Mary Beard is a classics professor at University of Cambridge. Her books have covered everything from ancient art to Roman laughter. Her honors include a National Book Critics Circle Award. She is a public intellectual in the old-school sense of narrating BBC specials, as well as adding a contemporary twist with an active Twitter account and a blog. Her most recent book SPQR: A history of Ancient Rome was published earlier this year. The Smart Set editor Richard Abowitz reached Beard for this interview by phone in her hotel room in Philadelphia, where she was scheduled to make an appearance at the Free Library of Philadelphia later in the evening. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

TSS: Let me start by asking about one of the many Roman oddities: for people that were so concerned with their genealogy — so obsessed, as you point out, that they would put great effort to fabricate it back to the founders of Rome and mythic kings — they seemed remarkably willing to accept outsiders as Romans and as emperors and as consuls.
More… “When In Rome”

Richard Abowitz is the editor of The Smart Set. Get in touch at


In one of the most famous political cartoons of the 1830s, President Andrew Jackson stands in the pose of a triumphant Roman emperor below the soaring Roman columns of his mansion, the Hermitage. He unfurls a decree, indicating his order to withdraw U.S. Treasury funds from the Bank of the United States (B.U.S.), the nation’s central bank. Jupiter’s thunderbolts emanating from the scroll zap the Greek Doric columns of the Bank, knocking it and the Bank’s president Nicholas Biddle, a noted Grecophile, to the ground.

The politician Charles Ingersoll likened Biddle’s fate at the hands of Jackson to Acteon, an unwitting victim of Greek mythology, ripped apart by “dogs” who, in better days for the Bank, “licked his hands and fawned on his footsteps.” In other cartoons during the period of the Bank War, as the fight over the political and economic role of the central bank came to… More…

The funny thing about Rome is that anyone can invoke it. The whole death-to-Caesar thing is popular. John Wilkes Booth seems like something of a quack, quoting Brutus’ “Sic semper tyrannis” as he jumped to the stage after shooting Lincoln. But Abigail Adams thought the same of George III, and signed her wartime letters to her husband John with the name “Portia” — Brutus’ wife. Everyone also seems to love thinking themselves Rome to their enemies’ Carthage. Washington’s victory over Britain was often compared to Rome’s ultimate victory in the Punic Wars. But back before the war ended, Britain’s Charles Van told Parliament, “Delenda est Carthago” (“Carthage must be destroyed”) in discussing the trouble with the colonies — lines spoken by Cato the Elder when Carthage broke the treaty ending the Second Punic War. Tyrants and Carthage, it seems, are in the eye of the oppressed and those facing a… More…

Everyone loves a party open to all comers, and the emperors of Rome were history’s most magnanimous hosts. But while their citizens were accustomed to lavish freebies, living as they did on grain handouts and endless public entertainments, one particular day — April 21, 248 A.D. — must have stood out as the ultimate bash. That was when the ancient megalopolis hosted the world’s first and most opulent millennial celebrations, marking 1,000 years since the city’s foundation by the shepherd Romulus.

It was the mother of all anniversaries, and everything was laid on.

At the time, the empire had been weathering some hard knocks — the early third century had seen repeated barbarian incursions and civil strife — but Rome was still the undisputed… More…