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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Spain – The Centre of the World 1519 – 1682 – Robert Goodwin

His complaint would have resonated with the stereotypical Spanish hidalgo with a preference for poverty over labour, honour over trade, and an obsession with purity of blood. Worse still, the Netherlands seemed a naturally heterodox land, so flat ‘it affords the people one commodity beyond all the other Regions: if they die in perdition, they are so low, that they have a shorter cut to Hell…And for this cause, perhaps all strange Religions throng thither.’

Starting with Charles V becoming King of Spain and the first treasures from the America’s docking on Spanish shores, Goodwin charts the incredible journey of the Spanish empire, as, fuelled by the riches of the Americas, and it’s monarchy, driven and weighed down by destiny and dynasty, became the centre of the world.

Goodwin’s pen merely touches the new world, with an early view of Oviedo and Las Casas, advocates of very different views on ruling the burgeoning empire in the Americas. Charles however had pressing concerns, as he secured the crown to the Holy Roman Empire and had to suppress the increasing irritable Dutch, culminating in Charles declaring Luther a heretic and creating a slight schism within the Christian church. One of my early favourites, leaping of the page in a flourish of both sword and wordplay, mostly on the back of good press, is Garci Laso de la Vega, or Garcilaso as he was known by the common folk.I would like to read more on him,  and his life has Netflix original series written all over it.

During it’s golden age Spain had famous artists flowering amongst it’s opulence, such as Titian, whose painting of Dona Isabella of Portugal, the mother of Philip II was, and still is highly lauded, and who was a yard stick who time and time again was claimed had taught many followers, including El Greco, who came to Spain from Italy and took up residence in Toledo. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote, which is subjected to a thorough discussion in the book, about it’s relation to the life and times into which the windmill fighting warrior trots on his battered horse.

Following the abdication of Charles, came the succession of Philips, starting with the bookish and beareaucratic Philip II, who commissioned and built the magnificent Escorial palace, from which he ruled the far reaches of the empire using paper. Goodwin manages to paint Spain in broad brush strokes while at the same time colouring in smaller details of it’s rulers and more humble residents.

At Lisbon, Philip was in melancholic mood: following the death of Elizaberh of Valois, he had married his niece, Anne of Austria, and fallen deeply in love; but she died suddenly, in 1580, and soon afterwards he lost his son Prince Diego to smallpox. Stoical in his sadness, he could gaze out from the windows of the Royal Palace and mediate on the massive sweep of the great harbour, watching the drama of the Indies fleets arriving battered by the Atlantic storms and the massive galleons coming home from the Far East; he saw them leave, filled with old hands, the merchants’ factotums and thousands of would be colonists.

Philip III and IV sat back and little interfered in the decline of the mighty empire, as their favourites ruled in their name and stead, often putting their own interests above that of the Empire. Still there was glitter as Goodwin points out, and the arts flourished even as the empire began to crumble.

And crumble it did. Throughout all this there were ongoing wars with the troublesome French, the sinking of the armada by the English, who ironically had built up their navy on the advice of Philip the II, the explosion of litigation through the law courts by all parts of Spainish life and the flourish of religious festival and tradition in Seville. Abroad Henry the VIII embraced Protestantism after Catherine of Aragon failed to provide him with an heir, the Ottomans pestered the edges of the Hapsburg empire and the America’s slowly slipped from the Spanish grasp. It could be argued that maybe the empire would have not have lasted so long if not for it’s King’s, but the line from Charles to Philip IV all had a hand in the eventual downfall of one of the most crucial Empires in the world.

A definite if you’re interested in Spain or it’s history, and even if you’re not. Goodwin makes the life and times of an incredible number of people accessible, highlighting the greatness as well as the pettiness and even ordinariness of Spain in it’s greatest period, shining a light on the glitter and the gold.

And so, the city fathers of Seville celebrated a papal ruling about the immaculacy of Mary’s conception with a grand fiesta involving plenty of gaily dressed noblemen, the sacrifice of a handful of bulls, a few dead horses, the odd gored human, a bullfighting dwarf and some very tall Africans. That is the world in which the protagonists of this story learnt to think and live.

