SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) – 3 Historical overview

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard is divided into roughly three parts – the early legendary period (1200 to 500 BC), the republic (509 to 30 BC) and the empire (30 BC to where Beard chooses to end her account, in the year 212 AD).

It’s sort of predictable that most of the earliest history of ancient Rome, its foundation and early years, would be shrouded in legend and probably mostly fictional. It’s a more interesting point, and one Beard repeats a number of times, that a good deal of what you could call the early historical period, the 600s, 500s, 400s and even 300s BC, were still heavily distorted and fictionalised and glamorised by the authors of the first centuries BC and AD.

They projected the administrative ranks and classes and issues, the epic battles and even the grand architecture of the Rome of their own time, back onto earlier periods which probably consisted of little more than chieftains living in basic huts and leading cattle raids against nearby communities.

It was a world of chieftains and warrior bands, not of organised armies and foreign policy. (p.117)

For a fundamental learning to emerge from the first 200 pages of this book is that the first century BC and the first century AD were the classic period for great Roman writing, including the first extensive historical writing (Livy), detailed discussions of the Roman constitution and politics (Cicero),  Catullus’s love poetry, Caesar’s accounts of his war in Gaul, plays, poetry and so on (p.214).

The point being that modern historians think that many aspects of the accounts written during these centuries about the founding and early history of Rome hundreds of years earlier are very misleading. The rulers, warriors, wars and battles of the early centuries were exaggerated to heroic proportions, mixed with legend, and highly moralised to provide improving, educational stories to a 1st century audience.

It is clear that much of the tradition that has come down to us, far from reality, is a fascinating mythical projection of later Roman priorities and anxieties into the distant past. (p.100)

(This core idea, and the word ‘projected’, recur on pages 97, 100, 108, 141, 205).

The traditional, grand and impressive history of the founding and early years of ancient Rome, as it was written up by Rome’s first century propagandists, was repeated for centuries afterwards, inspiring all subsequent histories, countless poems and paintings and plays throughout the Western tradition. It was only in the twentieth century, with the advent of modern archaeological techniques, that virtually all these stories came, not so much to be questioned (historians had been sceptical about some of the taller tales even at the time) but to be definitively disproved by the evidence in the ground.

This process goes on to the present day, with ever-more advanced technology and computer analysis (and DNA analysis of bones and remains) contributing to a comprehensive overhaul of our image of ancient Rome. If you Google books about ancient Rome you’ll quickly discover that ones published even as recently as 2000 are now considered out of date because the archaeology is moving at such a pace and shedding ever-newer light on Rome’s origins and early development.

Now, Beard does take a lot of this on board. Her narrative frequently grinds to a halt while she tells us about important, recent archaeological discoveries, complete with photos and descriptions. The problem for the reader is that Beard doesn’t give a good clear detailed account of what the traditional story actually was before setting out to question and undermine it. She’ll write that the famous story about x has been thrown into doubt by recent finds under the Forum and you, as the reader, go: ‘Hang on, hang on, what famous story about x?’

In fact she uses the word ‘famous’ very liberally and often to describe things I’ve never heard of. I appreciate that this is because they are ‘famous’ in the world of Classics and ancient history, but surely the whole point of the book is to try and bring this world to outsiders, to people who know very little about it apart from the handful of clichés and stereotypes we call ‘general knowledge’.

What follows is my notes for myself on the key events from the traditional version.

1. Aeneas 1200 BC

Ancient legends associate Rome with the arrival of Aeneas, exile from Troy, around 1200 BC (ancient Greeks and Romans dated the Trojan War to what we now call the 12th or 11th centuries BC). Aeneas settled in central Italy and founded the line which led, centuries later, to King Numitor the maternal grandfather of the twins, Romulus and Remus.

Numerous variations on the Aeneas legend exist and were extensively reworked in the historical period i.e. from the 2nd century BC onwards. The version best known to the post-Roman world derives from the Aeneid, the great epic poem by Publius Vergilius Maro (70 BC to 19 AD). The Aeneid is maybe the most influential poem in Western literature (p.76).

The first six of the poem’s twelve books describe Aeneas’s journey from Troy to Rome, the second six describe Aeneas’s settlement in Italy in the region of what would (a lot later) come to be Rome. This process of settlement involved Aeneas in fierce fighting against local tribes (the Rutulians led by their king, Turnus) until he finally won the war, gained the territory and the hand of the beautiful Lavinia, daughter of another powerful local king, Latinus.

But Aeneas was not the actual founder of Rome. He founded a town he named Lavinium after his wife. It was his son, Ascanius, who was said to have founded another town in the area, Alba Longa, whose king, Numitor, some 400 years later, was to the maternal grandfather of the twins Romulus and Remus (p.77).

2. Romulus 750s BC

Beard speculates freely about the origins and meaning of the Romulus and Remus legend about the founding of Rome. Characteristically, she doesn’t explain it very well so I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a clear understanding. Various versions are found in ancient texts, many of which contradict each other, but the consensus story is that:

Numitor was king of Alba Longa, a town a little south of what was to become Rome. He was overthrown by his brother Amulius. Numitor had a daughter, Rhea Silvia, who was a vestal virgin. She was made pregnant by the war god Mars and gave birth to twins. Seeing as they were descendants of the rightful (overthrown) king, Numitor, Amulius ordered the twins to be abandoned on the banks of the river Tiber (as Moses, Oedipus, Paris and so many other figures of legend are abandoned as children). Here they were discovered by a she-wolf who suckled them and kept them alive in a cave (later known as the Lupercal) until they were discovered and adopted by Faustulus, a shepherd and raised (like Paris) as simple shepherds. In time the twins grew into natural leaders of men and found themselves caught up in a conflict between Numitor and Amulius. They joined the forces of Numitor and helped restore him to his rightful throne of Alba Longa, during which process they were recognised as Numitor’s grandsons. Then they set off to found a city of their own, deciding to build it on the defensible hills by the Tiber where they founded Rome. They each set about building a citadel of their own, Romulus preferring the Palatine Hill (above the Lupercal cave), Remus preferring the Aventine Hill. When Remus mockingly jumped over the early foundations of Romulus’s wall, Romulus killed him (various versions supply other reasons why the pair fell out so badly). Romulus then went on to found the city of Rome, its institutions, government, military and religious traditions and reigned for many years as its first king.

Interpret this legend how you will. The story of founding brothers who fall out, with one murdering the other, is as old as Cain and Abel (p.64). And on this telling, Romulus and Remus are repeating the fraternal falling out of their grandfather and his brother, Numitor and Amulius. In my opinion these myths may be attempts by ancient peoples to structure and rationalise the kind of civil strife early societies were prone to.

