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It wasn't et tu, Brute? Mary Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, and she spent her career studying Rome. She's written a dozen books. She also does TV and radio documentaries, writes a well-read blog and has become somewhat famous for taking on Internet trolls. Beard's new book covers about a thousand years of Roman history, but it isn't just kings and emperors. She offers insights into the reasons for Rome's prosperity and military expansion and provides fresh interpretations of turning points in Roman history.

Stay tuned for her take on bar culture in ancient Rome. I'd like to start with an interesting contrast you draw between two murders, one probably the most memorable event in Roman history - the assassination of Julius Caesar - and then another some decades later of the Emperor Gaius because it tells us something about the transition of Rome from a republic, when there was a senate and elected consuls who had some authority, to this era where there were truly strongman emperors. First, remind us of the circumstances of the assassination of Julius Caesar.

He'd come back to Rome wanting to go straight into political office again, that was going to be a problem. So effectively he invades his hometown, and sooner rather than later establishes himself as dictator, one-man rule. The whole principal of the Roman Republic was opposed to anything that smacked of kingship, one-man rule for any long period.

Julius Caesar flouts this. He's not around for very long. He's off fighting other things. He's not in Rome very much. But back in Rome, there is a very strong sense that liberty - the liberty of the Roman people is being removed by Caesar as an autocrat. And a group of actually his friends stab him in the Senate house in the middle of a public meeting in order to remove the tyrant. They say they're explicitly doing us in order to restore liberty to the people, to get over this small intermezzo of one-man rule in the history of Rome. What happens is further civil war, and they get one-man rule forever because the upshot is a series of autocratic emperors of which Julius Caesar in some way was the first.

It's interesting, you point out that an assassination in Roman days meant you had to get close to your victim and - and things could go wrong. But this assassination, like most Roman assassinations, was stabbing. And the more you read about it, despite the heroic image we get in Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," for example, the more seedy and tawdry and messy it seems to have been. Some of the assassins stab each other by mistake, and they escape with their lives but with a lot of blood all over them. Caesar looks up at his friends who are killing him, and Caesar - in Shakespeare's famous version, which we all remember - he says et tu, Brute, which is one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history, except it certainly isn't what Caesar ever said.

It was a marvelous invention by Shakespeare. What Caesar is supposed to have said, speaking in Greek as he looked at Brutus - he said, and you, my child? Suggesting probably that he was just shocked that his younger friends and his younger associates and colleagues could be doing this to him. DAVIES: All right, so then some decades later, the Emperor Gaius - he was maybe the third or fourth of the Roman emperors of the imperial period - is himself assassinated.

Tell us about that and why it's different. And he is reputedly - though if this was ever true - one of the worst and most excessive emperors in the history of Rome. He's the third emperor, an enormous number of lurid and frightfully - to many modern reader's I think appealing anecdotes circle around Caligula's name.

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He made his horse a consul, he had incest with his sisters. You name it, Caligula did it. I mean, there were a lot of stories that we doubt. You think that Caligula really was this twisted? But I think it's almost impossible now to know. The point is that once someone like Caligula's assassinated, the succeeding regime, in order to justify the assassination, builds up the wickedness of the guy they've killed.

And you really can't see through that any longer.

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  • But Caligula was young, a golden boy and extremely popular with the people. But clearly there were issues, we might say, in his relationship to the aristocracy and to other members of his family who were often vying in the Roman imperial system to make themselves emperor instead. And Caligula is murdered in seedier circumstances than Julius Caesar. He was attending the theater one day just by his palace.

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    He'd had a bit of a heavy night the evening before. And he decided he'd therefore skip lunch because he was feeling a bit queasy. He went off to his own private bath to try and, you know, make himself do something about his hangover, really. On the way, he gets jumped upon by some members of his own bodyguard, and he gets hacked to pieces.

    And his wife and daughter are killed, too. And I think what's interesting about that is that there's a nice or revealing contrast between Caesar's assassination and Caligula's, which I think tells you quite a lot about the changed political circumstances. Caesar in the end is killed in public. He's at a public meeting, members of the Senate - his friends and colleagues - do away with him in broad daylight in public view. It must've been a slightly unpleasant experience to watch if you're an ordinary Senator.

    But it's a very public occasion and it is done in the name of liberty. Caligula - or Gaius - he hated being called Caligula, so I think we have to try and call him Gaius because Caligula was the nickname that he had when he was a child. And he was going around army camps dressed in mockup soldiers' boots. And Caligula actually means boot kin ph. And Caligula, from everything we know, thought being called Boot Kin when he was in his 20s was no fun. So he liked to be called Gaius, and we should try to remember that. He is done away with in a sense in a private murder.

