Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile 2015)
The story of Mary Beard and the troll is a fable for our times about the power of generous intelligence. Its dissemination resulted in this ancient history scholar’s work being discovered by a whole new readership. That readership includes me.
This hefty book’s cover announces clearly enough that it’s a history of Ancient Rome. Its 536 pages (plus 70 pages of notes and suggestions for further reading) give us just that: a history of Rome’s first millennium, from 753 BCE, the traditional date of Rome’s beginnings, to 212 CE, when Emperor Caracalla extended full Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire and ushered in the very different second millennium, which Mary Beard says is ‘a story for another time, another book – and another writer’. This book, this writer tell the story that starts with the mythical Romulus and Remus, continues through the hardly less mythical early kings and the development of the republic, to Julius Caesar, Caesar Augustus and the subsequent emperors, tracing through it all the growth and changing character of the Roman Empire.
SPQR is beautifully written, balancing colourful anecdote with a stern commitment to unearthing what probably happened in the real world, and never disappearing down the wormhole of a specialist’s fascination with her own topic. The historian’s job changes as the centuries roll by: in the earlier parts, the author sets out, as she says, ‘to squeeze every single piece of surviving evidence for all it can tell us’; by the first century CE, at the height of the Republic, there is plenty of documentation, so the question is how to select the most telling pieces of evidence.
I’ve never studied ancient history as such. My mental picture of ancient Rome is a jumble of names and incidents gleaned from Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, Shakespeare, Hollywood movies, a book called We who are about to die salute you I read when I was 12, the odd bit of Latin that turns up in public life (Kennedy saying ‘Civis Romanus sum’, for example), five years studying Latin (I studied Book V of Livy’s history in high school, but couldn’t tell you anything about the content), museum notations, and so on. I know the Romans built straight roads through a lot of Europe, that they copied Greek art, that they included among their number the poets Virgil, Ovid, Horace, Martial, Catullus and others, who inspire modern poets from Seamus Heaney and David Malouf to Laurie Duggan.
One of Mary Beard’s strengths is that she seamlessly folds references to elements of this jumble into her narrative: Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay for Spartacus may have made that slave revolt famous, but it’s hardly reliable history, while David Franzoni’s for the Russell Crowe vehicle Gladiator was largely accurate.
In the final pages, Beard says she no longer believes, as she did early in her 50 years exploring their history, that we have anything to learn directly from the Romans, but there is much to be gained from a dialogue with them. A little serendipity of my own is a case in point. I read most of this book while holidaying in my native north Queensland. On a visit to the local historical society, I read an account of how one sugar farmer had a number of Aboriginal people and Islanders working for him, ‘who were always treated as members of the family’ – which I’m pretty sure the writer meant to imply a completely benign relationship. In the light of what little I know of what the Protection Acts meant for Aboriginal people in Queensland well into the 1960s, this description made me uneasy. That night I read this on page 330 of SPQR:
Slaves and free in many contexts worked closely together. In the ordinary workshop, slaves might be friends and confidants as well as human chattel. And they were part of the Roman family; the Latin word familia always included the non-free and the free members of the household.
Being members of the ‘family’, in our recent past as much as in antiquity, isn’t incompatible with vast inequality and exploitation. (I’m not suggesting an equivalence between ancient slavery and the systematic restricting of the lives of Aboriginal people in Australia, just that the ancient past can shed light on the present.)
They did do things very differently back then, though. The journalists who report events in parliament in terms of knifings and assassinations would do well to remember how Roman politics was conducted, how or ethnic prejudice played out. Here’s Mary Beard’s description of a disturbance at Ascilum in 91 BCE that is not untypical of life in the Republic:
An eager audience, a mixture of Romans and locals, was enjoying some shows in the town theatre when the drama moved offstage. The Roman part of the crowd had not liked the anti-Roman stance of one comic performer and attacked him so fiercely that they left the hapless actor dead. The next comedian on the bill was a travelling player of Latin origin and a great favourite with Roman audiences for his jokes and mimicry. Terrified that the other side of the audience would now turn on him, he had no option but to walk on to the stage where the other man had just been killed and to talk and joke his way out of trouble. ‘I’m not a Roman either,’ he said to the spectators. ‘I travel throughout Italy searching for favours by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses!’ This touched them, and they sat back to watch the rest of the show. But it was only a brief comic interlude: soon after, all the Romans in the town were killed.