Lion Television’s Meet the Roman Emperor with Mary Beard

  • Date: 26th March 2024


The Roman Emperor was the ultimate symbol of power and authority in the ancient world – a measure against which dictators are still compared today. But with absolute power comes absolute paranoia…

In the one-hour documentary due to air on BBC Two and iPlayer on 8th April at 9pm, renowned classicist Mary Beard lifts the curtain on the emperors of Rome, exploring their ruthless use of power and how it was matched only by their greatest fear – that the power could be snatched away at any moment by the people closest to them.

As she peels back the layers of Roman propaganda and mythmaking, Mary takes us closer to the real Roman emperors, warts and all.  She introduces us to famous figures including Augustus, Nero, Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius, and to lesser-known characters like the fearful Domitian – who lined his walls with mirrored surfaces so he could see his enemies coming.  Mary considers how subjects would greet and gratify the emperor, and she peeks into the more intimate side of their lives, considering their sexual habits and their health.

Just as today we wonder what’s really going on behind the closed doors at Number 10, The White House or the Kremlin – ordinary Romans also wondered what their emperors got up to behind palace walls.  Mary takes us inside, travelling from Hadrian’s megalomaniac villa at Tivoli, to the submerged ruins of Claudius’ pleasure palace in the Bay of Naples.  With the help of fellow classicist Silvia Orlandi, Mary discovers smutty and satirical graffiti scratched into plaster by slaves, she explores body language with Italian etiquette expert Elisa Motterle and she debates Marcus Aurelius’ stoic journals with philosopher Angie Hobbs.

Ultimately, Mary concludes that despite their unimaginable wealth, their guards and their food tasters, the emperors were vulnerable, even within the vast palaces they called home….

Mary Beard says: We tend to fantasize about the absolute power of the Roman emperor. We imagine that he could do what he liked, didn’t have to lift a finger, and we’re drawn to the grandeur and the luxury. We might even envy it, but should we be careful what we wish for? Should the Emperor actually inspire as much pity as envy?”

Simon Young, Head of History, BBC Factual Commissioning, says: “From social media trends to museum exhibitions, ancient Rome is having a moment. And from the rise of Julius Caesar and the ruins of Pompeii to the lives of the emperors we’re giving audiences a fresh insight into how the Romans really lived, from the very top of society to the bottom. There is no-one better than Mary Beard to bring us up close and personal with Rome’s all-powerful leaders.”

Richard Bradley, Head of Lion Television, says: “At a time in the present when we watch on as leaders seize and wield absolute power, it feels the right time to scrutinise the Roman Emperors who set the template for dictatorship, 2,000 years ago.  And we are lucky to be filming in the very places they lived, ruled, partied and plotted.”

Meet the Roman Emperor with Mary Beard will air on BBC Two and iPlayer at 9pm on Monday 8th April. Mary Beard will also be returning to BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday 7th May for a second series of Being Roman, in which she rebuilds the lives of real citizens of the Roman empire.

Meet the Roman Emperor with Mary Beard, 1×60 for BBC Two and iPlayer was commissioned by Jack Bootle, Head of Commissioning, Specialist Factual, and the BBC Commissioning Editor is Simon Young, Head of History. It is made by Lion TV where the Director is Russell Barnes, the Producer is Helena Hunt, and the Executive Producers are Sarah Sarkhel and Richard Bradley.



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