Who isn’t fascinated by ancient Rome, which continues to engage our imaginations: how did the Romans have the engineering skills to construct those enormous buildings, and entertain us with statues, plays and art and inform our politics? The Cambridge University professor of classics and blogger Mary Beard’s “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” which surveys the last half-century of scholarship about ancient Rome, is a very readable and timely summary of the approximately 1,000 years from the founding of the city to the end of the third dynasty after the rule of Augustus.
Rome was the world’s capital for centuries, and developed many of the institutions we take for granted: a standing army, an elected governing body, written laws and the idea that the voice of the governed should be heard in politics. But the Roman republic faced internal and external threats, and its founding myths were subject to conflicting interpretations. Women had some rights but played little role in public life.
Two millennia of technological advances have vastly increased the speed of communications, not to mention the scope and reach of terrorists, yet like the Romans we still struggle to protect the needs of the minority and to retain the consent of the governed. The Roman solutions to these problems were by no means ideal; Beard argues that studying them enriches our perspective.
We should read “SPQR” for its details, its clarity of chronology and its surprising relevance to many issues we face today.
Beard’s synthesis of Roman history can, like Gaul, be divided into three parts. The first 150 or so pages of “SPQR” — the title relates to an acronym of the Latin phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “the senate and people of Rome” — cover the city’s misty and mythical beginnings. These pages describe how Romans who wrote much later but still, to us, very long ago (some of whose works have been lost) conveyed those myths.
Several rapes figure prominently: in one, the Rape of the Sabines, the Romans acquired women by abducting the wives and daughters of their neighbors, who had been invited to a feast. Later Roman writers puzzled over whether the events were the source of Roman marriage rites or its habits of adultery. The story of Lucretia, whose alleged rape and subsequent suicide resulted in a war that ended with the establishment of the Roman republic, also posed problems for Roman writers. Some felt that her self-sacrifice life embodied the fidelity desired in Roman women. Others were more skeptical, wondering whether her concern was more for her reputation; her suicide led Augustine, many centuries later, to question whether she had consented to the rape. As Beard points out, these arguments are echoed in somewhat different circumstances today.
Beard also discusses tantalizing archeological traces in this section but her attempts to reconcile myth with what is known are necessarily more historiography than history, and they can be slow-going. This is not because the writing is unclear but because to start at the beginning means there is a great deal that’s unknown. It’s not until approximately 300 BCE, Beard tells us, that the historian can even begin to glimpse what the ancient writers might have known.
By then, the basic organizing structure of the army, the Legion, was in place, along with the Senate, the annual election of two consuls and what Beard calls “signs of an infrastructure to match the city’s size and influence.” (Its population was 60,000 to 90,000 people.) Rome also governed a great deal of area outside the city itself — and Beard suggests it did so by persuading these outlying areas to join it rather than by conquering them. Equally important, Rome developed, in a way that is still not obvious — “the chronology remains murky,” Beard writes — a clear idea that plebeians and patricians shared power and that laws should be written. The first written Roman laws date back to 500 BCE and, Beard says, they imply “a commitment to agreed, shared and publicly acknowledged procedures for resolving disputes and some thought on dealing with practical and theoretical obstacles to that.”
The early pages are worth plowing through, because after the periods covered in Beard’s first four chapters, the sources improve dramatically, and in the second part she turns to political and social history. With legal structures in place, Rome began to expand: in particular, by requiring defeated territories to provide troops for Roman armies. In return, they got Roman roads and settlers while this system of alliances gave enemies-turned-allies “a stake in the Roman enterprise,” Beard says.
The enterprise was not entirely stable or consistent, and by the first and second centuries BCE, several problems had emerged. One was how to pension legionnaires — the practice had been to give them land when they left the army, but whose land? A series of controversial attempts at land reform ended in the civil war known as the Social War, which resulted in a grant of Roman citizenship to most of the Italian peninsula. Problems remained: how many citizens were there in the peninsula? How were they to vote? Political conflicts continued, and eventually Julius Caesar grabbed power.
But then he was assassinated, because he had taken power from senators and because the assassins’ view of Roman liberty differed substantially from Caesar’s. Among other aspects, these developments are a reminder to be careful of what you wish for: in Beard’s words, “getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny.”
That’s because Augustus succeeded Julius Caesar, and he is a man who holds great interest for Beard, because he managed to turn Rome into a stable autocracy. Beard devotes the third and final part of her narrative to Augustus and the 14 emperors who successfully ruled using the basic structures of imperial power he devised. (The 14 included Nero and Caligula who were, in Beard’s telling, not as bad as their modern reputations suggest.) Those emperors also faced a singular, consistent set of problems: the succession, the senate and the status of the emperor — whether or not he was divine. Beard devotes the last third of her book to these problems, how various emperors balanced the possible solutions and their effect on the many people Rome governed.
Most of the sources, and hence most of the material Beard uses, describe politics and the patrician men who engaged in them. Beard includes a chapter, “The Home Front,” that focuses on lives of men and women outside of politics, but even that is based largely on the letters of Cicero. The lot of freeborn Roman women was marriage, with first marriages for women taking place when they were in their midteens; the men were usually older, decades so if they were making a second or third marriage.
Unlike women in ancient Greece, Roman women were not secluded, though they had smaller, less swanky amenities than men in places like the public baths and were relegated to the rear seats in theaters and arenas. After the death of her father, a woman could own property in her own right and transfer it. She could also free slaves and presumably own them.
Beard concludes with a deeply felt, persuasive argument that while we no longer have much to learn directly from the Romans, we have a great deal to learn by “engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments . . . many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.”
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Alexandra Bowie is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn. She is the book critic for the Brooklyn Bugle and has been working in local politics for many years. She has a law degree from Boston University and a philosophy degree from Bryn Mawr College. Follow her on Twitter @abowie917