Book Review: SPQR : A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard


AuthorMary Beard
TitleSPQR : a history of ancient Rome
Publication Info: New York : Liveright Publishing Corporation, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Summary/Review:

Beard attempts the very difficult, a single volume history of Ancient Rome, and succeeds. There’s the evolution from Republic to Empire (which is not the clean split it often appears in retrospect) and there is the succession of warriors and philosophers and all those emperors, which is covered gamely. But Beard covers deeper questions such as the idea of citizenship, which Rome uniquely expanded beyond the boundaries of the city, thus cementing the empire. And Beard gives glimpses of everyday life for the ordinary Roman citizens. It’s a great introduction to Roman history and scholarship. 
Favorite Passages:

It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.

Roman expansion. There was one obligation that the Romans imposed on all those who came under their control: namely, to provide troops for the Roman armies. In fact, for most of those who were defeated by Rome and forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’, the only long-term obligation seems to have been the provision and upkeep of soldiers. These peoples were not taken over by Rome in any other way; they had no Roman occupying forces or Roman-imposed government. Why this form of control was chosen is impossible to know. But it is unlikely that any particularly sophisticated, strategic calculation was involved. It was an imposition that conveniently demonstrated Roman dominance while requiring few Roman administrative structures or spare manpower to manage. The troops that the allies contributed were raised, equipped and in part commanded by the locals. Taxation in any other form would have been much more labour-intensive for the Romans; direct control of those they had defeated would have been even more so.

In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, they broke the link, which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city. In a systematic way that was then unparalleled, they made it possible not just to become Roman but also to be a citizen of two places at once: one’s home town and Rome. And in creating new Latin colonies all over Italy, they redefined the word ‘Latin’ so that it was no longer an ethnic identity but a political status unrelated to race or geography. This set the stage for a model of citizenship and ‘belonging’ that had enormous significance for Roman ideas of government, political rights, ethnicity and ‘nationhood’. This model was shortly extended overseas and eventually underpinned the Roman Empire.

So what kind of political system was this? The balance between the different interests was certainly not as equitable as Polybius makes it seem. The poor could never rise to the top of Roman politics; the common people could never seize the political initiative; and it was axiomatic that the richer an individual citizen was, the more political weight he should have. But this form of disequilibrium is familiar in many modern so-called democracies: at Rome too the wealthy and privileged competed for political office and political power that could only be granted by popular election and by the favour of ordinary people who would never have the financial means to stand themselves. As young Scipio Nasica found to his cost, the success of the rich was a gift bestowed by the poor. The rich had to learn the lesson that they depended on the people as a whole.

If the assassination of Julius Caesar became a model for the effective removal of a tyrant, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. Despite all the slogans, the bravado and the high principles, what the assassins actually brought about, and what the people got, was a long civil war and the permanent establishment of one-man rule.

ONE SIDE OF the history of Rome is a history of politics, of war, of victory and defeat, of citizenship and of everything that went on in public between prominent men. I have outlined one dramatic version of that history, as Rome transformed from a small, unimpressive town next to the Tiber into first a local and eventually an international power base. Almost every aspect of that transformation was contested and sometimes literally fought over: the rights of the people against the senate, the questions of what liberty meant and how it was to be guaranteed, the control that was, or was not, to be exercised over conquered territory, the impact of empire, for good or bad, on traditional Roman politics and values. In the process, a version of citizenship was somehow invented that was new in the classical world. Greeks had occasionally shared citizenship, on an ad hoc basis, between two cities. But the idea that it was the norm, as the Romans insisted, to be a citizen of two places – to count two places as home – was fundamental to Roman success on the battlefield and elsewhere, and it has proved influential right up into the twenty-first century. This was a Roman revolution, and we are its heirs.

The basic rule of Roman history is that those who were assassinated were, like Gaius, demonised. Those who died in their beds, succeeded by a son and heir, natural or adopted, were praised as generous and avuncular characters, devoted to the success of Rome, who did not take themselves too seriously.

And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic and mad as they are painted, it made little or no difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes.

Most evocative of all is the story of a man from Palmyra in Syria, Barates, who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century CE. It is not known what brought him the 4,000 miles across the world (probably the longest journey of anyone in this book); it may have been trade, or he may have had some connection with the army. But he settled in Britain long enough to marry Regina (‘Queenie’), a British woman and ex-slave. When she died at the age of thirty, Barates commemorated her with a tombstone, near the Roman fort of Arbeia, modern South Shields. This depicts Queenie – who, as the epitaph makes clear, was born and bred just north of London – as if she were a stately Palmyrene matron; and underneath the Latin text, Barates had her name inscribed in the Aramaic language of his homeland. It is a memorial which nicely sums up the movement of peoples and the cultural mix that defined the Roman Empire, and raises even more tantalising questions. Who did Queenie think she was? Would she have recognised herself as that Palmyrene lady? And what would this couple have thought about the ‘Rome’ in whose world they lived?

The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: SPQR : A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

    1. It’s about 550 pages, long compared to most books I read, but short for telling the entire history of ancient Rome. It was a pretty smooth and engaging read too.

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