Having spent 50 years of her life studying the Ancient Romans, it’s hard to avoid the feeling that Cambridge University’s Mary Beard doesn’t like them very much. Professor Beard certainly doesn’t hero-worship them as British school teachers used to do, but rather seems horrified by their slavery and torture, decadence and slaughter. Or to paraphrase that other great commentator on Roman affairs, Obelix, “These Romans are appalling!”
SPQR, The I ♥NY of its era, was the great symbol of Roman power: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of Rome’.
This history distills a lifetime’s research into one volume, running from the city’s legendary origins to the decision of the Emperor Caracalla to give Roman citizenship to all citizens of the empire in 212AD.
With almost a thousand years to cover, and lacking any evidence for most of that period, Beard does a heroic job in weaving all these threads together into one continuous work. Her job is undoubtedly made harder as people today are perhaps less familiar with the times of the emperors and the Republic than they were when Beard began her university career.
These Romans are not the idealised governors of the world whose statues gaze back at us in cold indifference from atop their white plinths. Professor Beard shows us a world of conflict and everyday indifference to human life. For instance, one of the most popular Roman methods of dealing with a large family was infanticide:
Adoption in Rome had never been principally a means for a childless couple to create a family. If anyone just wanted a baby, they could easily find one on a rubbish heap.
This book is also an exercise in myth-busting, challenging the accepted interpretations of the emperors as has come down to us from their enemies. There is plenty of eyebrow-raising detail here, for example, Julius Caesar’s last words were actually in Greek:
The famous Latin phrase ‘Et tu Brute?’ (‘You too Brutus?’), is an invention of Shakespeare’s.
Much of the source material is also met with skepticism. Even people at the time weren’t entirely sure about the meaning of their written texts:
even learned Roman lawyers misunderstood what they read in the Twelve Tables. The idea that a defaulting debtor who had several creditors could be put to death and his body divided between them, in appropriately sized pieces, according to the amount owed, looks like one such misunderstanding
Beard is a philosophical guide through this complicated world. She makes deft comparisons with politics in our times without ever making them explicit, leaving the reader to make the connection.
She also shows the wide range of opinions that were held amongst the Romans themselves. It’s not the case that contemporaries were blind to the horrors of their rule. Alongside the historian Tacitus’ famous phrase on Roman power in Britain
‘they create desolation and call it peace’ solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant‘
We also have
Pliny the elder, trying later to arrive at a head count of Caesar’s victims [in Gaul], seems strikingly modern in accusing him of ‘a crime against humanity’.
Professor Beard’s conclusions regarding Rome and the study of Rome is a fascinating essay on the purpose of history, worthy of the great annalists and chroniclers that she quotes. It should be required reading for anyone starting out on a degree course in history, where so much of the research is justified with trite expressions such as
The modern world began in [insert Lecturer’s specialised period of study here].
Her point is that we don’t learn directly from the Romans. We learn about ourselves and our values by studying alternate worlds and ways of living, which then raises questions about who we are and where we are going in the future.
My only regret about SPQR is that Beard is not planning on writing a second volume, which would take the story from the era of Constantine to the ‘Fall’ of Rome. If only she and her publisher can be leaned upon!