Review of “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” by Mary Beard

“SPQR” is the abbreviation used by the ancient Romans for “the Senate and People of Rome.” SPQR is Mary Beard’s recounting of the foundation and growth of the Roman Empire up to the year 212 C.E., when Emperor Caracalla made a full Roman citizen of every free inhabitant of the territory ruled by the Empire. This was a revolutionary step, she avers, since it “removed at a stroke the legal difference between the rulers and the ruled . . .” Overnight, more than 30 million became legal Roman citizens! Nevertheless, she writes, Caracalla is remembered most as the sponsor of the largest set of public baths then built in Rome. In any event, his decree “changed the Roman world forever,” and this why the author chose to end her story at that point.

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Beard’s book is almost as much historiography as history, as she repeatedly relates the nature and limitations of our actual knowledge of the ancient world. For example, we know virtually nothing other than mythology about the founding of the city of Rome. And while we know a great deal about the politics of the Empire in the late first century B.C.E through the voluminous letters of Cicero, that detailed knowledge is one-sided, as seen through the eyes of only one of the participants. Beard is a skeptical analyst, and takes Cicero’s judgments with a practiced historian’s grain of salt. Moreover, many of the perceptions of classical historians have been supplemented or even altered by the discoveries of modern archeology, since many Romans wrote on stone or bronze as well as papyrus.

A first century AD bust of Cicero in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

A first century AD bust of Cicero in the Capitoline Museums, Rome

Beard asserts that the motivation that lay behind Rome’s early military expansionism, which ultimately subjugated the entire Mediterranean basin, was not clear, there being no plan to “conquer the world.” The Romans’ opponents generally were not peace-loving farmers, but were constantly at war with one another. Beard attributes much of the Romans’ success to their ability to incorporate and absorb their former enemies into the Roman polity. Each conquest brought not only booty, but also a source of new soldiers. Beard argues that the Romans expanded by outnumbering their opponents rather than through superior tactics or weaponry.

A persistent theme running through the book and through Roman history is the question of how the liberty of a Roman citizen was to be defined. Beard writes, “That was a controversial question in Roman political culture for … 800 years, through the Republic and into the one man rule of the Roman Empire….” There never was a Roman constitution, but Polybius, one of Rome’s most astute historians, “saw in Rome a perfect example in practice of an old Greek philosophical ideal: the ‘mixed constitution,’ which combined the best aspects of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.” The secret of the Roman Republic (before the rule of emperors) was in the delicate checks and balances between consuls, the senate, and the people, so that neither monarchy nor aristocracy nor democracy prevailed. Of course, all that came to an abrupt end once Julius Caesar became “Dictator for Life,” and was succeeded by his very able nephew, Octavian.

Interestingly, the Romans were very wary of “kings.” Although they allowed potentates of allied or subject powers to hold the title “king,” no Roman dared take it. Octavian had the foresight to call himself merely “Augustus,” roughly translatable as “very important person,” rather than “king.” In time, his title evolved into one that was even more august (pun intended) than king.

Augustus of Rome

Augustus of Rome

A number of modern ideas and institutions can be traced directly to the Romans: the legal systems of many Western European countries are quite similar to theirs. According to Beard, one of the most significant but often overlooked Roman institutions used today was their calendar, established by Julius Caesar, which served Europe well for more than a millennium until it was modified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

One failure of the Roman Empire was that it never developed a cogent, universally accepted method of succession to the office of Emperor. As a result, many emperors were assassinated, and the threat of civil war loomed throughout the history of the Empire.

Beard does not merely chronicle the succession of various emperors and their conquests; she also explores the relationships among the various classes of society, with special attention to slaves. Slavery was common in Rome, but it was often as not usually temporary for individual slaves.

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Beard devotes a few pages to the rise of Christianity, which did not become very influential until after the end of her book in 212 C.E. For the first two centuries of existence, Christianity “is hard to pin down.” Beard estimates that by 200 C.E. there were only about 200,000 Christians in a population of 50-60 million. Christianity did not assimilate well in the empire because it insisted on its own god as the only one, whereas the Romans usually treated foreign gods like it treated peoples: it incorporated them into its own society. Because they resisted this incorporation, Christians were systematically persecuted in the second century. But as Beard observes, “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.”

Beard concludes by saying that we may not have much to learn directly from the Romans, who “were as divided about how they thought the world worked, or should work, as we are.” Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from engaging with the history of Rome because “many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialog with the Romans and their writing.”

The book concludes with recommendations for “Further Reading” for each chapter, a timeline, list of illustrations (of which there are many) and an index.

Evaluation: The author, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, knows how to appeal to hoi polloi as well as academics. This is an engaging and worthwhile book.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Liveright Publishing Corporation, a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

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