Blame the nearest woman

Mary Beard takes a look at the whole “blame the woman” phenomenon in connection with the bizarre way the UK gutter press has “reported” on Meghan Markle. (Buzzfeed has a piece that places stories on The Other One next to stories on MM and the contrast is quite startling. I don’t know for sure of course whether the examples are representative, but it seems likely that they are since otherwise Buzzfeed would get swiftly eviscerated. The creepiest one I saw before I stopped reading was “aw how sweet the way Kate cradles her bump” compared to ” ew look at Meghan virtue-signaling with all this touching her bump.”)

I wrongly thought that the Harry and Meghan story would be a flash in the pan, quickly overshadowed by all the really important things in the world. But as it has turned into a full-grown bonfire and has become important for the issues that it raises, I think it is worth having a more serious look at what the Roman world might tell us here…

More than a couple of decades ago, I ran a final year course in Cambridge on the “Roman Emperor: construction and deconstruction of an image”. It was partly an attempt not to look beyond all those unreliable stories of Roman emperors (Domitian killing flies, Caligula getting his soldiers to collect pebbles on the beach), but to ask head-on what those stories told us about the way emperors in Rome were perceived, how they related to imperial power (or lack of it). It was also an attempt to look at the structures of how “palace cultures” are perceived and explained by contemporaries outside them…

One of the most obvious things to come out was the way women were repeatedly used as explanatory tools for otherwise unexplained events. Now in the case of Meghan Markle, you would have to be blind not to see a strong vein of “popular” racism in some of the treatment of her. But there is also what I call the “Livia Phenomenon” at work here.

If you’ve ever seen the BBC I, Claudius you’ll know where this is going.

It is not just Robert Graves and Sian Phillips who have given us the image of the emperor Augustus’ wife as a schemer and poisoner, stopping at nothing to get her own way behind the throne. That goes right back to the ancient world itself, and to the writing of Tacitus and Suetonius among others. The basic principle is this. Things happen behind palace walls that we don’t understand. People die, some appear to fall from favour, others come unexpectedly into prominence … or even onto the throne. In the early Roman empire, Livia was the economical explanation for all of that. If someone died, it wasn’t a mysterious or unlucky bug, it was Livia’s poison concoctions. If an unlikely princeling got lucky, it was thanks to her, etc etc. Now, we have no idea whether any, all or none of this is correct. But there is just as good a chance that Livia spent the forty-plus years of Augustus’ reign minding her own business, as that she spent it in the pharmaceutical cupboard.

It is, of course, predictable low-level misogyny, bolstered then as now by unreliable leaks from “palace sources”. It was used against Nancy Reagan, who became a convenient solution to the question of why Ron did odd things, and against Cherie Blair too. And now Meghan Markle is in the firing line.

It’s interesting that this doesn’t apply to Melania Trump. She got heat for that “I really don’t care” jacket, but that was a blip. There’s no need for a Melania in this case because Trump is so very open and public and ostentatious with his crimes and lies and abuse. Mystery is not the issue with him.

Anyway it’s interesting, how persistent and shameless misogyny still is, along with racism and snobbery and the rest of the poisonous brew. Who needs poison in the soup when it’s all over the media?

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