SPQR: A HISTORY OF ANCIENT ROME

By Mary Beard

Profile (2015) h/b 606pp £25 (ISBN 9781846683800)

Here is a history that is not a bland, homogenised trot through the ‘facts’ but a serious effort to engage the reader in how modern historians of the ancient world set about their business. However ‘wickedly subversive’ B. may consider herself to be (see her Times blog), she is subversive here only in as far as her account is wholly unsubversive: in accordance with thoroughly traditional canons of historical analysis, she derives her conclusions from close attention to the sources and the latest research, dealing with the evidence and arguments that persuade her to think as she does about Roman history. There is nothing ‘subversive’ about her arriving at conclusions different from others’ or questioning of assumptions (e.g. her throwaway remark that it is mediaeval sources alone that suggest Cicero’s secretary Tiro invented a form of shorthand). The result is a masterful account of Rome from its foundation (traditionally 753 BC) to the rise and collapse of the Republic and the emergence of the principate (AD 14), though her account of the following imperial period up to the death of Commodus (AD 192), full of interest as it is, goes off at a different tangent. It is also well illustrated, every picture enlarging intelligently on the text.

There are, inevitably, some irritating features: the use of ‘we’ when B. usually means ‘I’, the tendency to virtue-signal, her insistence that ‘we’ must maintain a ‘conversation’ with the Romans (but Romans cannot answer back: she means ‘think about the modern world in relation to the ancient’), her love of the word ‘complicated’ (it is rarely justified). But le style, c’est la femme même. The rewards far outweigh the niggles.

B.’s tactics are well illustrated by the book’s surprising opening episode: Cicero’s famous battle against the wicked revolutionary Catiline (63 BC). First, she tells the story as Cicero told it, so that we know clearly what the ‘received’ position is; then she points out the problems with Cicero’s version, and shows that it cannot all have been quite as cut as dried as he would have us understand. Result: the reader feels drawn into the problems that make the past so fascinating. B. also uses this incident to introduce us both to future uses of Cicero’s speeches against Catiline (quo usque tandem… popping up all over the place, including the 21st C) and to the developed world of Roman politics in the 1st C BC.

Not only does this opening, unchronological though it is, clearly exemplify her method, it also cleverly clears the ground for an important feature of what happens next: for when B. does take us back 700 years to when it all began with Romulus and the early kings, she has prepared us to be alert to the Roman habit of anachronistically finding the source of most of the features of their developed ‘constitution’ as early as they can in their history, however improbable; for to a Roman, the earlier, the more legitimate.

In general, one of the great strengths of the book is its ingenious running combination of narrative, source analysis, and alertness to the connections between any single incident and its wider ramifications—social, political, cultural etc.—across Roman history. So successful is this integrated approach that only rarely does B. have to take time out to digress from the main narrative, e.g. on Polybius, home life from a Ciceronian angle and so on. Another virtue of B.’s narrative is her enviable ability time and again to find the apt vignette or quotation to illustrate her point, e.g. the parody of the opening of the Aeneid: fullones ululamque cano, non arma virumque ‘Fullers and the owl I sing, not arms and the man’ (the owl being a mascot of the Roman laundry business) in a discussion of Roman literacy.

B. deals in detail with the Republic, probably because that is where her research has been centred. She finds the key to Rome’s eventual world domination in the ‘great leap forward’ in the 4th C BC, when its military expansion across Italy taught it two vital lessons: first, how to organise vast number of troops to perform successfully in distant places; and secondly, the importance of sophisticated alliances and treaty-making to turn (as the emperor Claudius later put it) enemies into allies, the key to Rome’s empire.

Her account of the Empire—bar the story of Augustus’ rise to power and efforts to secure his succession—is rather different. She takes the view that, because the Augustan ‘system’ stayed the same, there was not much to distinguish one emperor from the other. Though that is not the impression Tacitus or Suetonius leave with us (one wonders if she would apply the same argument to British prime ministers from e.g. Attlee to Cameron), her response is to treat the imperial world thematically.

