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Flamingos’ Tongues and the Republic’s Decline

Mary Beard is Britain’s “most beloved intellectual”

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The auditorium was packed to hear a classicist with a sense of humor. Mary Beard’s latest book was published recently. She was reviewed in The New York Times. She also was in Portland, Oregon, to speak in a book series. In this event, a respected interviewer talked to her as she sat in a chair and he sat in a chair in a faux living room on the stage.She was reviewed in The New York Times. She also was in Portland, Oregon, to speak in a book series. In this event, a respected interviewer talked to her as she sat in a chair and he sat in a chair in a faux living room on the stage.

Her book Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World is the story of Emperors as told through daily life, not in chronological order but by themes, such as meals. Dining with the emperor could be many things, including dangerous.

She talks of emperors securing flamingos’ tongues as an ingredient — rare and expensive, still the hallmarks of elite dining.

Beard writes about a system filled with treachery and double-think.

The emperor’s power “warped the senses, and it thrived in malevolent chaos.” It eroded trust and encouraged suspicion, according to the Times reviewer.

I was taken with the idea that the Roman Republic morphed into the Roman Empire, and each lasted about 500 years. We in modern democracies are conditioned to think we are an evolving society, and democracy is the natural order of things and is aspirational.

Authoritarianism succeeded democracy

Not everyone thinks so, then or now. Authoritarianism succeeded democracy — well, technically republicanism in Rome.

Mary Beard did not make any political points or any comparisons between the Roman Empire and countries’ leaderships now. She didn’t have to. One can learn the stories and the facts, such as what we are told by history or the writings and archeology from the times, and draw our conclusions.

The Emperors, once they gained power, were obsessed with retaining power. Poison was a popular ingredient, maybe as popular as it is with Putin. It’s why they had royal tasters.

Diners at the emperor’s banquets reclined while they ate. I guess their physicians weren’t worried about gastrointestinal reflux then. Since one hand might be needed for propping, one hand was primarily for eating.

Oh, and the citizen’s physician might be a slave. Like many empires, slavery was rampant, although it was conquered countries that produced slaves. The empire’s economy depended on cheap or free labor.

Slavery was independent of race. The emperors of Rome included men from far reaches of the Empire. It is a bit challenging to know how race was regarded if it was at all, but it appears to have been inconsequential.

Mary Beard also gives examples of how some emperors humiliated or insulted their guests. I guess it was one of those dinner invitations you don’t want to accept but must.

One of the fanciest dinner theaters was exactly that — tables, reclining seats around a pool, and a stage on one side for performances of various sorts.

The emperor trusts no one

The classicist also discussed how the emperor could trust no one. Surrounded by sycophants, one wonders who could be a truth-teller to the Emperor. Emperors could decide on their heir, who was not necessarily the oldest son. The possibility of adopting someone as an adult, for example, kept people positioning and jockeying at the court. Ah, treachery.

When I was the director of a rather small organization, I found I was always the last to know, and it’s a problem for managers. Few people are willing to tell the truth to power, even little truths to very limited power.

The writer, Mary Beard, is known for writing about daily life in ancient times. Why focus on the Emperors? For one reason, we learn much about daily life from written requests, reports, etc., to the Emperor. The Emperor might be four months by mail away from an inquirer, but still, the emperor was the resource of last resort. For example, a dispute about a chamber pot dropped from a window, and subsequent death came to the emperor’s attention. The emperor ruled that the person who dropped the pot did so in self-defense.

What did I learn from Beard?

She acknowledged that it would have been impossible for her to be a world-renowned classicist as a woman in a previous generation. She is recently retired, a former don at the University of Cambridge.

She talks about coming into her own in her 50s. It’s not that she wasn’t working hard — but like many women, she was raising children while working. She held a job as an educator at Cambridge. The Guardian says “In the Cult of Mary Beard” that she walked out to give a lecture to Cambridge and Oxford students:

…Mary came on and said: ‘Well, you’ve heard what the boys have got to say.’ And you could see that she’d already won everyone’s hearts.”

Everyone who has met Beard seems to have a story about encountering her for the first time — usually involving her rigorous intellect, her total lack of formality, and her sense of mischief.

The Guardian further described her as the “late blooming classic’s don who became Britain’s most beloved intellectual.”

She looks like one of my neighbors. Long gray hair, loose, grandma-former-hippie style clothing.

Oh, the other things I learned at the talk by Mary Beard:

— Autocracy thrives in chaos.

— Absolute power is poison, both literally and metaphorically.

— Many people can have investments in autocracy, preferential treatment, and power.

— Democracy requires a lot of work and is not the choice of all people.

And she — you or I — can use humor to lighten even the most serious of issues.

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  1. SingingFrogPress
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    This looks like a fascinating book–and I’m grateful to be reminded that Progress is never inevitable. We need something richer to put our faith in. Mostly I feel like I’m moving around blindly in a dark forest trying to find a path home, whatever home is.

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