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Mary Beard sets us straight about the myths of ancient Rome

Historian Mary Beard has spent her career working through the texts and source materials of ancient Rome. She has written several books on the subject — including her most recent work, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome — but she doesn't feel like she's close to being done with the topic.

"One of the great things about history is that it sort of isn't a done deal — ever," Beard tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies. "The historical texts and the historical evidence that you use is always somehow giving you different answers because you're asking it different questions."

Beard notes that history is a shifting discipline, and that many of our popular notions of ancient Rome are based on culture rather than fact. Take, for instance, "Et tu, Brute?", William Shakespeare's version of Julius Caesar's final words. Beard says it's "one of the most famous quotes in the whole of Roman history — except it certainly isn't what Caesar ever said."

Despite her tendency to "myth-bust" ancient Rome, Beard still enjoys popular cultural representations of the empire. "There's no reason not to enjoy those stereotypes and have all the fun with them," she says. "Just as long as we realize that that's what they are."

On her favorite films and TV shows set in ancient Rome

I'm a great fan of Roman movies. All the classics are — they might not be accurate, but they speak to me about Rome. I loved Gladiator and I thought its depiction of gladiatorial combat, although it was an aggrandizing picture, was cleverly and expertly done. And I love Life of Brian.

But I think if I was going to have anything I'd have that old I, Claudius television series, which was shown both in the U.K. and in the U.S. in the 1970s. And it's completely untrue, but it is such a marvelously slightly camp version of Roman empirical power. ...

Read entire article at NPR