 

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The Silk Roads (A new history of the world) – Peter Frankopan

The accepted and lazy history of civilisation, wrote Wolf, is one where ‘ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution. Industry crossed with democracy in turn yielded the United States, embodying the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’ I immediately recognised that this was exactly the story that I had been told: the mantra of the political, cultural and moral triumph of the west. But this account was flawed;

So this one is really partly Colin Thubron’s fault. I loved his shadow of the Silk Road, and as I’m also currently listening to the Ancient World podcast (see here) which was delving into the East at the time when I saw this in Foyles, I immediately bought it (along with a few others). Then when picking what to read next, I kept coming back to it until I just plunged in.

This is a brilliant brilliant book, I absolutely loved it. An attempt to write (rewrit?) perhaps a more comprehensive history of the world, or certainly the Eurasian world, Frankopan ties as much together as he can in a rough chronological order, as West and East met through early travel but more importantly through trade. Along with the thrust of time and place, I really enjoyed little footnotes of history, such as Buddha statues coming about because of the introduction of statues of Apollo following the conquest by Alexander the Great, as well as the resonances with the contemporary world:

It was unlikely that places like Britain would provide lucrative additions to Rome’s territories: as slate letters sent home by soldiers stationed in Britain attest, this province was a byword for grim and fruitless isolation.

Much like it is now. Is something that could have easily been tacked onto the end of that sentence
The history is backed up by hundreds if not a few thousand references. Indeed spending a chapter on the introduction of Islam into the world, Frankopan points out just how hard it is to confirm some of it’s initial elements from the contemporary sources. From the index, he certainly hasn’t scrimped on searching.

Showing how early slavers from the Nordic countries swept down deep into central Asia, to the all conquering Mongol empire, this part of the world was the crossroads, the resource rich gateway to the mysterious orient as well as to the emerging west. From the decimation of populations due to the black plague, which levelled the field more between serf and landlord in the north of Europe than it did in the south, the pendulum of wealth and power slowly shifted from the opulent and decadent east to the less developed west, where it was to stay for quite some time. Countries like Spain, Portugal, England and Holland drove expansion and exploration, partly to cut the cost of their insatiable appetite for goods from the east, and partly for profit, sometimes flimsily disguised as a religious and righteous crusade for God and the church, and the discovery of the Americas literally placed Europe at the centre of the world. Their circumnavigation of the globe to reach India effectively cut out what had previously been a crucial trading hub from it’s livelihood and power for a time, but what it lacked in trade it made up for in something even more valuable, oil, the fuel that powered the new world.

While I bought this for the ancient history, the history of the nineteenth and twentieth history was engaging, and makes for uncomfortable reading at some points. The West’s insatiable appetite for oil and fear of Russian influence generated short sighted and untenable policies, invasions and barely disguised attempts at maintaining power that wreaked havoc in much of Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq to name but a few. Given the recent attention to the Chilcot report in the news, reading about the flip-flopping of support for Saddam whilst trying to keep a grip on Iran was both arrogant and clumsy, and the results have been clearly visible for all to see.

More recently the emergence of the former Russian states, that are incredibly resource rich yet at the same time are plagued by Nepotism and abuses that are well publicised, are making the West sit up and pay attention, but hopefully in a slightly more cooperative way and in conclusion The Silk Roads indicates power returning to this historically rich and crucial part of the world.

Frankopan has written clearly and concisely, with even odd flashes of humour mixed in with the fascinating and detailed history of civilisations, countries and people. It’s been a while since I’ve been at school, but I learnt more from this book than I remember from years of history lessons in the classroom, and was much more enjoyable.

Twice a week a hammer was struck against the wall three times in order to check it was secure. Each time, the inspectors would listen for any deviation from the norm: ‘if one applies one’s ear to the door, one hears a muted sound like a nest of wasps’, one account reports; ‘then everything falls silent again’. The purpose was to let the savages who might bring the apocalypse with them know that the wall was guarded and that they would not be allowed to pass.

