Book Review: Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World


by Mary Beard,

Liveright / W. W. Norton, 2023. Pp. xviii, 492+. Illus., maps, personae, chron., biblio., index. $39.99. ISBN: 0871404222

On Emperors and “Emperorship”

Brilliant British classicist Beard, author of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, The Roman Triumph, and many other works in ancient history, gives us not a reign-by-reign look at the history of the emperors but rather a look at the evolution of the functions and powers of the emperor, how various emperors performed in office, and what it meant to be emperor. It’s rather like a job description or handbook of “emperoring,” illustrated with examples drawn from the experiences of the men who held supreme power from Caesar (48-44 B.C.) and Augustus (r. 30 B.C.-A.D. 14) through the reign of Severus Alexander (r. A.D. 222-238).

Beard opens with an introduction looking at the rise of one-man rule during the late Republic. We then get a series of chapters discussing various aspects of “emperorship” and the ways in which various emperors ruled, often told with Beard’s characteristic amusing, witty, or insightful commentary. We get a look at the many aspects of the life, work, and death of an emperor: how to become emperor, imperial dining, “the palace” and “the court,” the work load, emperor as warrior, the imperial portrait, imperial pastimes and travel, personal relationships, emperor as bureaucrat, and more, including imperial exits, as it were.

Some readers will be surprised as Beard offers rather favorable comments at times about supposedly villainous or maniacal emperors, such as Caligula, Nero, Domitian, and Elagabalus, while noting how some “good” emperors, like Claudius (with an amusing dig at Derek Jacobi), Trajan, and Hadrian, don’t necessarily measure up to their reputations.

Beard frequently reminds us that most of what we know about all of the emperors comes from secondary sources. These were often done by authors seeking to please later rulers, and frequently written generations after the events described, leaving us to wonder as to their accuracy.

Emperor of Rome is an insightful, erudite, and often delightful look at the job of emperor and what it meant to be emperor.




Note: Emperor of Rome is also available in audio & e-editions.

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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