    This isn't in public. It's in a corridor of the palace, in his own home when he's on his way to his baths. And he's done away with by people who are his own bodyguard effectively. And their reason - although later, I think it got built up into ridding Rome of the tyrant that was governing them - a lot of the reasons were personal vendettas.

    One of the leading assassins had apparently felt extremely angry with Caligula, who constantly insulted him in various ways - suggesting that he was, you know, a frightfully effeminate man. And so you get a whole sense of an imperial inward-looking power full of private grudges, not an assassination for political principle. That's when Caesar's assassination occurs, and then Gaius is a bit after.

    I want to go back centuries before, when Rome was just one of a bunch of villages in the Italian countryside. Why did Rome - as opposed to any other village - become a regional power, acquiring territory, taking over its neighbors. And I think it's an even a bigger question than the one that we're more used to asking, which - why did it fall? But why does it rise is such a puzzle. In the end, I think we can't give any simple answer to that. But I do have a very strong hunch about what's going on here. And it relates - Rome's success relates to its views about its own citizenship, about incorporating its enemies into the Roman network, the Roman project, the Roman power structure.

    And I think you have to realize that most ancient warfare is really kind of hit-and-run, honestly. You go and you bash down the walls of some enemy 50 miles away, you take some slaves, you take some cattle - probably a bit of cash, too - and then you say goodbye and go home. And you probably do the same thing next year - or try to - or they do it to you. Now, Rome fundamentally changes the rules of that game. And when it bashes up one of its neighbors - and to begin with, it really isn't much more than cattle raiding in our terms - what they do is they establish a permanent relationship with the people that they have beaten, either making them allies or often making them Roman citizens.

    I don't think that's a generous move, particularly. It may well be that the people made Roman citizens did not want to become Roman citizens, but that's the Roman model. And the consequence of that because the main obligation of either alliance or citizenship was to provide troops for the Roman army. The consequence of that is very quickly Rome gets more boots on the ground than anybody else. And it's boots on the ground that win ancient campaigns.

    And people don't win because they have clever military hardware, and they don't often win because they have clever military tactics. They win because there's more of them. And they can - and actually often do - lose battles. And they lose battles rather more often I think than we imagine - we imagine the Romans always winning - they don't, but they don't lose wars. Once they've lost a battle, they've got more troops in reserve to bring up. And in a sense, it becomes a spiraling, self-feeding thing.

    They conquer more people, they get more resources in terms of manpower. They get a bigger beginnings of an empire, and it goes on and on and on. She is a professor of classics at Cambridge University. And if you're just joining us, we're speaking with Mary Beard; she is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has written many books about ancient Rome.

    We were talking about early Rome. And there's a fascinating difference in the way Rome developed. You know, I always think of - that before the Industrial Revolution, there was just never enough food or other goods to make everybody in any society comfortable. So scarcity was a fact of life. Most people were poor and exploited. And, you know, conflicts were decided by verdicts of force. And so things tended towards strongmen and dictators. It was a brutal world. But Rome, somehow, goes a different direction and develops ideas of citizenship.

    Even when they had kings, they weren't hereditary. They were chosen. A Senate develops. What's happening here? BEARD: You know, it's a very, very different model from what we often imagine about a primitive community. And Athens - 5th century Athens - developed something we now call democracy. Rome never quite has that, but it appears to very quickly see that what is absolutely central to being Roman and to being a Roman citizen is the liberty of the Roman citizen, their right to independence and their right, crucially, not to be subject to arbitrary violence from their own officials.

    You've got - one thing that goes with Roman citizenship is the right to a fair and free trial. Why they did this - it's a different model from Athens - there must be something very deep in Roman history which is pushing them away from the idea of one-man rule. But it becomes the founding principle of their republic. I mean, it's been portrayed in so many films and TV series.

    And there are, you know, a lot of famous ones - "Ben-Hur," "I, Claudius. This is a scene from "Life Of Brian. Let's listen. They've taken everything we had, and not just from us, from our fathers and from our fathers' fathers. All right, Stan, don't labor the point. And what have they ever given us in return? Remember what the city used to be like?

    I'll grant you the aqueduct and sanitation are two things the Romans have done. Obviously the roads. I mean, the roads go without saying, don't they? But apart from the sanitation, the aqueduct and the roads That's something we'd really miss, Reg, if the Romans left. Let's face it, they're the only ones who could in a place like this. CLEESE: As Reg All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us? And, you know, it brings up this question of Romans and their relationships with foreigners.