That, indeed, has its own virtues. It enables B. to range broadly over cultural and social as well as political life. She covers the world of work, despised by the wealthy but life and death to ordinary people, e.g. it would have taken c. 9 million ‘porter loads’ to get all the wine, oil and grain from ship to shore in Rome every year, equivalent to work for about 3,000 men for three months; bar culture; making do; and ends with wondering why, given the vast disparity between rich and poor, there was no revolution. She suggests there was some degree of cultural permeability between rich and poor, and at least there was the possibility of improvement. It would have been worth pointing out that in that world there was a culture of acceptance of one’s lot in life (see all those fables, proverbs, gnômai etc.), and that in cases of serious shortage of e.g. food, the plebs rioted in the absolutely certainty that the emperor would respond. Changing the political order never crossed their mind.

In the true spirit of B., the reviewer ends with a few disagreements. She claims that a famous joke supports her argument that all emperors were deemed the same. After Octavian (the future Augustus) defeated Antony at Actium in 31 BC, a man offered to sell Octavian a raven trained to say ‘Hail, Caesar, victorious commander’. Duly impressed, Octavian bought it for a large sum. What he did not know was that this man’s friend had trained up a second raven to say ‘Hail, Antony, victorious commander’. But that tells one nothing about people’s perceptions of the two rivals for power, but everything about the plebs’ eye for making a sesterce or (in this case) 20,000. The point is proved by further examples when Octavian is already in power (which B. does not mention). A similarly trained parrot and magpie were offered, for which Octavian duly forked out. Then a poor cobbler thought it worth a try and bought a raven. But it had learning difficulties, and the cobbler kept on moaning at the waste of time and money. But he plugged on and duly offered it to Octavian, who thanked him but pointed out that he could hardly move for gratulatory avifauna. At which point the raven came up with the only other words it knew: ‘What a waste of time and money’ (opera et impensa periit). Octavian fell about and bought it for more than any of the others.

To stay with the empire: Tacitus begins his Annales with the words urbem Romam a principio reges habuere, which Beard translates as ‘From the very beginning kings have ruled the city of Rome’. Note the perfect: this, she claims, was a ‘direct challenge to the emperors’ insistence that they were not really old-style kings’. But the perfective meaning is clearly wrong: the Latin means ‘In the beginning kings ruled Rome’ to make the specific contrast in the very next sentence with the ‘freedom and consulate (i.e. the republican system) set up by Brutus’, when kings obviously did not rule Rome. Further, when Tacitus eventually reaches Augustus, he describes him, admittedly in double-edged terms, as princeps, ‘leading citizen’, and a man who brought peace and the rule of law back to Rome. Hardly ‘wicked king’ behaviour.

She also seems a little unfair on Pliny the Younger. She points out that modern historians are fascinated by ‘how cultural differences and oddities of this kind were debated … and how people in the provinces related their traditions, religions, languages and in some cases literatures to those of the imperial power – and vice versa’, but Pliny ‘does not seem to have been the slightest bit interested in this’. But as she says later on, Romans made few attempts ‘to impose their cultural norms or eradicate local traditions’. Why should they? Pliny had more important things to do, such as running a province, than earnestly enquiring about the locals’ views of the Latin language or how ‘Roman’ they felt. Roman governors did not think like modern historians.

One more example: when the Roman citizen Gavius cried out civis Romanus sum in vain to those torturing him on Verres’ orders, B. wonders if Palmerston (in relation to gunboat diplomacy) and J.F. Kennedy (freedom in West Berlin) were aware of that fact when citing the words. Whatever the answer—almost certainly ‘no’—it is hard to see what point B. is making, since it makes no difference to the importance of the principle. She might also have wondered whether they were rather thinking of St Paul’s famous appeal to Rome.

In summary, SPQR, which ends with a chapter-by-chapter bibliography of secondary sources, a time-line and index, is a fine achievement by a scholar at the top of her form, displaying a confidence that is bound to invite a response. It says everything about SPQR that is worth responding to.

Peter Jones

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