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Bolivar – Marie Arana

For all his physical slightness-five foot six inches and a scant 130 pounds-there was an undeniable intensity to the man. His eyes were a piercing black, his gaze unsettling. His forehead was deeply lined, his cheekbones high, his teeth even and white, his smile surprising and radiant. Official portraits relay a less than imposing man: the meager chest, the impossibly thin legs, the hands as small and beautiful as a woman’s. But when Bolivar entered a room, his power was palpable. When he spoke, his voice was galvanizing. He had a magnetism that seemed to dwarf sturdier men.

The book I would have loved to write, a hero of mine, a man who’s will and determination drove him to liberate half a continent, whose dream and vision were so grand his own life was unimportant, his body pushed to it’s limits, the clothes on his back often his only possessions as his salaries sat untouched, until the end when his vision proved beyond reach and he was ridiculed and all but exiled from the very countries he created.

Arana includes everything here, the machinations of the English, themselves losing their grip on Bolivar’s northern neighbours, the rise of Napoleon and the stagnation of the Spanish Empire, as the young Bolivar, from a privileged family slowly sees the necessity of the liberation of his homeland from the Spanish, and who eventually realises it will have to be him that has to do it. Liberation wasn’t all though, Bolivar’s dream was far grander, a united continent, a federation of states, much like the US, was his ultimate aim, and in the end his undoing.

It could be considered strange that Bolivar, for all we know about it him is still something of an enigma, he was not all rough soldier and glory, he loved to dance and enjoy his life, as the succession of women on his arm amply show. However, even on his death bed Bolivar re-affirmed his love for Teresa del Toro, his long dead wife, over and above even Manuela Saenz who had spent a considerable part of her life with him and had saved him at least once. His principles had deeply buried roots.
He was no saint either. His war to the death is a blot on his record, but he felt he was driven to such extremes by the Spanish, and there is some truth in that. For Bolivar, there was no price too great for liberation. After freeing greater Colombia, assigning his generals to the regions was understandable but had grave consequences. Even Arana, though clearly an admirer of the liberator, can only half heartedly condemn Bolivar for the charges held against him, and I felt much the same. I felt he could convincingly acquit himself of the accusations of barbarity and of being a controlling megalomaniac addicted to power. There was an element of that in him, and there is something in the argument that the fact that everything fell apart when he handed over power to others was in part due to the conditions he himself had created. But ultimately Bolivar didn’t want power or to rule, knew it would be a danger, a reason he argued so vehemently against an institutional monarchy. His only goal was to through off the Spanish yoke, but he knew that South America was not ready to self rule.

There is an all star cast supporting Bolivar, the aforementioned Saenz, for Bolivar perhaps the most personal and important, the devoted Sucre, Paez, the Lion of Apurre, San Martin, who seemed almost the exact opposite to the Liberator from the north but whose path led him to Bolivar, the point where they meet was something that I looked forward to as it inevitably approached. All these played their own role in the liberation of the continent, and with the exception of San Martin, it is unlikely that without Bolivar driving them, anyone would have been able to so completely drive out the Spanish. At one point, a million square miles answered to Bolivar, more than answered to Napoleon.

The achievements warranted it. Not Alexander, not Hannibal, not even Julius Caesar had fought across such a vast, inhospitable terrain. Charlemagne’s victories would have had to double to match Bolivar’s. Napoleon, striving to build an empire, had covered less ground than Bolivar, struggling to win freedom.

For me though, it’s not just the fact that he did it, it’s the way he achieved it. The forced marches over the Andes, the understanding that enlisting all those in the country, not just the elites was key to winning freedom, the people he surrounded himself with, the selflessness as he strove to achieve his ultimate dream.
In the end it broke him, made enemies of friends as the territory descended into violent feudalism. Bolivar saw it coming but in the end could do nothing to stop it. Forced to the north coast, Bolivar died in Santa Marta, surrounded by a few people, far from the centres of power he had helped to create.

