SPQR – A History of Rome – Mary Beard

For his First Catilinarian speech, and especially for it’s famous first line (‘How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?’), still lurks in twenty-first century political rhetoric, is plastered on modern political banners and is fitted conveniently into the 140 characters of a tweet. All you need do is insert the name of your particular modern target. Indeed, a stream of tweets and other headlines posted over the time I was writing this book swapped the name ‘Catilina’ for, among others, those of the presidents of the United States, France and Syria, the mayor of Milan and the State of Israel: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Francois Hollande, patientia nostra?’

So, back to Rome. I am one of the multitude that is fascinated by the Empire and it’s rise and fall. Only this time I would be hitting the heavyweights, Mary Beard: world renowned and respected historian. But how would it compare with Mike Duncan’s history of Rome podcast, still my benchmark for a quality podcast and for Roman History? Should I even try to compare them? Well it’s my blog so I’m going to say yes.

Mary Beard doesn’t so much peek as lift up and shine a bright light under the sleek veneer of Roman History, revealing tidbits such as the word candidate coming from the latin word candidatus, meaning whitened, regarding the special white toga’s worn by the Romans. This is revealed while Beard pulls apart Cesare Maccari’s painting of Cicero denouncing Catiline, the powerful moment in Rome’s early history that Beard picks up her history before she zips back to the beginning of the beginning and the real life / mythical tale of Romulus and Remus.

Beard spends a lot of time picking apart the myths and legends of Rome, the founding of the Republic, the rise of the plebians, from earlier scholars, themselves based on the prism of the Roman’s version of their own history. As the city expands, as the empire expands, as the Emporer’s come (and go) the idea of Rome, of what it was to be Roman, was constantly evolving, the Roman’s incredibly adept at rewriting their own history retrospectively, so that it suited the times that they were in. It i.s also particularly relevant today, looking at how the Roman’s dealt with the influx of people from all over their empire moving to the city with their own fashions and customs and the impact this had on ‘Roman-ness’

There is a treasure trove of information in this book, and Beard effortlessly combines fascinating facts with wry observations that prick through the pomposity of the subject and the Roman’s themselves. Using a chunk of Cicero’s letters and those of Pliny the younger, as well as archaeology and other research, and even previous histories, SPQR looks at the lives of ordinary citizens of the city, who became the centre of an incredible and diverse empire and so had to constantly evaluate themselves and their role within it. Highlighting that the city started properly with the effective kidnapping and raping of women from the next village, there are elements of the Romans that are as backward as they are enlightened, with some ideas and laws existing today in the same or slightly evolved form.

If Caesar really did advocate life imprisonment in 63 BCE, then it was probably the first time in Western history that this was mooted as an alternative to the death penalty, without success. Relying on the emergency powers decree, and so on the vociferous support of many senators, Cicero had the men summarily executed, with not even a show trial Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.

A look at the succession of Emperors it is not, although when they arrive, through the mighty yet conservative Augustus, to Caracalla, who gifting of citizenship which Beard finishes her history with, their actions with regards to management and succession is looked at through it’s impact on the empire and the city. Despite his greatness Beard points out that Augustus never really formalised the relationship between the Emperor and the Senate, and while he cleverly enveloped them into part of the empires civil service, to the extent that when he died they were incapable of trying to grab the power to run the empire back, the lack of demarcation caused issues for his successors further down the line. When Pliny was in charge of a province, it appears he corresponded directly to the Emperor  to ask questions regarding matters of office, which he more often than not received a reasonably prompt response.

It’s not all politics though, there are gambling on dice in the ports, barbarians and the exotic on the fringes it was interesting to note that a woman did not take her husbands name after marriage, or fall completely under his legal authority. When her father died an adult woman could own property in her own right, but and sell, inherit or make a will and free slaves. Beard points out that many of these rights women in Britain did not receive until the 1870’s.

SPQR is an incredible piece of work, over 500 pages of fascinating history, dollops and dollops of further reading and even a timeline (if that’s your thing). Beard has meticulously researched this, over a lifetime, has collated and organised and has also written in a wonderfully flowing, easy prose. Pointing out the obvious inaccuracies, or where it is impossible to know something for sure. But there is lots we can be certain of, and for lovers of Rome and the Romans, this is a fantastic read, and probably reaches details that Mike Duncan’s podcast doesn’t, but he goes right to the end of the western empire, so it’s swings and roundabouts. I tell you what, listen to that and read this. Everyone’s a winner.

After his long familiarity with the Romans, the king no doubt expected a rather civil meeting. Instead, Laenas handed him a decree of the senate instructing him to withdraw from Egypt immediately. When Antiochus asked for time to consult his advisors, Laenas picked up a stick and drew a circle in the dust around him. There was to be no stepping out of that circle before he had given his answer. Stunned, Antiochus meekly agreed to the senate’s demands. This was an empire of obedience.

 

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