Did any of this actually happen? Almost certainly not. The earliest written record of the legend dates from the late third century BC i.e. some 500 years after the events it purports to describe. Far from being a real person who founded Rome, Romulus is almost certainly a legendary invention and his name the result of what historians and linguists call ‘back formation’ i.e. starting with an established place and inventing a legendary figure who you claim it’s named after. Almost certainly ‘Roma’ came first and Romulus afterwards (p.71).

The suckling by the she-wolf is precisely the kind of odd, distinctive and uncanny detail of ancient myth which defies rationalisation. A quick amateur interpretation for a self-consciously warrior race like the Romans would be that the twins imbibed wolfish aggression and ferocity from their animal wetnurse. Same with their parentage, a vestal virgin (holiness and piety) impregnated by the God of War (speaks for itself).

Incidentally, what Beard refers to as the ‘famous’ statue of Romulus and Remus suckling from the she-wolf is a fake, in the sense that the figures of the suckling boys were made in the fifteenth century, a thousand years after the sculpture of the wolf.

Statue of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, currently in the Capitoline Museum. The statue is thought to be Etruscan, maybe from the fifth century BC while the twins are from the 15th century AD.

By the 1st century Roman historians had calculated a year for the founding of their city (in the third year of the sixth cycle of Olympic Games, p.71) and dated events ab urbe condita (AUC) or ‘since the city was founded’. Six hundred years later, in 525 AD when the monk Dionysius Exiguus first devised the system of dating events around the birth of Christ, into either ‘before Christ’ (BC) or ‘in the year of our Lord’ (anno domini or AD), he calculated the AUC date to be 753 BC, a Christian-era date which became enshrined in later tradition.

By contrast, during the republican period itself, historic events were dated by referring to the name of the consuls in power during a particular year. In the imperial period, government officials date events as in year 1, 2, 3 etc of each individual emperor. You can see why both these methods would eventually become very cumbersome, complicated and confusing. It’s surprising it took so long for the Christian authorities, in the shape of Dionysus, to come up with what, to us, appears the obvious, improved system.

3. The monarchy 750s to 509 BC

Seven improbably long-lived kings are said to have filled the period from 753 (the traditional date for the founding of the city) to 509 (the traditional date for the overthrow of the monarchy) (p.93, 96). Maybe seven kings to match the seven hills the city is supposedly founded on (?). Archaeologists and historians think the last 3 in the list were real people, but there’s debate over whether the first 4 were real or figures of legend:

  1. Romulus
  2. Numa Pompilius
  3. Tullus Hostilius
  4. Ancus Marcius
  5. Tarquinius Priscus
  6. Servius Tullius
  7. Tarquinius Superbus

4. End of the monarchy / founding of the republic 509 BC

The outrageous behaviour of the last king, Tarquin the Arrogant, prompted the population of Rome to rise up, overthrow him, and establish a republic. The spark for the revolution was, from an early point, associated with the legend of the rape of Lucretia.

Lucretia was a noblewoman in ancient Rome. She was raped by the son of the last king, Sextus Tarquinius and, out of shame, committed suicide by stabbing herself (p.122-3). Lucretia’s noble family and their allies rose up against Tarquinius and drove him and his family out of Rome although he didn’t give up without a fight, sparking a war against him and his followers which lasted up to a decade (p.125). As with other early legends there are no contemporary accounts, in fact the first written accounts of the story are only given by the Roman historian Livy (born 60 BC) and Greco-Roman historian Dionysius of Halicarnassus (born 59 BC) 450 years later.

There followed a period of transition during which it was agreed that the new republic would be ruled by an elected leader called a ‘consul’, himself advised by a ‘senate’ of elders and aristocrats. This quickly evolved into the notion of two consuls, each elected to serve for one year, a system Rome was to keep for the next 1,000 years. Collatinus, the husband of the raped suicide Lucretia was one of the first consuls (p.127).

Quite soon the Senate invented another innovation, the ability to elect a single leader, a ‘dictator’, to manage the republic during time of war. This was necessary because the early accounts describe how Rome was plunged almost immediately into a long series of wars with neighbouring tribes and people in Italy, for example the Etruscans, the Samnites, the Aquians, the Veii, the Senones, Umbri, Picentes and the Marsi.

5. The Conflict of the Orders 400s to 200s BC

In its earliest days political power was held by the wealthiest families, described as ‘patricians’ (Latin patricii) and sharply distinguished from the majority of the population who were described as ‘plebeians’ or ‘plebs’. Membership of the patrician class was hereditary and could only be achieved by birth.

The fifth century i.e. the 400s BC, were marked by a series of administrative reforms which slowly and arduously gave the plebeians equal power and say with the patricians (although it wasn’t until 366 that the first plebeian consul was elected).

The conflict between the patricians and plebeians in Rome is referred to as the Conflict of the Orders although, as Beard points out, the Latin ordines translates better as ‘social ranks’ (p.146). In our post-Marxist times it’s tempting to call it the Class War but that would also be wrong because a key point that emerges from Beard’s account is that the plebs in question weren’t necessarily poor: in fact many of them were richer than the patricians, it was more a question of nouveaux riches ‘new men’, who’d acquired military glory and/or wealth but were excluded from running the city by virtue of not being born into the right families.

The conflict took place over a very long period, from soon after the foundation of the republic, around 500 BC, down to 287 BC when patrician senators finally lost their last check over the Plebeian Council.

Really major moments were marked by a secessio when the entire population of plebeians left the city causing what was, in effect, a general strike. The first of these took place in 494, prompted by the plebeians’ widespread indebtedness to rich patrician lenders, and it successfully led to the establishment of a new body, the Concilium Plebis, and a new office of state, the tribunes of the people (tribuni plebis). There were at least five secessios.

Some of the main constitutional reforms from the period include:

450 BC drafting of the Twelve Tables, an early code of law (pages 139 to 145).

445 Lex Canuleia removing the ban on marriage between patricians and plebeians (lex is Latin for law, hence English words like ‘legal’)

443 BC The offices of the Tribuni militum consulari potestate were established. A collegium of three patrician or plebeian tribunes, one each from specific Roman tribes (the Titienses, the Ramnenses, and the Luceres) would hold the power of the consuls from year to year, subject to the Senate.

367 BC one of the consulships was opened to plebeians (p.148).

342 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two consuls to be a plebeian.

339 BC law passed making it mandatory for one of the two censors to be a plebeian

326 BC the system of enslavement for debt was abolished, establishing the principle that the liberty of the Roman citizen was an inalienable right (p.148).

