody really being able to do now. And so, that sparked my attention I think about the ancient world as a whole. And I later became more interested in Rome, but the idea that antiquity could be interesting and could speak to you started then. 

But something else happened on that visit, which was equally formative, which is that we went, of course, to see the Egyptian collection because everybody wants to go and see the mummies and things in the British Museum. And I remember going to look at a case. After we'd seen the mummies, we went to look at a case, a very old-fashioned display then this was about 1960, and there was a case which was rather too high for me to see into when I was little. And in it it had got all sorts of things from daily life of ancient Egypt, including a piece of carbonized cake, which must have been about 5,000 years old. And I was absolutely entranced by this carbonized cake, but I couldn't quite see it. And a man walked past as I was straining to see, and my mom was lifting me up. And he must've been, I dunno who he was, but he must've been one of the curators because he got the key out and he opened the case and he got the cake out for me to look at, which I did, thanked him profusely, and he then put the cake back and went on. And I think there was something terribly important for me about that because it wasn't just, I think, that I was realizing that the past was interesting. I was also realizing that there were people who'd help you see it. There were people who'd open it up for you, that these cases weren't always going to be closed- they could be opened. And I dunno who that guy was, but I'll thank him forever.

NARRATOR: In the age of information, how should we record history?

BEARD: History is changing all the time. And it's changing because of new techniques, new methods of retrieval, in ways I think that would've been just inconceivable even when I started my career as a historian. I went a few weeks to go to meet some scientists who could, actually, by analyzing the teeth of Roman skeletons, were beginning to tell where those skeletons- in what climatic conditions- those skeletons had been brought up because apparently our adult teeth preserve in them- I mean, even for us-the traces, the environmental traces of the place we were living when they were forming. And you suddenly started to see that it was beginning to be possible to actually track life histories of skeletal remains that in the past we've been able to say relatively little about. And that's only just one tiny part of all the enormously different ways that we can now access information about the parts often, scientifically and archeologically, as well as through literature. And I think it makes a big problem for us because in some ways there's a danger of there being information overload. Can you preserve everything? Can you squeeze the information out of everything? Where do you stop? If you're not gonna turn everybody in the country into a historian, then how are you going to make decisions about what to do and what to keep and what to analyze? And I think that's where big historical questions, and the idea of what our relationship and our conversation with the past is going to be comes in because I think history it's not a science, or it's not an art, I'm not quite sure what it is, that simply uncovers the facts about the past and then moves on. 

History is a conversation that we have with the past; our input into the historical narrative is extremely important. And I think with so much information becoming available to us that makes it all the more important. And I'm not gonna say exactly what I think it should be, but it makes it all the more important for us to be much more clear about what we want to know about the past. Now that will change and people in 50 years' time will wanna know different things. That's all fine, but we in a sense, I think, have to trust our own questions to help us sift what material we've got to help us prioritize certain techniques, certain questions, certain answers. And I think the other thing that we have to do is to be very well aware that it's only going to get bigger. It's only going to get more technical, and there's going to be more answers that we're going to be able to get in 50 or 100 years' time. And that I quite often go back to the idea of Pompeii, you know, tremendous Roman town out of which we're squeezing new information all the time, in terms of what we can say about often the human remains, but not just that, you know, how the paint is made, how the buildings are done, all kinds of, you know, the seeds that are still left in the environment of Pompeii can tell us what was growing there. What's important to me is that one-third of Pompeii is entirely unexcavated. And the important thing is, I think to leave it so, so that our future generations, our successors get a chance to ask their questions and to use their answers and their techniques to squeeze it. I don't think there's any right answer. There's no right way of deciding how to organize history. I think we have to be a combination of confident in our own questions, and a little bit humble.

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