Senatus Populus Que Romanus, With A Little More Emphasis On The Populus – A Review of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

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I first became really interested in ancient Roman history on a slow summer weekend two or three years ago. At the time, I had just finished listening to Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast: specifically the episode titled “Thor’s Angels”, which is about the latter years of the Roman Empire. Driven by curiosity, I downloaded Carlin’s six-part episode series titled “Death Throes of the Republic”, which focused on the collapse of the Roman Republic.

From that point onwards I developed a latent curiosity about the history of ancient Rome, though I didn’t actively pursue it – there were other things I was interested in, after all. But I did start looking at novels that were set in the same period: novels like Lindsey Davis’ Marcus Didius Falco novels, and Ruth Downie’s Medicus Investigation series. Still, the prospect of sinking into those novels didn’t really encourage me to pick them up, because I wanted to learn more about the time period they were set in before doing so.

However, the prospect was intimidating, simply because there is so much material out there to read. Scholars have been studying and writing about ancient Rome since the ancient Romans themselves were around – the sheer volume is mind-blowing, and is a reason why one can take build an entire academic career solely on the study of ancient Roman history. I could have probably picked up any number of introductory texts to ancient Roman history, but there were simply so many of them that I didn’t know where to start.

In the end, I went about it in a rather roundabout manner (which can sometimes be the best way to go about things). I first picked up Tom Holland’s Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar, which focused exclusively on the first five Roman emperors. That was when I found out that Mary Beard was publishing her own introduction to the history of ancient Rome, and I knew that that was the book I had to pick up next.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is precisely what it says on the cover: a history of ancient Rome. In her twelve-chapter (plus Prologue and Epilogue) sweep through this historical period, Beard asks: how did Rome become one of the greatest superpowers in world history? And is there still a point to engaging with it in the first place?

To the last question, Beard’s response is a resounding “yes”. She makes this clear in the Prologue:

Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.

… Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. It has loaned us its catchphrases, from ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ to ‘bread and circuses’ and ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – even ‘where there’s life there’s hope’. And it has prompted laughter, awe and horror in more or less equal measures.

… There is much in the classical world – both Roman and Greek – to engage our interest and demand our attention. Our world would be immeasurably the poorer if we did not continue to interact with theirs.

However, the first question is a bit more complicated. Placing herself as a counterpoint of sorts to Edward Gibbon’s chosen perspective (as elucidated in the magisterial The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), Beard explains how Rome went from nondescript Italian town to international superpower in the span of a few hundred years – something Beard calls “one of history’s great puzzles.”

Attempting to solve that puzzle takes up the rest of Beard’s twelve-chapter book, which goes from Rome’s rather muddled mythical beginnings all the way to the reign of Emperor Caracalla, who declared that all freemen within the Roman Empire’s ambit would have Roman citizenship. In between those two points in time, Beard weaves her way through Roman identity (personal and national); politics (local and international); and social life and cultural norms, as she tries to understand what drove Rome to greatness.

The first thing the reader needs to understand about this book is that it is a general overview of a specific period in ancient Roman history, and one that does not focus on historical events. Beard is not interested in reviewing them; she is more interested in trying to see how those events reveal who the ancient Romans were as a people. This is, as it turns out, more complicated than the average reader without any previous experience in reading about ancient Roman history might think – especially since the ancient Romans themselves were confused about who they really were. Consider the myth of Romulus and Remus: a story with great resonance for the ancient Romans because it described the origins of their people. Beard points out that the Romans themselves had very ambivalent feelings about their origins:

Wherever and whenever it originated, Roman writers never stopped telling, retelling and intensely debating the story of Romulus and Remus. …the foundation story raised even bigger questions, of what it was to be Roman, of what special characteristics defined the Roman people – and, no less pressing, of what flaws and failings they had inherited from their ancestors.

From here, Beard begins uncovering what the Romans thought of themselves, of their past, their present, and even of their future, through the writings left behind by ancient Roman writers like Cicero, Pliny, and others, as well as through the latest archaeological and scholarly studies. Along the way, she highlights connections between the ancient Roman world and our world today, such as when she points draws a connection between the Catiline Conspiracy of 63 BCE and terrorism in the twenty-first century:

The tough response by Cicero – including those summary executions [of the participants in the Catiline Conspiracy] – presented in stark form issues that trouble us even today. Is it legitimate to eliminate ‘terrorists’ outside the due processes of law? How far should civil rights be sacrificed in the interests of homeland security? The Romans never ceased to debate ‘The Conspiracy of Catiline’, as it came to be known. … The events of 63 BCE, and the catchphrases created then, have continued to resonate throughout Western history. Some of the exact words spoken in the tense debates that followed the discovery of the plot still find their place in our own political rhetoric and are still, as we shall see, paraded on the placards and banners, and even in the tweets, of modern political protest.

Holding this whole book together is Beard’s writing. Though she is a Cambridge don and has a well-earned reputation for excellent scholarly work in her field, her prose is very readable: no highfaluting academic terminology here. Whenever she inserts a Latin phrase, Beard is quick to translate it into clear, modern language (with occasional slips into more slangy, casual language, where appropriate). This is a definite plus for readers who want their dose of history without the slog.

There is, however, one problem: the organisation of the book itself. Given the wide range of concepts and ideas Beard is trying to cover, it can get a little confusing sometimes to figure out just what she’s discussing at any given point in time. Though she orders her chapters chronologically, and within those chapters tries to use a key person or event as a central focus for her narrative, there’s still no denying that she has a rather terrible tendency to jump around all over the place in while trying to explain something. This means that the narrative slows down some as the reader tries to catch up with whatever train of thought Beard happens to be on. Fortunately, the confusion is not enough to really be a deal-breaker, so long as the reader is one who is willing to follow along and simply go wherever the narrative chooses to go. Beard gets to wherever it is she needs to go – she just takes the conceptual scenic route to get there.

Overall, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is, perhaps, one of the most accessible introductions to ancient Roman history currently available. Instead of just detailing history as a series of events, Beard chooses to focus on trying to understand the ancient Romans themselves, and how their culture (as they created it and understood it) has shaped our world today. Beard has an excellent reputation as a scholar, but she does not let academic language slip into this book, which is written in clear, easy-to-read prose with very few confusing terms; any and all Latin phrases are translated in readable English. However, some issues with organisation can make it seem like Beard doesn’t have a clear focus for her narrative, making it difficult to really follow just what sort of point she’s trying to make. Fortunately, this is not a deal-breaking issue, and determined readers should have no problem following along until Beard’s narrative finally arrives where she means it to.

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