300 BC half of the priesthoods (which were also state offices) must be plebeian.

287 BC Third Secession led to the Hortensian Law stating, among other things, that all plebiscites (measures passed in the Concilium Plebis) had the force of laws for the whole Roman state, removing from the Patrician senators their final check over the Plebeian Council. By depriving the Patricians of their final weapon over the Plebeians, it ensured that the Roman state didn’t become a democracy but rested firmly under the control of the new Patricio-Plebeian aristocracy.

The conflict marked the breakdown of the old aristocracy of birth and its replacement by an aristocracy based on i) the holding of political offices and ii) wealth, particularly land-based wealth. In Beard’s words, the Conflict of the Orders:

replaced a governing class defined by birth with one defined by wealth and achievement. (p.167)

The upshot of the Conflict of the Orders was not popular revolution but the creation of a new governing class, comprising rich plebeians and patricians. (p.189)

So it didn’t remove the hierarchical, class-based nature of Roman society, nor did it significantly improve the lives or prospects of the poorer members of society.

6. Consolidating power in Italy – Rome’s wars

This was a world where violence was endemic, skirmishes with neighbours were annual events, plunder was a significant revenue stream for everyone and disputes were resolved by force. (p.162)

Military campaigning was a defining feature of Roman life…the Roman tradition [viewed] war as the structuring principle of history…The Romans directed enormous resources to warfare and, even as victors, paid a huge price in human life…somewhere between 10 and 25 per cent of the Roman adult male population would have served in the legions each year…(pages 176 to 177)

It was a world of political conflict, shifting alliances and continuous, brutal interstate violence…(p.194)

The ancient world consisted of tribes, kingdoms and empires almost continually at war with each other. Rome was to eventually emerge as the most effective fighting state in the Mediterranean region. But first it took a century of fighting their neighbours to emerge as the strongest power in central, and then all of, Italy. And then the series of Punic Wars (264 to 146) to wear down and eliminate their main rival in the central Mediterranean. Carthage. Here are some of the key moments:

Conquest of Veii 396

396 BC Roman forces led by the dictator Marcus Furius Camillus conquered the nearby town of Veii. This probably involved relatively small numbers on both sides but was mythologised by later writers as a heroic conflict up there with the Trojan wars. For Beard its significance is that Rome didn’t just beat another city, it annexed it along with all its land. Soon afterwards, the Veii and three local tribes were included in the list of tribes who were allowed to become Roman citizens. Conquest and assimilation were to be the basis for Rome’s winning formula. It is no coincidence that around the same time as this Roman soldiers first earned a salary (from the Latin for ‘salt’) i.e. they stopped being glorified private militias and became something much more organised, centrally funded and administered (p.155).

Gauls take Rome 390 BC

Brennus was a chieftain of the Senones tribe of Cisalpine Gauls (where Cisalpine means this side of the Alps i.e. in Italy, as opposed to transalpine meaning the other side of the Alps i.e. in modern France) (incidentally that explains the newish word cisgender, meaning someone whose sense of personal identity aligns with their birth gender, as opposed to transgender meaning someone whose sense of personal identity is different from their birth sex: you can see how cis and trans retain the sense they had in ancient times of this side and that side of a border, in this case a psychological one to do with gender identity.)

Back to Brennus: in about 390 BC he defeated the Romans at the Battle of the Allia and went on to take Rome, holding it for several months (pages 138 and 155).

Brennus’s sack of Rome was the only time in 800 years the city was occupied by a non-Roman army before the fall of the city to the Visigoths in 410 AD and beard spends some time describing the how the memory grew in shame and trauma over the years, was exaggerated and lamented by 1st century writers, and routinely used as a benchmark of scandal and humiliation with which to attack contemporary politicians.

Latin War 341 to 338 (p.158)

The Samnite wars (p.158)

Fought against communities in the mountainous parts of central-south Italy (p.158).

  • First Samnite War 343 to 341
  • Second Samnite War 326 to 304
  • Third Samnite War 298 to 290

By the end of the Samnite wars over half the Italian peninsula was under Roman control, either directly or through alliances (p.159).

(334 to 323 Alexander the Great conquers from Greece to India, p.158)

Pyrrhic war 280 to 275

From the incursion of Pyrrhus in 280 BC to the final crushing of Carthage in 146 Rome was continuously at war with enemies in the Italian peninsula or overseas (p.175).

The Greek king Pyrrhus invades southern Italy but, despite a series of victories, his forces become so depleted that he moved on to Sicily (278 to 275) before returning to the mainland and being conclusively defeated by the Romans. He survived the final battle and withdrew the remnant of  his forces back to Greece (p.174).

The Pyrrhic War was the first time that Rome confronted the professional mercenary armies of the Hellenistic states of the eastern Mediterranean. Their victory sent waves around the eastern Mediterranean. As a result of the war, Rome confirmed its hegemony over southern Italy.

First Punic War 264 to 241

Rome against Carthage, fought almost entirely in the contested island of Sicily (p.175).

Second Punic war 219 to 202

When Hannibal Barca marched a Carthaginian army from Spain around the south of France and then over the Alps. This is covered in detail in Richard Miles’s book, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, from which I was surprised to learn that this wasn’t a one-year campaign, but that Hannibal and his army criss-crossed Italy for fifteen years (p.175). The campaign was most famous for the epic Battle of Cannae in 216 where Hannibal destroyed a Roman army, inflicting a reputed 70,000 casualties (p.180-2).

First Macedonian war 215 to 205

The Macedon wars were triggered by fears that their king would cross the short stretch of sea to Italy to come to Hannibal’s aid. So a Roman army was sent to fight him (p.176).

Second Macedonian war 200 to 197

Syrian war 192 to 188

Under Scipio Asiaticus the Romans defeated Antiochus ‘the Great’ of Syria (who had, as it happens, given a refuge to Hannibal in exile from Carthage) (p.176).

Third Macedonian war 172 to 168

Final Roman victory in this war effectively gave Rome control over all mainland Greece (p.176 and 196). The Greek historian Polybius commented that, in the 50 years up to 168 Rome had conquered the entire known world (p.199). When Aemilius Paulinus returned from defeating king Perseus of Macedon, was given a ‘triumph’ in 167, it took three days for the procession of loot to pass through Rome, including so much silver coin that 3,000 men were needed to carry it in 750 huge vessels (p.201).

War in Iberia 155 to 133

Carthage occupied southern Spain, not least to exploit the vast silver mines there which were worked by up to 40,000 slaves (p.196). Hannibal was the son of the Carthaginian general who first conquered it, which explains why he set out from Spain, not Africa, to attack Rome. During these years Rome sent legions to finally defeat and expel the Carthaginians from southern Spain.

