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Mary Beard on Images of Power from the Ancient to the Modern World

Why images of Roman emperors still matter in the history of art and culture and the representation of power.

What does the face of power look like? Who gets commemorated in art and why? And how do we react to statues of figures we deplore? 

In October 2021 Mary Beard, Britain’s best known classicist, came to Intelligence Squared to talk about the ideas in her new book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern. Against the background of current disputes over historic statues, Beard explained how for more than 2,000 years portraits of the rich and powerful in the Western world have been shaped by the image of Roman emperors, especially the Twelve Caesars– from the ruthless Julius Caesar to the fly-torturing Domitian. She reflected on why these emperors are still all around us, recreated as lavish sculptures and paintings of the good and the great, and as cartoons vilifying contemporary politicians; and she will reveal the unexpected places we find these images – from sixteenth-century wallpaper and eighteenth-century waxworks to chocolate coins and boxer shorts.

In this highly visual event, Beard took us on a tour through 2,000 years of art and cultural history, taking a fresh look at works by artists from Memling to Mantegna, and exploring changing identities, misidentifications, fakes, and often ambivalent portrayals of authority.

In conversation with the cultural critic Shahidha Bari, Beard showed why images of Roman emperors – murderous autocrats though they may have been  still matter in the history of art and culture and the representation of power. 


Praise for Twelve Caesars

‘As this book triumphantly demonstrates, there is no one on the face of the planet better qualified than Mary Beard to guide us through the great hall of mirrors, labyrinthine and treacherous as it is, that separates us from the Twelve Caesars.’ – Tom Holland, author of Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic

‘Incisive prose and wit …This lavishly illustrated volume will be accessible and interesting to a wide variety of readers; a must-read for anyone interested in classics or art history.’ ― Library Journal



Mary Beard

Classicist, bestselling author and cultural commentator

One of the world’s leading classicists and cultural commentators. A specialist in Roman history and art, she is professor of classics at the University of Cambridge and the author of bestselling and award-winning books, including SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome and Women and Power: A Manifesto. She has also written and presented many television programmes, from Civilisations and Meet the Romans to The Shock of the Nude.

Shahidha Bari

Writer, academic and broadcaster

Professor of Fashion Cultures and Histories at London College of Fashion at the University of the Arts London, and a Fellow of the Forum for Philosophy at the London School of Economics. She is a regular presenter of the BBC Radio 3's Arts and Ideas programme, Free Thinking, and an occasional presenter of BBC Radio 4's Front Row and Saturday Review. She contributes to Aeon, The Financial Times, Frieze art magazine, The Guardian, The Observer, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. She is the author of Dressed: The Secret Life of Clothes.


Speakers subject to change.