A wry view of life for the world-weary

Book Corner – December 2015 (3)


SPQR – Mary Beard

Is there such a thing as an iconoclassicist? If so, Beard (full name Winifred Mary Beard) has thrown her hat into the ring for the title with this, her latest tome, on what we nowadays call Ancient Rome. It is not your usual scan through the high days and low days of the Roman republic and the Empire but takes as its remit the thousand years or so from the founding of Rome, probably not, alas, by Romulus and Remus until the ascension of Caracalla to the Roman throne in 212 CE.

The choice of Caracalla as the chronological end point is as interesting as trying to reconstruct the misty, murky days of Rome’s foundation as your starting point. Conventional histories either end with the sacking of Rome by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410 CE or the conversion of Constantine to Christianity following his vision at the battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 CE. But Caracalla changed the dynamics of the empire by granting Roman citizenship to everyone living within its boundaries.

The foundation of Rome is murkier ground still and at first sight Rome was ill positioned to assume prime position in central Italy, never mind become the foremost power in the world in its pomp. That it did was through a combination of luck, double-dealing, rape – there is a long and dark history of sexual violence in early Roman history – and absorbing its allies and tribute payers so that they provided much of the manpower with which Rome was then able to overwhelm its latest enemies.

What comes through crystal-clear in Beard’s percipient analysis is that the Romans weren’t gentlemen who sipped G&Ts and abided by the rules of cricket, as the public schools educating the next generation of rulers of the British Empire liked to portray them as but ruthless seizers of opportunity and exploiters of their foes’ weaknesses. We should not look to them as our models, Beard argues, but reflect on the way that they organised and developed their world.

The starting point of the book is roughly the half-way point of her historical timeline, the Cataline conspiracy of 63BCE, which Cicero used to overthrow all previous convention by having Roman citizens executed without trial on the grounds of national security – a theme that is du jour which, doubtless, influenced Beard’s choice.  Students of Latin are painfully familiar with Cicero’s four speeches – all polished up after the event to serve as an eloquent apologia – masterpieces of rhetoric as they are and the sources for two phrases in common use today – o tempora, o mores and quo usque tandem abutere, Catalina, patentia nostra, the wearied cry of demonstrators across the world still.

But, in many ways, despite the modern day reference point, it is a logical place to start as it pretty much marked the end of the old republic where the senate (the S of the title) and to a lesser extent the populus (the PQ of the title) had influence and control to the dominance of leasers backed by armies which eventually established one man rule and the Empire.

Advances in archaeological methods and finds of papyri, fragments and everyday impedimenta has meant that we now know much more about the life that some of the ordinary Romans lived than we did forty or so years ago when I studied Roman literature and history. Beard is at her best shedding light on the minutiae of life and the role of women and, indeed, how mobile people were in the service of the empire. There is a danger, which Beard draws away from, of putting too much reliance on that one snapshot of Roman life that we have, Pompeii and Herculaneum, and on graffiti just as much as there is in thinking Rome was all about Julius Caesar, Augustus and Nero.

Beard’s book goes a long way to helping us understand the phenomenon that was Rome and if Father Christmas didn’t bring it, you could do worse than spend some of your book tokens on it.


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