Third Punic war 149 to 146

Short struggle which ended with the Romans under Publius Cornelius Scipio breaking into Carthage, burning and razing it to the ground, carrying off the population that survived into slavery. For which Scipio acquired the name ‘Africanus’ i.e. African (Carthage being in north Africa, under what is the modern city of Tunis) (p.209).

War with Jugurtha 118 to 106

Described on pages 264 to 268 as an example of the way Rome’s old constitution struggled to cope with managing a Mediterranean-wide empire. The mismanagement of the war led Sallust to compose The War Against Jugurtha a devastating indictment of Rome’s failure to quell this north African ruler.

The Social War 91 to 87

From the Latin bellum sociale meaning ‘war of the allies’, when Rome went to war with its several of its autonomous allies or socii (pages 234 to 239). The allies had for some time wanted full Roman citizenship, an issue which became more and more bitterly divisive. Things came to a head when the consul Marcus Livius Drusus suggested reforms grant the Italian allies Roman citizenship, giving them a greater say in the external policy of the Roman Republic. The Roman senatorial elite rejected his ideas and he was assassinated. At which point the allies realised there was no hope of reform and communities across Italy declared independence from Rome. When the rebels took Asculum, the first city to fall to them, they slaughtered every Roman they could find. The wives of the men who refused to join them were tortured and scalped. To which Rome replied with equal brutality. And so four long years of what, in many places, was in effect a civil war. According to Beard, the Social War was:

one of the deadliest and most puzzling conflicts in Roman history (p.234)

After defeating the various allies, Rome did indeed grant citizenship to all of peninsular Italy, at a stroke trebling the number of Roman citizens to about a million. The Social War led to a complete Romanisation of Italy (p.217) and the nearest thing to a nation state that ever existed in the ancient world (p.239).

Civil wars

Which brings us to the era of Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78 BC), Roman general and statesman who won the first large-scale civil war in Roman history and became the first man of the Republic to seize power through force. He was the first Roman general to march on Rome and take it by force, in 88, doing so to outlaw his enemy Gaius Marius. He did it again on his return from campaigning in the East, installing himself as dictator in Rome and embarking on a reign of terror which involved issuing proscriptions, or prices on the heads of thousands of men including a third of the Senate (pages 217 and 243). The point is that a general occupying Rome by force and bloodily wiping out his political opponents set a terrible precedent for the decades to come.

First Mithradatic war 89 to 85

The Greek king Mithradates VI of Pontus was to prove a comically irrepressible and obstinate foe (p.242).

Second Mithradatic war 83 to 81

It was during this war that General Sulla was appointed dictator by the Senate.

Third Mithradatic war 73 to 63

Revolt of Spartacus 73 to 71

Beard refers to Spartacus’s slave revolt three or four times (pages 217, 248, 249) but is not interested in the details of battles or outcomes. She uses it mainly to demonstrate modern ideas about the social make-up of the Italian countryside, in the sense that the rebellion can’t have lasted as long as it did if it was just slaves. Quite a lot of the rural poor and maybe lower middle classes must have joined it (page 217 and again on page 249).

Pompey the Great

During the 70s Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus was manoeuvring to become the most powerful Roman general. In the scope of his ambition based on his enormous achievement in remodelling Rome’s entire possessions in the East, Beard thinks ‘Pompey has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’ (p.274). Complex politicking led in 60 BC to Pompey joining Marcus Licinius Crassus (the man who led the army which finally defeated Spartacus) and Julius Caesar in a military-political alliance known as the First Triumvirate (p.218 and 279). The point about it was the way it aimed to circumvent all the careful checks and balances of the old republican constitution in order to vest absolute and permanent power in the hands of just three men.

The 50s were a decade of complex jockeying for power as the two main players fought for Rome in their respective arenas, Caesar conquering Gaul, Pompey in the East. Crassus died at the disastrous Battle of Carrhae in 53 against Rome’s long-time eastern enemy, the Parthian Empire. His death began the unravelling of the uneasy partnership between Pompey and Caesar.

Julius Caesar

In 49 Caesar marched his army back into Italy and crossed the river Rubicon, committing to war with Pompey, a civil war which led to Pompey’s death in 48 but which dragged on until the last of his supporters were vanquished in 45.

At which point Caesar had emerged as by the far the most powerful politician and military figure in Rome and was looking forward to consolidating his power and implementing a widespread programme of reforms, when he was assassinated in March 44, plunging Rome into another 15 years of civil war.


It’s worth reiterating and emphasising that Beard’s book is not a military history. She doesn’t give detailed descriptions of any battles, doesn’t detail the progress of any specific campaign or war. She only mentions wars as ammunition for discussions about the historical and social questions and issues which is what she’s far more interested in. So to repeat an example given above, she refers to the Spartacus rebellion 3 or 4 times but gives hardly any detail about the man himself, about the life or conditions of gladiators, doesn’t give any sense of the campaigns or battles involved in the three-year-long conflict. Instead it’s only briefly mentioned in the context of broader discussions of poverty, social ranks, relationships with Rome’s Italian allies and so on. If you’re looking for good accounts of ancient Roman wars, battles, generals and so on, this is emphatically not the book for you.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 2

As I explained in my review of the introduction to SPQR, Beard is a little too academic to be truly popular, yet not scholarly or intellectual enough to be truly challenging.

By ‘not scholarly’ I mean that although she certainly mentions the scholarly debates around key issues from the historiography of ancient Rome, she rarely goes into enough detail to make us really understand what’s at stake (unlike Richard Miles in his history of Carthage who can’t come across a scholarly debate without explaining it at length, accompanied by copious, and often very interesting, footnotes and extensive references).

By ‘not very  intellectual’ I mean her book contains discussions and debates about themes and issues from the period, but nothing truly thought provoking, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about ancient history (the early years are shrouded in legend, it was a very sexist culture, Roman society was very militaristic) – no surprises, no new slants or opinions, and certainly no overarching conceptual framework for her analysis. Instead, there are lots of interesting bits and bobs about archaeological finds or social history, gossip about well known figures, speculation about the early history, fairly predictable things about Caesar, the civil wars, the rise of Augustus. Ho hum.

What you very much do get a lot of is rhetorical questions. Beard is addicted to asking rhetorical questions, not one rhetorical question, but little clumps of two or three rhetorical questions which all come together like buses on a rainy day. But asking rhetorical questions doesn’t make her an intellectual, it makes her a standard teacher using a standard teaching technique.

