SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Title: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Author: Mary Beard

Review by Neil Murray 

There are probably three types of people who’ll enjoy this book: keen fans of Mary Beard, who has managed to combine scholarship with TV personality like few others; those who, like me, had a Classical education even if we’re only starting to appreciate it several decades later; and those whose interest in Ancient Rome has been sparked by Robert Graves’s I, Claudius (both the book and the magisterial TV series) and latterly, by Robert Harris’s trilogy based on the life of Cicero. I’ll be reviewing that soon.

None will be disappointed.

Beard covers the Roman Empire from its misty beginnings, the legend of Romulus and Remus, to its end, sacked by the Goths and other tribes. After the Julio-Claudian dynasty, though, she rather telescopes events. This is understandable because all the most interesting parts (for me, anyway) are the early days of Rome, and the demolition of the old Republic by the first triumvirate of the buccaneering Crassus, Pompey and (above all) Julius Caesar, and the second triumvirate of Octavian (who became the emperor Augustus), Mark Antony and the swiftly sidelined Lepidus.

Beard debunks myths as frequently as she reinforces them. Quite rightly, she dismisses the tale of Romulus and Remus being suckled by the she-wolf as myth, no more, and then she tries to work out precisely how this small village of mud huts on the banks of the Tiber grew to be, first, the pre-eminent power in central Italy, then in the Western Mediterranean, and finally in the Western world.

Violence seems to be the answer. Right from the start, the Romans used force to get what they wanted, be it Sabine women or territory.

Roman deaths

Roman armies were the Wehrmacht of their era: the best-organised, best-armed and most disciplined soldiers on the planet, with the possible exception of the Chinese. Later, to take the analogy further, the Praetorian Guard were the Waffen SS. Not that the Romans always had it their own way: Hannibal’s staggering, but ultimately futile, victory at Cannae is generally accepted to have resulted in about 60,000 Roman deaths, all brought about by nasty sharp or knobby blunt instruments. Beard’s way of putting this battle (which is still studied in modern military academies) into perspective is by pointing out that this was a killing rate of 100 soldiers per minute.

Actually, Cannae was unusual in that there were rarely massive casualties on ancient battlefields. Ancient weapons, she points out, were designed to injure and maim rather than kill on the spot. Infection and disease usually did the rest.

However, frequently pitiless force was tempered with an extraordinary willingness to let former enemies become friends, citizens, and even sources of adopted gods. The Romans, points out Beard, dwelt with their gods almost every hour of the day, from the lares and penates of the household, to the mighty Gods of classical mythology, and really, the more the merrier. The exception, as is made plain later in the book, was the rather less tangible God of the early Christians.

Even (dead) emperors became gods – but none was silly enough to copy Julius Caesar’s pioneering attempt at becoming a god while he was still alive. Still, sacrifices to subsequent living emperors were made, in an endearing sort of fudge between the corporeal and the divine.

Of course, the fabulous power wielded by those who commanded Rome’s armies became too tempting to resist: first Pompey and then Julius Caesar realised that a squabbling and divided Senate was unlikely to stand in their way when they were backed with tens of thousands of belligerent troopers demanding land and pensions in return for their loyal military service.

Anyone interested in politics has to study the Roman Republic. As Beard says, it was not democracy as such (that experiment was left to the Greeks) because to be eligible to vote you had to be high born, rich, or both, but as a means of limiting the power of individuals – kings, originally – it worked.

Republican politics

SPQR Mary Beard

There is so much to relish in this book

After Rome’s disastrous early experiments with monarchs (was Romulus himself a king? wonders Beard), the Romans devised a system in which political power was always divided – the supreme authority in the state was the pair of consuls, who were voted in annually and who rarely served multiple stints in office. At least until the first civil war, after which Julius Caesar got the Senate to grant him dictatorial powers in perpetuity. Or until he was assassinated, anyway, and even that had a touch of the traditional: murder was always the practical side of Republican politics.

There are some lovely insights: the Julio-Claudian emperors were dynastic, but the family trees were so entangled, not least because of the Roman habit of adoption, that trying to trace descendants was next to impossible. This meant, as she penetratingly observes, that the imperial line was most endangered when an emperor died. Whoever came out top in the succession manoeuvring usually swiftly disposed of all other eligible candidates.

There is so much to relish here: how Romans lived, ate, loved, worked, amassed fortunes, bought, sold and freed slaves, and built. Oh, how the emperors built. Almost every dictatorship since has had this fetish for grandiose architecture: this desire to out-do the Romans.

And Beard reminds us that the Romans are still with us. We use much of their language. Their phrases. Panem et circenses is a cliché, but consider the benefits dependency and endless fatuous TV game shows: little has changed in two millennia. When I was a boy, living in Libya in the 1970s, it was pointed out to me how the Libyans wore their robes in exactly the same way as the Romans wore their togas. They did, too. Also in Libya, I wandered with my family through the excavated and deserted cities of Leptis Magna and Sabratha. My younger brother once reached down and picked up something stuck between two ancient flagstones. It was a carved ivory spoon handle. The last person who touched it was probably a Roman.

Beard is in love with the speeches of Cicero, the poetry of Virgil, the history of Tacitus, the commentaries of Julius Caesar, and communicates that love to enthuse the reader.

The Romans are all around us, be they never in sound or sight. In Italy, their buildings, their art, are all around. Oddly, though, not their music. Though Beard doesn’t mention it, we have little idea what their music sounded like. The Romans had no musical notation – isn’t that odd? We drink French wine from vineyards planted by the Romans. We drive cars on roads they laid down for their legions.

This is a fucking fantastic book. Read it.

By Neil Murray

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