Beard, Mary. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

NY: Liveright, 2015.

Until recently, Beard wasn’t that well-known outside the world of academic classicists, her occasional appearances on BBC notwithstanding. Then this engaging and engrossing volume of her thoughts on the Roman republic and the early empire came out after (literally) fifty years in the making, and everyone’s reading it. She may have done more for popular interest in ancient Rome than any writer since Gibbon.

First, she makes it clear that this is not a complete history of the 1,500 years of Rome’s existence in various forms. She’s interested mostly in the city’s establishment and the slow, nearly mythical formation of the Republic from its period of what were essentially warlords and gangsters. And she ends with Caracalla’s extension of citizenship to all free people within the empire in 212 CE, because after that it was an entirely different game with different rules, and not really “Roman” any more.

She also notes that Rome’s history, the way historians interpret what happened, has itself changed in the past couple of generations, not only from new evidence but because of new ways of thinking about it. (The field is much different from when I did Greek & Roman Studies in the early ’60s.) And Beard believes that not forgetting about what the Romans managed to accomplish, and how they did it, still matters today — a viewpoint with which probably the majority of self-centered 21st-century Americans would disagree, unfortunately.

Her approach is partly chronological and partly topical. She doesn’t attempt a continuous narrative but instead considers key topics in Rome’s development, beginning mostly at the beginning with the small farming village on the Tiber that competed with a number of other small farming villages in the vicinity. She shows that the foundation myths of Rome are undoubtedly just that — myths — and that there probably was no “age of kings” at all. But the thousand or so inhabitants of that village developed an unusual view of the world and their place in it that made them different, and Beard’s investigation of those differences is both fascinating and illuminating.

She also shows how later Roman historians and political thinkers, especially in the civil-war-torn years leading up to Augustus as the first emperor, thought about their own past — and not uncritically, either. They never stopped “intensely debating the story of Romulus and Remus.” But they didn’t think the way we do now, and you have to engage in contextual time-traveling to understand what they probably believed, and why, to know what preoccupied them. (Which is one of the key lessons you learn from studying any sort of history. That all cultures are fundamentally  different from each other.) The big subjects of politics and family and making a living obsessed them as much as they do us, but the details and the attitudes were very, very different, and Beard delves into those differences at some length.

This is especially true of slavery, a knee-jerk issue in the modern world involving racism, but simply an economic accident in the ancient world. Almost any unlucky individual, from any ethnic background, could find himself enslaved, and it wasn’t necessarily a life sentence. Freedmen made up a substantial proportion of the Roman population, and were as likely to become successful citizens as anyone else. Many of Rome’s slaves came from somewhere else, of course, by trade or as war booty — but this was true of an increasingly large proportion of all Romans, even at the earliest period. This willingness to adopt and absorb foreign ways and ideas and people and make them part of the Roman profile is a major factor in the city’s rise to prominence. Rome was built on outreach and immigrants.

There are major differences between Rome’s attitude toward religion and ours, too — something they had in common with the rest of the pre-Christian world. “Romans knew the gods existed, but they did not believe in them.” (Stop and think about that for a minute.) Likewise, in politics, the Romans were concerned not with “freedom” in the modern sense but with “liberty,” which meant something quite different to them, and which Beard also explains clearly and cogently. It’s also important to realize that the Romans didn’t plan to build a world-spanning empire. It was never a centralized decision. It all came about as the result of other social and political developments, and many thinkers at the time weren’t terribly happy about what they could see happening — especially once the whole thing became self-sustaining. They also tended to see their expansion as a series of changing relationships with other peoples, rather than as the accumulation of territory. “Roman conquest” is a very misleading phrase. But it was a highly profitable process that made Romans by far the richest people in their world. And military expansion also drove their increased sophistication, their awareness of the world outside their corner of the Italian peninsula.

Finally, when you’ve read and thought about everything the author has to say about Rome’s first five hundred years — and I took my time, stopping and thinking every couple of pages — she leads you through the shift from semi-democratic republic to autocratic empire, an almost inevitable occurrence (if anything in history is “inevitable”), considering where Rome found itself in the late 1st century BCE. Mostly, it was a victim of its own success. And the early imperial period, managed by Augustus and his family, turned out to be quite different from what succeeded it, which is why she stops with Caracalla.

This is a beautifully conceived exercise in thinking about where we, and especially our institutions, came from. Beard makes very heavy use of contemporary writers (especially Cicero, who left tons of manuscripts behind to be copied and studied by later generations) to elucidate the points she wants to make and the things she wants her readers to think about. There’s an extensive, nicely annotated bibliography at the end to fuel your further reading. This is a book I’m going to be enthusiastically recommending for years to come.

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