How far is it useful to see Roman history in terms of imperial biographies or to divide the story of empire into emperor-sized (or dynasty-sized) chunks? How accurate are the standard images of these rulers that have come down to us? What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make? (p.399)

Asking lots of high-sounding questions gives people the impression you’re brainy without you actually having to do any real thinking.


More important, for me anyway, is the way Beard mentions famous events only to skate over them. Although SPQR is a long book, it is frustratingly superficial. Early on in the narrative I found her account of both the Catiline Conspiracy (63 BC) and the legend of Romulus and Remus (750s BC?) patchy and disconnected. She’s interested in this or that bit of the story, tells a bit in order to illustrate problems with the established narrative or as a pretext to bring in recent archaeological findings – but she rarely gives you a good, simple, clear description of the complete event. I had to look up both the Catiline conspiracy and the story of Romulus and Remus on Wikipedia in order to get a proper, coherent account of both, and in order to fully understand the issues which Beard only patchily explains.

Later on she refers to Pyrrhus, the Greek general who invaded southern Italy, giving rise to what became called the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC). Pyrrhus won several victories but at such a cost in lives and material that they gave rise to the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’. But Beard says very little about who Pyrrhus was, why he attacked, about the progress of his military campaigns or describe any of the costly victories which gave rise to the saying. To learn more about Pyrrhus and his wars I had, again, to look him up on Wikipedia. Ditto Spartacus, ditto the Jugurtha, ditto the Roman constitution, ditto Scipio Africanus, and so on.

Beard’s account of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which lasted 15 years and was the core of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) is insultingly brief at barely 2 pages (pages 175 to 176). It almost made me want to throw this book away and reread Richard Miles’s fascinating, long, rich, detailed and subtle account of the same subject.

From the 300s through to the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC Rome was almost continuously at war. Beard mentions some of these wars, and occasionally specific names, such as Mithradates king of Pontus, float to the surface for half a page or so, but many are given the briefest mention, many aren’t mentioned at all, and for none of them, none whatsoever, do you get a proper account of the military campaign. There are no descriptions of battles anywhere in the book.

If you are looking for a military history of Rome, the most militaristic state in the ancient world which built its empire on phenomenal military success, this is not it. If you’re looking for a diplomatic history of Rome i.e. a description and analysis of the strategic thinking, alliances and manoeuvres behind the wars, how the geopolitical thinking of Rome’s rulers changed and evolved over time, this is definitely not it. Occasional reference is made to the Roman gods, but not much to their attributes or worship. If you’re looking for a book about Roman religion, this isn’t it. There are lots of passages describing recent archaeological discoveries and the light they shed on this or that aspect of early Rome – for example archaeologists’ discovery under the ancient Lapis Niger section of the Forum of a stone block on which a very ancient form of Latin seems to refer to a rex or king. The block is dated to about 570 BC and so would appear to be exciting confirmation that Rome did indeed have kings at exactly the period when tradition says Romulus founded a series of ancient kings. Interesting. But this, like other similar passages, pop up almost at random. If you’re looking for a thorough archaeological history of Rome, this is not it either.

Instead SPQR proceeds by examining issues and problems in Roman historiography, introduced by flurries of rhetorical questions (which all-too-often go unanswered). Overall the text proceeds in broadly chronological order, but Beard jumps around a bit, coming back to the same subjects 20 or 30 pages after you thought we were done with them. She is also very given to repetition – some favourite scenes recur three or four times (Claudius telling the Senate that Gaulish leaders should be allowed to become consuls or the fact that Trajan was from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa, the notion that Spartacus’s rebellion must have included more than just gladiators to have lasted so long – each of these idées fixes is mentioned four or five times, as are many others).

The result is an often confusing mix of sudden bursts of straight history interspersed with nuggets of recent archaeology, occasional profiles of specific people (for some reason the Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius get extensive treatment, pages 221 to 233) all embedded in a kind of academic tide which keeps rising to a surf of academic questions before setting off onto new issues and investigations. Rather than a chronological account, it’s more like a series of articles or mini essays, arranged in a roughly chronological order.

Social history, sort of

There’s a lot of soft social history, specifically in chapter eight ‘The Home Front’ (pages 297 to 336) about Roman attitudes and customs, traditional ideas and beliefs – though done in a very limp way. I’ve just read a sentence where she adds a parenthesis explaining that the poor in ancient Rome didn’t have as much money as the rich. Maybe this book is targeted at people who need to have it explained to them that the poor, on the whole, by and large, don’t have as much money as the rich.

The specific context is she’s explaining that women in ancient Rome, though subject to umpteen restrictions which we (pretty obviously) would find intolerable, in fact had more independence than women in ancient Greece or the Near East.

The contrast is particularly striking with classical Athens, where women from wealthy families were supposed to live secluded lives, out of the public eye, largely segregated from men and male social life (the poor, needless to say, did not have the cash or space to enforce any such divisions). (p.307)

I suppose this is a useful point to make, but maybe it could have been made in a subtler way, not the rather crude formulation that the poor didn’t have as much cash as the rich. It feels like she’s bolted on the parenthesis not because it says anything useful for the reader, but because Dame Mary wants us to know that she’s really desperately concerned about the poor. Again and again you read things which ought to be interesting but which, through her banal turn of phrase or clunky thinking, are turned to lead.

Feminism, sort of

We know that Beard is a feminist because she tells everyone she meets, mentions it in all her TV shows and media appearances, and in tweets and lectures, and has written a book about Women and Power.  She flourishes her feminist credentials early on with little sequence of huffy points about sexism in ancient Rome:

  • In the middle of the first century BCE, the senate was a body of some 600 members; they were all men who had previously been elected to political office (and I mean all menno woman ever held political office in ancient Rome). (p.32)
  • Catiline’s defeat was nonetheless a notable victory for Cicero; and his supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society, such as Rome. (p.35)
  • The ‘people’ was a much larger and more amorphous body than the senate, made up, in political terms, of all male citizens; the women had no formal political rights. (p.36)
  • The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us…(p.37)

I mock them as ‘huffy not as a sexist jibe but a jokey description of the way they’re such obvious and superficial points to make. Because she doesn’t go any deeper into any of these ideas, these throwaway remarks just come over as cheap shots. Like the reference in brackets to the poor, they don’t seem designed to tell the reader anything useful about ancient Rome so much as to let the reader know that Dame Mary is a feminist, goddamit, and proud of it and nobody is going to shut her up and Down with the patriarchy and Sisters are doing it for themselves. As profound as a t-shirt slogan.

Having got this off her chest in the opening section, Beard’s feminism largely goes to sleep for the rest of the book. She reverts to telling us the long history of legendary, proto-historical, historical, republican and imperial Rome entirely from a male point of view.