    And you've talked about how the early Romans, after they conquered folks in other communities in Italy, would require that they serve in their armies. But it seems that, in general, they embraced foreigners far more than other ancient societies did. I mean, it's - as slaves and as conquered people and - it just was a different perspective on other people. They seem to be entirely unique, so far as we can tell, in the ancient Mediterranean world. Now, that doesn't mean that they were nice. I mean, we have to put out of our heads any sense that the Romans were nice, lovely liberals.

    But when they conquered, their general pattern was to embrace and incorporate the foreigner, not to exclude them. And like every other ancient community, they took slaves, originally, as the fruit of Roman conquest. But the Romans regularly freed their slaves.

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    I mean, slavery for most urban slaves in the Roman world was a temporary status, not a permanent one. And - but what was really extraordinary was that when they freed their slaves, they made them pretty well full Roman citizens. So you get the most radically mixed community in the ancient world. Estimates - and they are only very much guesstimates, I think - reckon that by the first or second centuries of the Common Era, roughly half the population of Rome are descended from slaves. And that means they're also ethnically diverse because the slaves are often the fruits of Roman conquest into the near East, in North Africa, across the Mediterranean.

    So probably more by accident than by design, Rome - the city - ends up as being a place where a million people are living. It's the biggest conurbation in the West until London in the early 19th century. It's a vast metropolis but a vast, diverse mixed and very ethnically mixed and culturally mixed metropolis. I'm Terry Gross. You know, it's interesting.

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    When you were talking about the time of Julius Caesar, you said that Rome itself, although it was a big city, it didn't have these huge, monumental buildings that we think of. There was a lot of concrete. I mean, I think when we shut our eyes and think what did ancient Rome look like, we have a very Hollywood image in our minds of, you know, shining white marble and planned architectural developments, amphitheaters and theaters and temples.

    And Rome eventually does become like that. If you went to Rome in the 2nd century of the common era, you'd find bits of Rome that really did look grand in that way. But that kind of grandeur doesn't start until the very and of the 1st century B. And when Rome is actually conquering most of the world that it conquers in the - from the 3rd to the 1st century B.

    They've got a million people in it by the 1st century B. That doesn't come till later and particularly it doesn't come until they find some useful, local marble suppliers, which they exploit, and they do start, as the first Emperor Gustavus says - he said he found Rome a city of brick and he left it a city of marble.

    And that is when the change comes and when it starts to look like we imagine it. How does a city of a million people function without electricity? Again, the other reason that this image that we have in our heads of Rome being all nice, clean, white, shining, sparkling marble public buildings and so on - why that must be wrong is that even if pockets of the city were like that, you were dealing with people in high-rise buildings without proper - you know, despite what laughter what the "Life Of Brian" would have you imagine.

    BEARD: You know, there was water coming in, but they didn't have - you know, if you're living on the fifth floor of an apartment block, you don't have, you know, a lavatory with running water.

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    And you probably don't have any cooking equipment. Or if you do have cooking equipment, you're really in danger of burning the whole place down when your brazier hearth falls over. So we're dealing with the most extraordinary mixture in our terms of public grandeur and real private slums and squalor. And we have wonderful accounts - probably rather exaggerated accounts - by Romans who talk about all the dangers of living in the city. You know, watch out if you go out at night because not only are there nasty criminals and muggers about who are going to try and rob you, but as you walk down the street, you know, you better watch what's coming from above because there are people pouring the contents of their chamber pots out of their upper window onto your head.

    And you may well get hit by the pot itself, and then you're dead. What were the bars like? How common were they? They were places where people went to get extremely drunk, to gamble and to pick up women and men. And the Roman elite were very, very sniffy about bars. The elite are often sniffy about the non-elite's pleasures. But actually, if you tried to see Roman culture a bit from the bottom up, the local bar or the local cafe was where people spent a lot of their time.

    They're living in very cramped conditions, often without proper cooking equipment and facilities. And I think you have to imagine the bars that you can still see very clearly in Pompeii kind of clinging around the crossroads as being a place of real popular culture in ancient Rome where people gambled, told jokes, had a good time relatively cheaply. I mean, food was served, right? What would people eat? BEARD: Yeah, sausages, cheese, wine, water and I'm afraid sometimes the barmaid was on the menu, too, so it seems from such graffiti that we have. It was good plain food and good plain enjoyment.

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