It was inevitably after the petty squabbling of those immediate years following his death that Bolivar’s accomplishments were recognised and acknowledged. Culminating in Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela, I would be intrigued to know what he would have made of that. There are very few people that have had such a considerable and direct impact on a whole continent, if not the world ,and Bolivar is one of those few. For me, Marie Arana has written a biography worthy of the Liberator which I thoroughly enjoyed.

He enjoyed good cuisine, but could endure days, even weeks, of punishing hunger. He spent backbreaking days on his horse: his stamina in the saddle was legendary. Even the llaneros, roughriders of the harsh Venezuelan plains, called him, with admiration, Iron Ass. Like those men, he preferred to spend nights in a hammock or wrapped in his cape on bare ground. But he was equally comfortable in a ballroom or at the opera. He was a superb dancer, a spirited conversationalist, a cultivated man of the world who had read widely and could quote Rousseau in French and Julius Caesar in Latin. A Widower and sworn bachelor, he was also an insatiable womanizer.

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At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig – John Gimlette

I opened my mouth  to protest, but at that moment the music restarted. She pressed her ear up close to my face, which disappeared into an impenetrable thicket of curls and ringlets. Everything went dark and my nose tickled.
You can’t say that here,’ I muffled. ‘The pyragues…’
The Pyragues was the name everybody used for the secret police. It was a Guarani word which meant – literally ‘the hairy footed ones’. It was a cute reminder that their raids were sudden, silent and invariably savage.

I don’t think it will be long. Paul Theroux’s grip on me as my favourite travel author is surely coming to an end. Two pretenders to the throne are coming up quickly, and out of the two, it is John Gimlette who is probably just ahead (Michael Jacobs is the other).
Having already enjoyed his trek around the top right hand corner of South America in Wild Coast, Gimlette is again back on my favourite continent, this time in it’s deepest heart, Paraguay. Originally there in 1982, Gimlette’s original intention for this book was for it to be a work of fiction, but in the end Paraguay’s incredible past proved larger than fiction and Gimlette trekked around the relatively unknown country, in all directions from the tropical capital of Asuncion.

Like Wild Coast, the level of research here is deep and exhaustive, but never for the reader. Gimlette casts a wry eye over the history, particularly politically or Paraguay, and he admits that he uses frivolity to cover his own anger at what the population have endured almost since their inception at the hands of their leaders. From his attempt to meet Stroessner, “We can’t find him, he must have gone for a walk”, tracking down Nazi runaways, Trekking to the back of beyond frontiers as he follows the massive, absurd figure of Francisco Lopez and his wife, the indomitable Eliza Lynch, Gimlette shares his knowledge in such a way that it is seamless with his travels, you can almost smell the gun powder from the triple alliance war and the tragic war in the Chaco as he travels to some of the remotest places there must be in the middle of a great continent.

Laugh out loud funny, Gimlette is unpretentious, engaging and genuinely curious about Paraguay and it’s colourful history. The engineers and doctors (including a seemingly large contingent of English at various times) that helped Paraguay fight it’s enemies throughout it’s history, as bits were torn off it and it’s population was decimated by the ‘flamboyant stupidity’ of it’s leaders. Talking with friends and other Paraguayans Gimlette probes them as much as he feels he can, in some cases they are piercingly honest and at other times there is almost complicit denial, or an acceptance of this is what it is like.

For some reason, Paraguay had been slowly creeping up on me, I’ve been to the triple frontier while visiting Iguazu falls, but that’s the closest I got. After reading this I definitely want to go, Gimlette has has illuminated the hidden heart of the continent and painted it in vivid colour.

It was obviously an excursion they’d enjoyed many times before and Mrs Berera wasn’t the least bit perturbed when her chair slid backwards and forwards across the truck as Lino whirled along in a tornado of red volcanic gravel. We tried to keep an eye on her in the mirror but sometimes Mrs Berera slid completely out of view and it wasn’t until the next fold in the earth’s crust – and the reversal of centrifugal forces – that she made her stately reappearance.