Some feminist historians I’ve read reinterpret history entirely from a female point of view, subjecting the patriarchal structures of power to the intrinsic sexism of the syntax of the language to bracing, deeply thought-through, radical reinterpretations of history which make you stop and reconsider everything you know. There is absolutely none of that in Beard’s account. Beard’s much vaunted feminism feels like a few cherries blu tacked onto a narrative which could have been written by a man about men. Her ‘feminist’ account of women in ancient Rome is a big disappointment. Apart from the occasional moan that everything was run by men, SPQR could have been written fifty years ago.

Early on she points out the (fairly obvious) fact that two of the founding legends of ancient Rome involve rape, being the abduction of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia. Some other, less famous turning points in Roman history, wee also marked by accusations of sex crimes. Now there’s obviously something going on here, and I’m sure a half decent feminist theorist could take us deep into the psychological and cultural and political sub-texts and interpretations this is open to. But Beard doesn’t. It’s frustrating.

The only sustained consideration of women in ancient Rome comes when she pauses her (superficial) historical narrative for a chapter about everyday life in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (Chapter Eight: The Home Front), which kicks off with fifteen or so pages about women (pages 303 to 318). But she manages to make even this sound dull and utterly predictable: Girls were often married off young, girls were forced to make marriages advantageous to their families (p.309). Once married:

The proper role of the woman was to be devoted to her husband, to produce the next generation, to be an adornment, to be a household manager and to contribute to the domestic economy by spinning and weaving. (p.304).

More or less the same as in ancient Persia or India or China or medieval anywhere, then. The only real surprise is the point mentioned above, that women in ancient Rome enjoyed relatively more freedom than in ancient Athens. They could, for example, freely attend mixed dinner parties, which would have been scandalous in Athens (p.307).

In fact the most interesting point in the passage about women in ancient Rome was the casualness of Roman marriage. There could be a big expensive ceremony if you were rich but there didn’t need to be and there was no sense of the Christian sacrament which the last 2,000 years have drummed into us. Instead, if a couple said they were married, they were, and if they said they were divorced, they were (p.303)

That’s interesting but you can see how it’s what you could call a ‘trivial pursuit fact’, quite interesting, but devoid of any theoretical (feminist) underpinning or detail. She gives no history of the evolution or development of Roman marriage. I bet there are entire scholarly books devoted to the subject which make fascinating reading but here there are just a few sentences, an ‘oh that’s interesting’ fact, and then onto the next thing. A bit later, writing about the high infant mortality in ancient Rome, she writes:

Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation. (p.317)

I see what she’s getting at, but it just seems a really crass and wholly inadequate conclusion to the train of facts she’s been listing.

A lot of the text consists of pulling out facts like this at the expense of a continuous narrative – chapter eight includes a couple of pages describing how a wealthy man’s Roman house was more a vehicle for public display and business meetings than what we’d call a home:

On the atrium wall, a painted family tree was one standard feature, and the spoils a man had taken in battle, the ultimate mark of Roman achievement, might also be pinned up for admiration. (p.324)

This is kind of interesting in the way the rest of the book is, ho hum, kind of interesting, no big revelations. A bit of this, a bit of that, padded out with feminist tutting and hundreds of rhetorical questions.

[Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] were a concerted attempt to evaluate the great men (and they were all men) of Greece and Rome against each other…(p.501)

(There ought to be a term in rhetoric for the tag which so many feminist writers and columnists add to everything they wrote – ‘(and they were all men)’ – as if adding it to any sentence about almost any period of history anywhere in the world up till about 50 years ago, really comes as much surprise to anyone or changes anything. The ‘all men’ tag, maybe. To dress it smartly in Latin, the omnes homines tag.)

Is SPQR too full of rhetorical questions?

One irritating aspect of her approach is Beard’s fondness for writing little clumps of rhetorical questions of exactly the type which work well in a TV documentary or maybe a lecture hall but feel like padding in a written text:

How did Cicero and his contemporaries reconstruct the early years of the city? Why were their origins important to them? What does it mean to ask ‘where does Rome begin’? How much can we, or could they, really know of earliest Rome? (p.52)

But if there is no surviving literature from the founding period and we cannot rely on the legends, how can we access any information about the origins of Rome? Is there any way of throwing light on the early years of the little town by the Tiber that grew into a world empire? (p.79)

Is it possible to link our investigations into the earliest history of Rome with the stories that the Romans themselves told, or with their elaborate speculations on the city’s origins? Can we perhaps find a little more history in the myth? (p.86)

Did someone called Ancus Marcus once exist but not do any of the things attributed to him? Were those things the work of some person or persons other than Ancus but of unknown name? (p.95)

Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the liberty of the Roman citizen be reconciled? (p.129)

What kind of model of fatherhood was this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? (p.150)

Why and how did the Romans come to dominate so much of the Mediterranean in such a short time? What was distinctive about the Roman political system? (p.173)

How influential was the popular voice in Roman Republican politics? Who controlled Rome? How should we characterise this Roman political system? (p.189)

If this was the kind of thing that came from Rome’s ancestral home, what did that imply about what it meant to be Roman? (p.207)

Clumps of rhetorical questions like these crop up throughout the text, to be precise on pages 52, 62, 65, 70, 77, 79, 80, 86, 95, 99, 110, 115, 129, 131, 137, 146, 150, 151, 153, 166, 173, 180, 182, 188, 189, 205, 207, 212, 225, 226, 234, 241, 244, 251, 255, 256, 266, 277, 281, 291, 293, 299, 301, 312, 326, 330, 331, 332, 333, 336, 341, 346, 352, 354, 358, 377, 384, 389, 395, 399, 412, 414, 415, 426, 440, 480, 510, 517 and 520.

I suppose this is a standard teaching technique. I imagine a Cambridge Professor of Classics, whether in a classroom or lecture hall, often proceeds by putting rhetorical questions to her students and then setting out to answer them. Maybe it’s a common device in other factual books. But not quite to this extent, not so many clumps of so many questions. It begins to feel as if history exists mainly to provide professors of history with the opportunity of asking lots of rhetorical questions. After a while it gets pretty irritating, especially when the questions often aren’t even answered but left hanging in your mind…

What kind of act had he been playing all those years?… Where was the real Augustus? And who wrote these lines? These questions remain. (p.384)

Banal ‘ideas’

When she proudly presents us with so-called ‘ideas’ they are often disappointingly obvious and banal. I’ve mentioned above the point she makes that the poor don’t have as much money as the rich. Elsewhere she remarks that:

Civil war had its seedy side too. (p.300)


Hypocrisy is a common weapon of power. (p.358)

Well, yes, I kind of suspected as much. Here’s another Beardesque remark:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history (p.71)

It’s not untrue, it’s just limp. Quite a massive amount more could be made of this point by someone with brains and insight but not in this book. As it happens the same phrase recurs 400 pages later:

There was always a fuzzy zone where Roman control faded gradually into non-Roman territory (p.484)

And this echo made me realise that this, like other similar statements throughout the book, are not  really ‘ideas’ at all. They’re not the conclusions of a train of thought, they’re the axioms she starts out with – and my God, aren’t they boring?

  • Cultural identity is always a slippery notion…(p.205)
  • Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower classes congregate… (p.456)

They’re not quite truisms but they are pretty obvious. I wish I’d noticed them earlier and made a collection because the ones I read in the final stretch of the book have the amusing tone of a schoolmistress lecturing rather dim children. It was like being back at infants school. For example, she tells us how early legends of Romulus claim he didn’t die but was covered by a cloud and disappeared:

crossing the boundary between human and divine in a way that Rome’s polytheistic religious system sometimes allowed (even if it seems faintly silly to us) (p.73)

I enjoyed that sensibly dismissive tone of voice – ‘seems faintly silly to us’. I imagine sentences like this being read in the voice of Joyce Grenfell, a no-nonsense, jolly hockeysticks, 1950s schoolteacher telling us how frightfully silly these old Romans could be! At other moments you can hear her telling the children to pay attention because she’s about to make a jolly important point which she wants us all to write down and remember:

It is a fallacy to imagine that only the poor write on walls. (p.470)

Yes, Miss.

Contrived comparisons

Beard has made ten or so TV documentaries and written the accompanying coffee table books and I can well imagine how she was encouraged at every step to insert ‘contemporary comparisons’ for events or aspects of life in ancient Rome in order to make them more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to the average viewer. Maybe this kind of thing does work for some people, but there are at least three risks with this approach:

1. Contemporary comparisons date

What are initially ‘contemporary’ comparisons quickly go out of date. Time moves on at a relentless pace (it’s odd having to point this out to a professor of a historical subject) so what were once surprising and illuminating comparisons between events in the ancient world and bang up-to-date contemporary events quickly lose their relevance. In my last review I mentioned her reference to the 1990s TV show Gladiators or the 2000 movie Gladiator which, far from shedding light on her subject, now themselves require a footnote to explain to younger readers what she’s on about. I think something similar applies to many of her other ‘cool’ and edgy comparisons (she uses the word ‘edgy’ at one point).

(Incidentally, if you wanted to learn anything about gladiators in ancient Rome, forget it, once again this isn’t the book for you. Spartacus is mentioned a couple of times in passing (pages 217 to 218 and 248 to 250) but always folded into a bigger, vaguer academic discussion of the class wars which racked Italy. Beard isn’t at all interested in gladiators’ lives or training or the battles fought during the uprising. Instead she uses it to explain the modern theory that Spartacus didn’t lead gladiators alone but rallied a lot of the rural poor and lower middle class to his cause. Gladiators fighting beasts to the death in the colosseum are mentioned half a dozen times but always in passing, in the context or urban planning or urban pastimes etc.)

Beard opens the narrative with a description of the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state in the 60s BC. She tries to make this more relevant or accessible by mentioning ‘homeland security’ and ‘terrorism’ a lot.

Over the centuries the rights and wrongs of the conspiracy, the respective faults and virtues of Catiline and Cicero, and the conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties have been fiercely debated…(p.49)

But the US Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002 and, although terrorism will be with us forever, the distinctive atmosphere of paranoid fear of Islamic terrorism which was very widespread in the 2000s seems, to me, nowadays, to have virtually disappeared. Far more important for the era we live in now, in 2022, was the financial crash of 2008 which led governments around the Western world to implement a decade of ‘austerity’ policies which bore down hardest on the most vulnerable in society, leading to widespread resentment. It was arguably this resentment which found an outlet in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, decisions which dominated British and American politics for the following 4 years. And then, of course, everything was superseded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously Brexit, Trump and Covid are not mentioned in a book published in 2015. But that means that the book itself, and what were once bang up-to-date ‘modern’ comparisons, are already starting to have a faded, dated quality. Time marches on and comparisons which might have seemed useful in connecting ancient history to contemporary events inevitably age and date, become irrelevant and, eventually, themselves become obscure historical references which need explaining. I smiled when I read the following:

The [Catiline] ‘conspiracy’ will always be a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the bed’ or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention? (p.48)

‘Reds under the bed’? See what I mean by dated? Apparently this phrase originated in the United States as far back as 1924 although it only became common parlance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s. It’s a phrase Beard might have picked up when she was young in the 1970s, certainly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this ‘contemporary’ reference, included in a bid to make the story more ‘accessible’, nowadays itself requires explaining to anyone under the age of 30.

Something similar happens when, later in the book, she tries to make the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius seem more relevant and contemporary by excitedly pointing out that one of his big fans is Bill Clinton (p.399). When I ask my kids who Bill Clinton is they look at me with blank faces; after all, his second term as US president ended in 2001.

Same again when she casually refers to the (often bloody) transition from rule by one emperor to the next one as ‘regime change’ (pages 403 and 414), a phrase which, I believe, was popularised at the time of the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, almost twenty years ago.

In Beard’s mind these might be useful comparisons which make the text more ‘accessible’, but all they do for the reader in 2022 is reveal how dated and ageing her entire frame of references is, here and throughout the text, in multiple ways.

2. Patronising

Carefully inserting comparisons to ‘contemporary’ events or culture in order to try and make ancient history more understandable, relatable and relevant runs the risk of sounding patronising and Beard sometimes does sound condescending. She frequently addresses the reader as if we’ve never read any history or know anything about the ancient world (or life in general: carefully explaining that poor people don’t have as much money as rich people, or that not everyone who writes graffiti on walls is poor).

I won’t go so far as to call her attitude ‘insulting’ but you can see why the general attitude betrayed in casual comparisons, asides and parentheses put me off. By contrast, Richard Miles in his book about ancient Carthage, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, treats his readers like adults, in fact more than adults because he takes you right into the heart of scholarly debates about the events he’s describing, giving extensive notes and making countless references to scholarly articles on the subject, which all make quite a lot of demands on the average reader.

But I’d rather read something which asks me to strain my faculties, which requires me to master the detail of conflicting scholarly interpretations of historical facts, I’d rather feel that I’m being stretched than, as with Beard, be subject to a succession of rhetorical questions, staged discussions, dated comparisons all larded with rather obvious truisms and banal comments.

3. Strained

In my first review I mentioned special pleading. What I was trying to express is the way Beard never knowingly neglects an opportunity to throw in a reference to modern life or use a modern phrase (homeland security, domestic abuse, people trafficking) to try and link whatever bit of ancient Rome she’s describing to modern headlines and issues. I’ve described how these comparisons can be both dated and patronising, but they can also come over as strained and contrived, missing the point of modern example and confusing our understanding of the ancient event.

So when Cicero turns up at a poll with an armed guard and wearing a military breastplate under his toga, this breach of etiquette was:

rather as if a modern politician were to enter the legislature in a business suit with a machine gun slung over his shoulder’ (p.29).

For some reason the phrase ‘machine gun’ made me think of Tintin in 1930s Chicago and cartoon gangsters. Maybe it’s a useful comparison, but there’s also something cartoonish and childish about it and – my real beef – nifty comparisons like this often mask the way Beard doesn’t explain things properly. Although she spends quite a few pages on it, and compares it to modern concerns about terrorism and ‘homeland security’ and ‘regime change’, Beard never really properly, clearly explains what the Catiline Conspiracy actually was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a full sense of it. Too often she’s more interested in rhetorical questions and cartoon comparisons and then in rushing off to discuss the issues this or that event raises, than in actually, clearly, lucidly explaining the thing she’s meant to be telling us.

In 63 BC the Senate issued a law allowing Cicero to do whatever was necessary to secure the state (which meant rounding up and executing the Catiline conspirators). But in case we didn’t understand what this means, Beard explains that this was:

roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ’emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act (p.30)

Maybe this helps some readers but, like so much of what she writes, a detailed understanding of the thing itself, the event in the ancient world, its precedents and meanings, are sacrificed for a flashy modern comparison.

Trivial pursuit facts

Obviously Beard is hugely knowledgeable about her chosen subject, I’m not denying that for a minute. And so the book does contain a wealth of information, if you can bite your tongue and ignore the patronising tone, the banal generalisations and the limp ‘ideas’. Some examples from the first half of the book include:

– The first century BC is the best documented period of human history before Renaissance Florence, in the sense that we have a wealth of documents written by leading players giving us insights into their lives and thoughts (p.22).

– The towering figure is Cicero, not in terms of military achievement (in this warlike society he was not a warrior, he was a lawyer and orator) or political achievement (he took the losing side in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and met a wretched fate) but because so many of his writings have survived. It is possible to get to know him better than anyone else in the whole of the ancient world (pages 26 and 299). This explains why Cicero crops up throughout the book, since he wrote so copiously and so widely about earlier Roman history, customs, religion and so on. It explains why the chapter about social life and the Roman house depends heavily on Cicero – because we have lots of detail about his buying and selling of properties, loans and rents, even down the details of him buying statues and furniture to decorate them.

Julius Caesar had a healthy appetite because he followed a course of emetics, a popular form of detoxification among rich Romans which involved regular vomiting (p.302).

The traditional colour for brides in ancient Rome was yellow (p.303).

Some random Latin words

The Romans referred to themselves as gens togata meaning ‘the people who wear the toga’ (p.32).

The English word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means whitened and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns (p.32) (compare our use of the English word candid which comes from the same root).

The Latin word for female wolf, lupa, was also a slang term for prostitute. So could it be that the old tale about Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf actually referred to a female sex worker? (Nice suggestion. Probably not.)

The English word palace derives from the early 13th century French word palais, from the Medieval Latin palacium (source of the Spanish palacio, Italian palazzo) which all stem from the Latin palatium, which derives from from Mons Palatinus, ‘the Palatine Hill’, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, where Augustus Caesar’s house stood (the original ‘palace’) and was later the site of the splendid residence built by Nero (pages 59 and 418).

Lots of political bodies in countries round the world are called senates, copying the Roman word and idea. The word Senate derives from the Latin senex meaning old man. The original idea, developed in the 3rd century BC, was that everyone who had held a public office (as consul, magistrate, quaestor and so on) at the end of their term went to sit in the Senate where they could use their experience of public life to judge new laws or directives issuing from the Assemblies or consuls.

Crime and punishment

Custodial sentences were not the penalties of choice in the ancient world. Fines, exile and death made up the usual repertoire of Roman punishment (p.35).

Later writers thought the rot set in with the defeat of Carthage 146 BC

In the 40s BC Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust, wrote an essay about the Cataline conspiracy in which he claimed the conspiracy was symptomatic of Rome’s moral decline. He claimed the moral fibre of Roman culture had been destroyed by the city’s success and by the wealth, greed and lust for power that followed its successful crushing of all its rivals. Specifically, he mentions the final destruction of its old rival Carthage in 146 BC and the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in the Mediterranean as the moment when the rot started to set in (page 38 and 516).

Slavery (pages 328 to 333)

All slaves are enemies – Roman proverb

In the mid first-century BC there were between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy, about a fifth of the population. There was a huge variety of slaves, of functions and origins. Slaves could be enemy soldiers or populations captured in war, the children of established slaves, or even abandoned babies rescued from the municipal rubbish dump. Some slaves wore rags and were worked to death in silver mines, some wore fine clothes and acted as secretaries to rich Romans like Cicero. In wealthy households the line between an educated, well treated slave and other staff was often paper thin. The Latin word familia referred to the entire household, including both the non-free and free members (p.330).

  • servus – Latin for slave
  • libertus – Latin for freed slave

Beard refers to slavery for half a page on page 68 and then devotes five pages in chapter eight. The facts she relates are interesting enough – it’s interesting to be told about the great variety of types and statuses of slave in ancient Rome, how some were considered members of the family, how easy it was to free them (although the authorities introduced a tax which had to be paid when you did so).

How the Roman policy of freeing slaves (manumission to use the English word derived from the Latin term) who could then go on to acquire full civic rights was unique in the ancient world.

That in Ancient Rome, a slave was freed in a ceremony in which a praetor touched the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced him or her to be free. The slave’s head was shaved and a special kind of hat, the pileus or liberty cap, was placed on it. Both the vindicta and the cap were considered symbols of Libertas, the goddess representing liberty.

It’s interesting to think that the sheer rate at which Romans freed slaves who originally came from faraway places as defeated soldiers or captives, over the long term contributed to Rome becoming one of the most ethnically diverse places in the ancient world (p.330)

That the Greek island of Delos was one of the great commercial hubs of its day which was inextricably linked with it also being a centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

But five and a half pages are hardly enough to cover such an engrained, scandalous and essential part of Roman history and culture. Like so much else in the book, the facts she gives are interesting enough but, ultimately, all a bit…well…meh.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

%d bloggers like this: