SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 9. Greek democracy versus Roman liberty

A theme which threads through Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, SPQR, is the difference between Greek notions of democracy and Roman ones of liberty.

Although Romans had lots of elections, for a wide range of officials, starting with the annual election of consuls, although the Romans voted on the passage of laws, voted for or against wars and so on – Rome was never really a democracy and the Greek word δημοκρατία or dēmokratia was never central to its political culture (p.189). That role was played by the concept of libertas or liberty (p.291).

Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy. (SPQR p.189)

Politics was the province of privileged, rich and literate Romans (the only people who have left extended texts which we can study). To stand for election to any political office in Rome you had to be phenomenally rich and pass a financial test that comfortably excluded most citizens. The fundamental value of Roman politics was not anything like the voice of the people, but the liberty of the citizen against any form of oppressive government (even if ‘citizen’ mostly meant, in practice, the relatively small number of wealthy citizens who made up the intricately interlinked ruling elite. This was the group Cicero referred to the optimates, derived from optimi, meaning ‘the best’ men in the state, in other words, the wealthiest and best connected, p.227).

Against kings

The fundamental meaning of libertas as being against oppression went back to the Romans’ overthrow of their kings in the early 500s and the establishment of their republic. 450 years later, a cabal of assassins murdered Julius Caesar in the name of this ‘liberty’, fearing that he was about to become a dictator for life, little less than a king. They had coins struck which showed the daggers used to kill Caesar alongside the pileus, the cap worn by newly freed slaves, and the words Ides referring to the Ides of March when the assassination took place (p.295). Daggers and freedom. The assassins called themselves the liberatores, the liberators. Assassinating the tyrant was, in their view, vital to preserving libertas.

The EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC showing, on one side, Brutus’s profile, on the other the freedom cap, the daggers and EID MAR denoting the Eidibus Martiis or the Ides of March, 15 March, the day Julius Caesar was assassinated (p.295).

Liberty means different things

The trouble with libertas as a slogan, though, is that ‘freedom’ means different things to different people. It is one thing to rally huge crowds in city centres chanting for freedom and the overthrow of dictators from Caesar to Ceaușescu. But once you’ve overthrown the tyrant, what do you do next?

Because libertas is an empty slogan onto which people project their own fantasies and desires – millions of conflicting wishes and hopes – it is inevitable that revolutions in the name of a liberty in which everyone has vested their deepest hopes will turn out to be disappointing. You cannot fulfil everyone’s dreams and fantasies of a better life, especially in exactly the kind of turbulent, crisis-ridden times which give rise to revolutions in the first place.

Inevitable, too, that in the chaos of conflicting wishes and plans and parties which follow a revolution, someone will eventually have to step in and establish order – as Caesar tried to do as the Roman Republic collapsed, was assassinated before he could make the attempt, and as his adopted heir, Octavian , finally succeeded in doing.

Greek demokratia

For the Greeks, by contrast, dēmokratia was in intrinsic part of the administrative system of their states (well, some of them; ancient Greece was divided into numerous city states and not all of them implemented ‘democracy’ as it was understood in ancient Athens). The Athenians believed that their democratic system was created after the expulsion of the last in a series of ‘tyrants’ at the end of the 6th century BC (at pretty much the same time as the Romans had expelled their last king, Tarquin the Arrogant – p.128).

But without getting bogged down in a mass of historical detail, the basic point is clear: Democracy is a practical, implementable policy and everyone knows what it means: it means all adults get to vote for their leaders and key policies of state. Liberty, on the other hand, is a great rallying cry for revolutions to overthrow kings and tyrants and dictators (‘Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood’, the French revolutionaries said they were fighting for, p.129). But once this is achieved, what next? Unlike democracy, liberty is not a practical, implementable policy – it’s just a rallying cry and a slogan.

The liberators

The conspirators assassinated Julius Caesar in the name of libertas, thinking they were eliminating a tyrant in order to restore the values of the Republic. Instead they ushered in 14 years of bitter civil war which, after a series of unstable power-sharing arrangements, led to the rise of Octavian, a ruler much stronger and more ruthless than Caesar would ever have been. Murder in the name of liberty led, in fact, to the decisive overthrow of the Republic they set out to preserve.

The French revolutionaries executed Louis XIV in the name of liberté but instead created an ever-intensifying Reign of Terror which, after a series of unstable constitutional experiments, led to the rise of the Europe-wide dictator Napoleon, a ruler far more sweepingly dictatorial than any king had been.

The paradox of liberty

The paradox that overturning a dictator in the name of ‘liberty’ often leads to the rise of an even more repressive ruler than you got rid of, is captured by a quote from Tom Holland’s history of the Roman Republic, Rubicon. He quotes the lawyer, orator and politician Cicero expressing puzzlement that Caesar’s assassins had definitely overthrown the Tyrant – and yet, the Republic and the ‘Freedom’ they claimed to be reviving went on to collapse:

“Freedom has been restored,” Cicero noted in perplexity, “and yet the Republic has not.” (quoted in Rubicon, page 352)

Something like this happened 2,050 years later during the so-called Arab Spring, when liberals and intellectuals and disaffected crowds in Libya and Egypt and Syria set out to overthrow their repressive rulers (Muammar Gaddafi, Hosni Mubarak and Bashar al-Assad) but ended up with political chaos,  a collapse into warlordism, or a ruler tougher and more repressive than the one they overthrew.

Moral of the story

If you’re marching in the streets to overthrow a dictator don’t do so in the name of ‘Liberty’, because the idea will be hijacked by the canniest political operator or strongest warlord or toughest general on the scene, who will then twist your ideas out of recognition, twist them till they’ve turned your idea of liberty to fit into their idea of Order and Security.

Write ‘Democracy’ on your banners because the simple call for regular elections to chuck out corrupt leaders and elect new ones cannot be talked away, reinterpreted or redefined. It is a clear, simple, practical programme, and so likelier to be achieved.


Credit

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) 7. The empire

If you’re looking for a chronological history of the Roman Empire, or an account of the military campaigns and battles which led to its territorial expansion, or an account of the organisation and administration of the Roman army, during either the republican or imperial eras, forget it. None of that is in this book.

Beard’s interest is in exploring themes or aspects of Roman social, cultural and political history. Hence, although the final chapter in SPQR is devoted to ‘Rome Outside Rome’ i.e. the wider Roman empire, it is nothing like a chronological history of the empire, or of the wars of conquest and putting down of rebellions which consolidated it, or a really thorough examination of Rome’s administrative bureaucracy. Instead it is an entertainingly meandering essay which considers some selected aspects of Roman rule beyond Italy. Beard starts the chapter, as usual, with a flurry of academic questions:

  • how were the cultural differences across the empire debated?
  • how ‘Roman’ did the empire’s inhabitants outside Rome and Italy become?
  • how did people in the provinces relate their traditions, religions, languages and literatures to those of imperial Rome, and vice versa?

Beard uses biographies of Roman administrators such as Pliny the Younger (61 to 113 AD), touches on the Roman attitude to religion – especially the troublesome new religion of Christianity – uses Hadrian’s Wall as an example of the limits of empire, and generally delves into other topics which take her fancy.

So, as a reader, as soon as you abandon any hope of getting a thorough or even basic chronological overview of the main events of the wider Roman empire, and settle down for a chatty meander through  some selected aspects of a fascinating subject, then Beard is an enjoyable and informative guide.

The limits of imperial expansion

Augustus called a halt to the expansion of imperial Rome following the disastrous Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD in which Publius Quinctilius Varus lost three legions massacred by barbarian Germans led by Arminius (p.480). Fascinatingly, Beard tells us that Augustus had fully intended to extend Roman power into Germany, and had begun construction of a town at Waldgirmes, 60 miles east of the Rhine, complete with forum, statue of the emperor and all the trimmings. After Teutoburg he ordered all building work abandoned and withdrawal of all Roman forces to the Rhine and in his will instructed his successors not to extend the empire.

But they did. Claudius sent legions to conquer Britannia, which they’d seized enough of by 44 AD to justify Claudius awarding himself a triumph, although the Romans took a long time to extend their power right up to the border with Hibernia. In the east, in 101 to 102 Trajan conquered Dacia, part of what is now Romania and in 114 to 117 invaded Mesopotamia to the borders of modern Iran.

Emperors less competitive than consuls

But overall the pace of territorial acquisition slowed right down. Beard makes the interesting point that this was at least in part because under the Republic you had two consuls who competed with each other for military glory, rising to the epic rivalry between Julius Caesar, busy making a name for himself conquering Gaul in the West, and Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus, known in English as Pompey, redrawing the map of the Roman East.

By contrast, the emperors had no rivals and no-one to beat. Their only rivals were the previous emperors so they could take their time, make a few strategic ‘conquests’, award themselves a nice triumph and relax. Most of the wars of the first 200 years of empire were against internal rebellions or border skirmishes.

Governor Pliny in Bithynia

Slowly the focus of administrators and emperors switched from conquest to good administration. It’s to examine this that Beard gives the example of Pliny the Younger who in 109 was sent to become governor of the province of Bithynia along the southern coast of the Black Sea in what is now Turkey. Next to Cicero Pliny is one of the most knowable ancient Romans because of the 100 or so letters he sent directly to the emperor Trajan, reporting back on all aspects of Roman administration, from taxes to statues, to the nitty gritty of local legal cases.

What the Romans wanted was peaceful administration, avoidance of flagrant examples of corruption, good regular supplies of taxes. They made little or no attempt to impose their own cultural norms or eradicate local traditions. Instead the East, in particular, remained a mostly Greek-speaking fantasia of different religions, gods, festivals, dress, traditions and so on.

Small number of imperial administrators

In a striking similarity to the British Empire, Beard tells us the number of imperial administrators was vanishingly small: across the empire at any one time there were probably fewer than 200 elite Roman administrators running an empire of more than 50 million subjects (p.490). So how was the empire managed?

1. The most obvious answer is the substantial Roman legions posted around the borders of the empire and Beard mentions the insight we have into one such garrison from the amazing discoveries which have been made at Vindolanda, on Hadrian’s Wall.

2. Building new settlements was another strategy. In the north and west in particular the building of Roman settlements on the classic, standardised Roman town layout was one of the most enduring legacies of empire. Roman policy resulted in ‘urbanisation on an unprecedented scale’ (p.492).

3. Also, just like the British, French and other European empires 1,800 years later, the Romans co-opted the local elites. Local rulers who came over to Rome were awarded formal titles, new Roman names, rights and privileges. They took to wearing the toga, they sent their children to Roman schools to learn Latin, rhetoric and civics. Over generations these became embedded and Romanised elites did the work of ensuring peace and lack of rebellions among their subjects.

The 1st century efflorescence of Greek literature

In the East, the Greeks didn’t need to take any lessons in ‘civilisation’ from the Romans and no Roman would have dared suggest it. Nonetheless, Beard points out that the early imperial period saw an extraordinary florescence of Greek literature, much of it addressing, skirting, questioning the impact of Roman hegemony on the Greek world. In a striking example, she tells us that the output of just one Greek writer of this period, biographer and philosopher Plutarch (46 to 119 AD) fills as many modern pages as all the surviving literature from the 5th century BC put together, from the tragedies of Aeschylus to the histories of Thucydides (p.500).

Three typical rebellions

Surprisingly, maybe, there were only a handful of major rebellions against Roman rule in the first century (although it may be that these were under-reported, as both regional governors and emperors weren’t keen to record dissent).

Anyway, Beard makes the interesting point that the three major rebellions we know about weren’t standalone nationalist uprisings of the kind we’re familiar with from the end of the modern European empires. In the three biggest instances they were not popular uprisings but rebellions by members of the collaborating class felt they had, for one reason or another, been badly treated by their Roman allies.

1. Thus the leader of the German forces in the Teutoburg Forest, Arminius, was a solid ally of Rome and personal friend of the general whose forces he massacred. Modern thinking has it that Arminius was a rival for leadership of his tribe, the Cherusci, with his brother, Segeste. When a revolt began among the auxiliary troops for an unknown reason, it may be that Arminius thought he stood more chance of becoming paramount leader of his people by betraying his Roman allies (and brother) and it seems to have worked.

2. In Britannia, Queen Boadicea or Boudicca rebelled after terrible treatment by the Romans. When her husband Prasutagus died he left half his tribal kingdom to the empire and half to his daughters. But when Roman forces moved in to take their territory they ran amok among the Britons, plundering the king’s property, raping  his daughters and flogging Boudicca. Hence her armed revolt, and you can see why her tribe would rally to her standard, whose first steps were to burn to the ground the nearest three Roman towns, murdering all their inhabitants, before the governor of the province, 250 miles away on the border of Wales, heard the news, marched across country to East Anglia, and exterminated the British forces (p.514).

3. The First Jewish War or Great Jewish Revolt (66 to 73 AD) is also attributable to bad behaviour by the occupying Romans. The middle classes protested against heavy Roman taxation and there were some random attacks on Roman citizens. In response the Roman governor, Gessius Florus, raided the Second Temple (where no non-Jew was allowed to enter) for back payment of the taxes, then arrested senior Jewish figures some of whom he had crucified for disobedience. Bad idea. The rebellion spread like wildfire and pinned down Roman legions in Palestine for the next seven years.

Free movement of goods and people

Another massive effect of the Roman Empire was the free movement of goods and people on an unprecedented scale. Among the ruins of Pompeii has been found an ivory figurine from India, the soldiers on Hadrian’s Wall were buying pepper brought all the way from the Far East. Vast amounts of olive oil (20 million litres per year) were imported to Rome from southern Spain and the province of Africa became the breadbasket for the capital (250,000 tonnes of grain).

Not only goods but people moved vast distances, making lives and careers for themselves thousands of miles from their birthplaces in a way that was unprecedented for most of world history before. Beard exemplifies this astonishing freedom of movement in the story of Barates who was working near Hadrian’s Wall in the second century AD, and built a memorial to his wife who predeceased him and came from just north of London. The point is that Barates himself, as his memorial  records, originally hailed from Syria, 4,000 miles away.

Trade and administration, imports and exports, sending soldiers and administrators to the ends of the known world, involved a huge amount of bureaucracy and organisation, many fragments of which have survived to build up a picture of the empire’s multi-levelled commercial and administrative complexity.

The people, group or ideology this free movement around the entire Mediterranean basin was ultimately to benefit most were the Christians. Familiarity with the life of St Paul shows just how free they were to travel freely and to spread their word to the ‘godfearers’, the groups who attached themselves to Jewish synagogues but couldn’t become full Jews because of their lack of circumcision and/or the food and ritual restrictions, so who were an enthusiastic audience for the non-ethnic, universalising tendency of  the new religion.

It is this principle of openness and assimilation, which characterised Rome from the earliest times when Romulus incorporated members of neighbouring tribes into his nascent settlement, that I briefly describe in the next blog post.


Credit

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) 5. The emperors

The Roman Emperors

The last 200 pages of SPQR (pages 330 to 530) cover the first 250 years of the Roman Empire, from the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 AD to the reign of Caracalla (formally known as Marcus Aurelius Antoninus) who reigned from 198 to 217. Beard chooses the reign of Caracalla to end her book because he took the revolutionary step of granting the entire free population of the Roman Empire full Roman citizenship thus bringing to a kind of completion the process of assimilation and integration of foreign peoples which she has singled out as, from the start, one of the distinguishing feature of the Roman state (p.334).

Beard starts by describing in some detail the machinations following the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, which led to the creation of the second triumvirate of Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus (p.341). These three commanded armies which went after the armies led by the main assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus. These two had fled Italy to the East where they amassed armies and were assigned provinces to govern by the Senate. This led in quick succession to:

42: the Battle of Philippi in Greece where Octavian and Antony defeated the Republicans under Brutus and Cassius (p.342). Both Brutus and Cassius committed suicide i.e. the assassins of Caesar were defeated and killed.

Over the next few years Octavian and Mark Antony remained in uneasy alliance, falling out then patching things up. In one attempt to cement their alliance, Anthony married Octavian’s sister, Octavia in 40.

36: Octavian stripped Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial role of Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest), leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy (p.346).

32: Antony divorced Octavian’s sister. Partly in revenge, Octavian got hold of Antony’s will and read it out in the Forum, claiming Antony intended to bequeath his fortune to the twin sons he had just had by Cleopatra, and wished to be buried in Alexandria i.e. he had ceased to be a Roman patriot.

31: Open war finally breaks out between Octavian and Antony. At the Battle of Actium Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra, who flee to Egypt and commit suicide, leaving Octavian the most powerful man in the Roman world.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the invented title of ‘Augustus’ by the Roman Senate (p.340). Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.

Beard makes the simple but powerful point that the Roman polity had been evolving towards power being wielded by one man for some time. Gaius Marius (157 to 86) who was given extraordinary powers to prosecute the Cimbrian and Jugurthine wars was maybe the first precursor. His subordinate and rival, Lucius Cornelius Sulla (138 to 78), who twice marched his legions into Rome itself, causing civil disturbance and ordering the massacre of his political enemies (in 88 and 82) is an even more glaring precursor.

And Beard goes on to say that, after he had been awarded extraordinary powers to prosecute Rome’s wars in the eastern Mediterranean, Gnaeus Pompeius, known as Pompey the Great (106 to 48), had a strong claim to be ‘the first emperor’. I imagine squabbling about who was the first emperor is a parlour game which can keep classicists entertained well into the early hours. For most of us non-experts, though, the empire started with the rise to complete power of Gaius Octavius, later known as Augustus by 31 BC.

The emperors

The emperors are often grouped into dynasties. Thus the first five emperors are referred to as the Julio-Claudian dynasty because they all belonged to one of two closely related families, the Julii Caesares and Claudii Nerones.

Julio-Claudian dynasty (31 BC to 68 AD)

  • Augustus (31 BC to 14 AD)
  • Tiberius (14 to 37)
  • Caligula (37 to 41)
  • Claudius (41 to 54)
  • Nero (54 to 68)

Year of 4 emperors

  • Galba (June 68 to January 69)
  • Otho (January to April 69)
  • Aulus Vitellius (July to December 69)
  • Vespasian (December 69 to 79) founded the Flavian dynasty

Flavian dynasty (69 to 98)

  • Vespasian
  • Titus (79 to 81)
  • Domitian (81 to 96)
  • Nerva (96 to 98)

Nerva–Antonine dynasty (96 to 192)

  • Trajan (98 to 117)
  • Hadrian (117 to 138)
  • Antoninus Pius (138 to 161)
  • Marcus Aurelius (161 to 180)
  • Lucius Verus (161 to 169) ruled alongside Aurelius
  • Commodus (177 to 192)

Year of the Five Emperors 193

Commodus was assassinated leading to a period of confusion when the title of emperor was contested by no fewer than five claimants, Publius Helvius Pertinax , Didius Julianus, Pescennius Niger, Clodius Albinus and Septimius Severus, the latter emerging as winner.

  • Septimius Severus (193 to 211)
  • Marcus Aurelius Antoninus known as Caracalla (198 to 217)

Augustus

The pivotal figure is Augustus who arrived in Rome soon after the assassination of Caesar, a fresh-faced youth of 18 who had been adopted as Caesar’s legal heir, went on to defeat all his adversaries, emerged as the most powerful men in Rome, and went on to rule for longer (30 BC to 14 AD) than any other Roman before or since, longer than any of the legendary kings, longer than any succeeding emperor.

Beard devotes a long chapter to Augustus (chapter 9, pages 337 to 385) listing his extraordinary achievements yet highlighting the paradox that, although we know more about his official deeds than almost any other figure, yet he remains an opaque and mysterious figure.

More statues of Augustus survive than any other emperor (250). He was very effective indeed at spreading his image and imperium right across the empire, using coins, statues, inscriptions, public games and extensive new architecture and town planning to spread a consistent ideology and image of imperial rule. To him is attributed the famous saying: ‘I found the city made of brick and left it built of marble’.

Augustus oversaw elections with such precision that the democratic process withered. He assigned the Senate new perks and privileges but stripped it of real political power. Rather than an independent source of power in the complex constitution of the republic, the Senate became more and more just one wing of the imperial administration. He was elected consul an unprecedented eleven times, but in one of many unprecedented moves held the power of consul at the same time as holding the full power of a tribune. He took over complete and lasting power of the army by personally appointing all legionary commanders and making himself governor of every single province which had a military presence (p.355). Under the republic ‘triumphs’ had been awarded to victorious generals. Augustus changed the rules so that in future they could only be assigned to emperors or male members of the imperial family.

Augustus added more territory to the Roman empire than any ruler before or after (p.364). He was rich by an order of magnitude more than any previous man in Rome and personally paid for unprecedentedly lavish gladiatorial games and shows. And he patronised three of the greatest Latin poets, Horace, Ovid and above all Vergil, who created everlasting works of literature which, implicitly or explicitly, sing the praises of his rule.

It is an extraordinary achievement that this one man created the template which all subsequent emperors copied for 400 years (p.384). And yet his character and his intentions remain a mystery, even though, towards the end of his life, he wrote a ten page, official autobiography, the Res Gestae (pages 360 to 368). This amounts to a long list of his achievements but manages to shed no light at all on his character. Not for nothing did the signet ring which he used to impress on the hot wax sealing official correspondence carry the image of the sphinx (p.358).

Individual emperors didn’t really matter

After dwelling on the pivotal figure of Augustus at length, Beard’s account then devotes just one chapter to the fourteen or so successors who take us through to the emperor Caracalla (pages 387 to 434).

And Beard has one big idea about the emperors which, like a lot of her idées fixes, she repeats half a dozen times (for example on pages 336, 397, 398, 404, 406, 412 and 426). This is that, despite their superficial differences and all the garish stories told about them, the emperors who followed Augustus were all basically the same. By this she means that they performed the same political function working within the same centralised administrative system.

Whatever their idiosyncracies, virtues, vices or backgrounds, whatever the different names we know them by, they were all better or worse reincarnations of Augustus, operating within the model of autocracy he established and dealing with the problems that he left unresolved. (p.385)

She gives us a vivid description of the assassination of the ‘mad’ emperor Caligula in January 41 AD as he walked through a corridor of his palace on the Palatine hill after watching a morning of games held in memory of Augustus. He was murdered by three members of his Praetorian guard, apparently motivated by a personal grudge rather than any grand political conspiracy. Chaos ensued. Other, loyal, members of his bodyguard ran through the palace killing anyone suspected of involvement in the ‘plot’; in the Senate politicians swapped fine speeches about the overthrow of a tyrant and the restoration of ancient liberties. But the reality was that other members of the Praetorian guard had found Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, hiding in the palace, dragged him out and acclaimed him emperor. All sorts of complicated negotiations followed, with Claudius paying the guards handsomely for their support and negotiating a deal with the Senate to recognise him. But, in the end, under all the gory details – one emperor was replaced by another and, in a sense, nothing had changed.

Beyond making it absolutely clear that the emperors had become a permanent fixture, the killing of Gaius had no significant impact on the long history of imperial rule at all. That was one thing the assassins of 41 AD had in common with the assassins of 44 BC, who killed one autocrat (Julius Caesar) only to end up with another (Augustus). For all the excitement generated by the murder of Gaius, the suspense, the uncertainty of the moment and the flirtation with Republicanism, as brief as it was unrealistic, the end result was another emperor on the throne who was not at all unlike the one he had replaced. (p.397)

And:

The emperors were more similar to one another than they were different, and it took only some superficial adjustments to turn one into another. Assassinations were minor interruptions to the grander narrative of imperial rule. (p.398)

Certainly, the system evolved – the imperial administration staff grew enormously between 14 and 212 AD (pages 408 to 411) – but the fundamental role the emperor played in the imperial system remained the same. The vast majority of the empire’s population wouldn’t have noticed the rule of one emperor from another, apart from the face on the coins and scraps of gossip, if they ever got to hear them.

Whatever the views of Suetonius and other ancient writers, the qualities and character of the individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments. (p.404)

And:

Outside the narrow circle [of the court] and certainly outside the city of Rome…it can hardly have made much difference who was on the throne, or what their personal habits or intrigues were. And there is no sign at all that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way. If Gaius or Nero or Domitian really were as irresponsible, sadistic or mad as they were painted, it made little difference to how Roman politics and empire worked behind the headline anecdotes. Beneath the scandalous tales…there was a remarkably stable structure of rule and…a remarkably stable set of problems and tensions across the period. (p.406)

A more thematic account

Following the chapter of Augustus, in this final stretch of her book, Beard drops all pretence at providing a chronological account and comes fully into the open with what she had probably wanted to do all along, which is take a more thematic approach to her subject. Her addiction to asking clusters of rhetorical questions really comes into its own as she sets out to discuss, not the emperors themselves, their rule and achievements and military conquests etc, but to ask questions about the themes and issues, ‘the structures, problems and tensions’ (p.336) raised by the first 200 years of imperial rule, about ‘the problems and tensions that Augustus bequeathed’ (p.413) in what amounts to a series of essays.

If you are looking for a good chronological account of the emperors this is emphatically not the book for you. She has a little section considering the vices and scandalous stories, especially about the early emperors, peddled by later historians such as Suetonius and Tacitus (pages 398 to 403) – but only to dismiss them as tittle-tattle and tell us she aims to delve beneath the gossip to address the deeper structural questions about the way the empire was created and administered, how its evolution changed Romans’ identity and culture, and so on.

And you know what – her book is much the better for it. Once she’s stated she’s going to abandon chronology and proceed by examining themes and issues, she and the reader can both relax. Now she’s  explicitly said she’s not going to give a chronological account I’m not expecting one; instead I can enjoy her rambling, discursive discussions of various issues surrounding imperial rule, which are often genuinely interesting.

Problems with the imperial system

She focuses on three issues: arranging the succession, relations with the Senate, and problems defining the precise status of the emperor (p.414).

1. The succession

The main and obvious problem, which the Romans never really solved, was how to arrange the succession from one emperor to the next (p.420). In practice there was a range of mechanisms:

a) First born son

It’s a surprise to learn that, despite being such a patriarchal society, the Romans didn’t have a strong tradition of primogeniture i.e. that a father is always succeeded by his eldest son (p.415).

b) In the family

Certainly rulers liked to keep the succession within the family, hence the grouping of the emperors into a series of family dynasties. But lacking an insistence on the primacy of the eldest son, the exact relation of a succeeding heir was often fairly remote.

c) Adoption / assimilation (p.418)

A Roman aristocrat could — either during his life or in his will — adopt an heir if he lacked a natural son. The adopted son would replace his original family name with the name of his adopted family. The most famous example is Julius Caesar’s adoption of his great-nephew, Gaius Octavius who thereafter referred to himself as Gaius Julius Caesar (p.339).

Augustus, Caligula and Nero failed to father biological and legitimate sons. Tiberius’ own son, Drusus predeceased him. Only Claudius was outlived by his son, Britannicus, although he opted to promote his adopted son Nero as his successor to the throne.

Thus adoption became the most common tool that Julio-Claudian emperors use to promote their chosen heir to the front of the succession:

  • Augustus — himself an adopted son of his great-uncle, Julius Caesar — adopted his stepson Tiberius as his son and heir.
  • Tiberius, in turn, adopted his nephew Germanicus, the father of Caligula and brother of Claudius (Germanicus himself dying before he could inherit).
  • Caligula adopted his cousin Tiberius Gemellus (grandson of the Tiberius) shortly before executing him.
  • Claudius adopted his great-nephew and stepson Nero.
  • It was Nero’s failure to have either a natural or an adopted son of his own which brought the Julio-Claudian dynasty to an end.

d) Acclamation by army

Augustus had concentrated control of the army into his hands alone, but in the long term he failed to prevent the intervention of the army in politics. On a small scale, it was the Praetorian Guard who acclaimed Claudius emperor in 41 AD, but things got worse. After the death of Nero, in 68, four different military leaders laid claim to the throne in one confused 12 month period, each backed up by army units from different provinces (p.417).

e) Dumb luck – being in the right place at the right time

The classic example being Claudius happening to be in the imperial palace in the vital minutes after the murder of Caligula and so acclaimed by the Praetorian Guard, the most heavily armed group in the city, which gave him the authority to negotiate with the Senate, and so achieve the throne (p.416).

Interestingly, Beard reinterprets all the lurid stories about imperial wives poisoning their husbands, not as being motivated by a wish to get rid of them, as such; but to ensure the correct timing; to make sure they died when then chosen successor was on the spot and so best placed to claim the throne (p.416).

2. Relations with the Senate

Augustus gave the Senate more honours and extended its privileges, but sought to reduce its power. In a series of complicated constitutional adjustments he sought to convert the Senate from an independent body into an arm of the imperial administration.

A small number resisted imperial rule so vehemently that they managed to get executed or forced to commit suicide. Some left writings criticising various emperors, though the wise wrote as historians, safely criticising emperors from previous centuries or dynasties.

When they had opportunities to intervene at crisis points, after the assassination of Caligula in 41, after the death of Nero in 68, the Senate failed to act. Easier to moan and complain than to actually step up to the plate and assume power. Their failure in both instances proves how irrevocably the state had come under the rule of one man.

Over time the nature of the Senate (when generally numbered about 600 members) changed, with more and more members coming from provincial families. The values of the Republic receded into tales of the ‘good old days’ that no one alive could ever realistically think of reviving.

3. The emperor’s status

Was he a man or a god or something in between? Augustus was careful to pose as ‘the first among equals’, emphatically denying and censoring any reference to him as king or dictator, at most allowing the word princeps to describe his status.

As to divinity, Caesar was officially recognised as a god 2 years after his death, in 42 BC, so a precedent had been set. Augustus was recognised as a god after his death and so was Claudius after his (p.429).

Beard brings out several key points. Number one is that no-one venerated a living emperor as a god, that would have been considered a gross error. The emperors were only deified after their deaths, when their spirits were considered as having ascended into heaven.

But as the first century AD progressed the emperors were increasingly treated very like gods, especially in the superstitious east, with its confusing medley of divinities. Thus living emperors found themselves included in rituals to the gods and addressed in language which overlapped with divine language (p.431). In one town records survive which show that religious ceremonies were carried out to the gods and on behalf of the emperor. No matter how thin it became, a distinction was always made.

Summary

The two chapters, one about Augustus and one giving an overview of the emperors who followed him, are the best thing in the book, because they showcase Beard’s non-chronological, thematic approach to best advantage. There are dates and events, of course, but they are merely the springboards for Beard’s explorations of themes and issues, which include interesting references to a wide range of contemporary Roman writers’ opinions and gossip about the emperors, alongside thoughtful analysis of the structural problems and issues of imperial rule, listed above. These two chapters are interesting, informative and entertaining.


Credit

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) 4. Republican timeline

This is a timeline of the Roman Republic, cobbled together from various sources with some details added from Mary Beard’s history of Rome, SPQR.

As you can see, it consists almost entirely of wars because Rome was one of the most aggressive and relentlessly militaristic states in the ancient world, which is the basic reason for its eventual world domination. And when, by about 80 BC, they’d run out of people to conquer, they started fighting each other.

Military campaigning was a defining feature of Roman life and Roman writers organised the history of this period…around its succession of wars, giving them the shorthand titles that have often stuck till the present day.

…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…(SPQR, pages 176 to 177)

What this list – far from complete and omitting many battles – indicates is the unremittingly violent, warlike environment Rome inhabited, and the relentlessness of its armies and leaders who, no matter how many times they lost battles – and they lost a lot more than you’d expect – always found new men and new resources and came back harder.

The early legendary material is well covered in Mary Beard’s book and the main wars are at least mentioned. But she gives very superficial, if any, explanations of most of the wars with hardly anything about strategies and campaigns, and nothing at all about specific battles, even the most famous (Cannae, Carrhae, Pharsalus, Actium). I had to look up the detail of all of them online.

Again and again it struck me as odd that Mary Beard has made it her life’s work to study a society whose values and history, whose militarism, violence, aggression, patriarchal sexism and toxic masculinity she is so obviously out of sympathy with.

This is one reason why, as a disapproving feminist, her account of the Republic is so patchy and episodic given that the Republic’s history is, on one level, a long list of wars and battles and setbacks and conquests.

Another reason is that the men in charge in Rome changed on an annual basis as new consuls were elected and held power for just one year. Compared to the late republic and imperial era when successful generals held power, and carried out military strategy for years, this makes the wars of the Republic even more complicated to record and remember.

As a historian I can see that you face a choice between going into each war in enough detail to make it strategically and militarily understandable – in which case you will have written an incredibly detailed and very long military history of Rome. Or doing what Beard does, which is write a kind of thematic social and political history of Rome (with lots of archaeology thrown in) which only dips into the wars briefly, fleetingly, when they help you to demonstrate a particular point about the evolution of Roman society and politics.

I can see why, for practical and editorial reasons she’s taken the latter route but still, Rome without the wars – numerous and confusing though they are – is a bit like Hamlet without the prince.

Timeline

8th century BC

753 BC: The legendary founding date of Rome.

750?: Rape of the Sabine women. Plenty of young men were flocking to his new settlement, but Romulus needed women to breed. He approached local tribes for brides but was turned down. Eventually he invited a group from a local tribe, the Sabines to a feast and, at an arranged signal, young Roman men started carrying the marriageable away. This led to war but then to a notable event. As the two sides lined up to fight the Sabine women intervened between them pleading for peace. The men put down their weapons and made peace, Romulus agreeing to share his kingship of Rome with the Sabine leader, Titus Tatius. So the abduction is important – but so is the peacemaking ability of the women.

The French painter Jacques-Louis David chooses to depict ‘The Intervention of the Sabine Women’ between their avenging fathers and brothers on one side, and their new Roman husbands on the other, rather than the more famous ‘rape’, in this painting from 1799.

753 to 510: Seven kings The quarter-millennium rule of the seven legendary kings of Rome. Some traditions mention other sub-kings who ruled in gaps between the big seven, and even Livy’s traditionalist account emphasises that the kingship didn’t simply progress by primogeniture i.e. to the eldest son, but was sometimes elected or chosen by the people.

But as Beard explains, modern archaeology suggests the traditional tale of a quarter millennium of legendary kings was used to glamorise and cover what, in reality, probably amounted to the slow coalescing of small communities of herders and cattle farmers led by local chieftains.

6th century BC

534 to 510: Reign of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome. Tarquin was expelled after the people revolt and overthrow him, traditionally said to have been caused by one of his privileged sons raping a worthy Roman matron, Lucretia, at dagger point.

509: Temple of Jupiter Optimus Maximus (literally ‘Jupiter the Best and Greatest’) also known as the Temple of Jupiter Capitolinus because it was built on the Capitoline Hill. Dedicated to the Capitoline Triad consisting of Jupiter and his companion deities, Juno and Minerva, it was the oldest and most prestigious temple in Rome till it burned down in 83 BC during Sulla’s violent occupation of Rome. It became the traditional place for victorious generals to place trophies. Also lost in this fire were the Sibylline Books, a collection of oracles in Greek hexameters, that were purchased from a sibyl or prophetess by the last king of Rome, Tarquinius Superbus, and were consulted at moments of crisis through the history of the Republic and the Empire.

5th century BC

495: After losing a prolonged struggle to regain his throne, Tarquinius Superbus, last king of Rome, dies in exile at Cumae.

484: The first temple of the Dioscuri (Castor and Pollux) is dedicated in Rome’s Forum Romanum by Aulus Postumius following his victory over the Latins (the tribe who occupied the county surrounding Rome) at the Battle of Lake Regillus.

450: The number of Roman quaestors is increased to four and opened to plebians.

449: The Twelve Tables, the earliest examples of Roman law, are compiled. They were the result of agitation by the plebeian class, who had hitherto been excluded from the higher benefits of the Republic. The law had previously been unwritten and exclusively interpreted by upper-class priests, the pontifices. They formed the basis of Roman law for 1,000 years. The Twelve Tables were inscribed on bronze and publicly displayed so that unwritten law restricted to a ruling class was converted to written law accessible to all.

440: Roman quaestors are chosen by the assembly rather than by the consuls.

4th century BC

390: Battle of the Allia (11 miles north of Rome) at which the Senones, a Gallic tribe led by Brennus, crushed a Roman army and subsequently marched to and occupied Rome. Later historians describe the city as being out to fire and sword: ‘no living being was thenceforth spared; the houses were rifled, and then set on fire’ (Livy Book 5). The traditional date is 390, modern scholars have adjusted this to 387. The Gaulish Sack of Rome led to fear of Gaulish armies or marauders which lasted centuries.

Rome spent the next 32 years fighting the Volsci, the Etruscans and the rebel Latin cities.

366: Institution of the role of praetor, a title granted by the government of Ancient Rome to a man acting in one of two official capacities, as i) the commander of an army or ii) as an elected magistrate.

348: Plague strikes Rome.

343 to 341: First Samnite War, the Samnites being a tribe from central Italy, was the result of Rome’s intervention to rescue the Campanian city of Capua from a Samnite attack.

340 to 338: The Latin War (the Latins being another nearby tribe). Victory for Rome.

337: Until this year praetors were chosen only from among the patricians. In 337 eligibility for the praetura was opened to plebeians.

334: Rome signs a peace treaty with the Senones tribe i.e. the Gauls who sacked Rome.

326 to 304: Second Samnite War was the result of Rome’s intervention in the politics of the city of Naples and developed into a contest over the control of central and southern Italy.

3rd century BC

298 to 290: Third Samnite War:

297: Third Samnite War: Celts and Samnites join forces and defeat the Romans at the Battle of Camertium.

295: Third Samnite War: In a battle lasting all day, Romans narrowly defeat a force of Celts and Samnites at the Battle of Sentinum, the decisive battle of the war.

294: Third Samnite War: A Roman army led by Lucius Postimius Megellus defeats an army from Etruscan Volsinii.

285 to 282: Rome defeats the Celts in Italy. Rome’s dominance in central Italy is secured.

284: Gauls of the Insubres and Boii tribes defeat the Romans at the Battle of Arretium.

283: Rome decisively defeats the Senones at Picenum. Rome defeats the Etruscans and Celts at the Battle of Lake Vadimo.

280 to 272: Roman war against Tarentum in southern Italy. Upon victory, Rome’s dominance in lower Italy is secured.

280: The Romans conquer the Etruscan cities of Tarquinia, Volsinii and Vulci.

264 to 241: First Punic War. Carthage cedes Sicily to Rome.

241 to 238: Rebellion of the mercenaries. Unpaid mercenaries under the leadership of Mathos and Spendios rebel against Carthage. Despite their peace treaty, Rome takes the opportunity to strip Carthage of Sardinia and Corsica.

229 to 228 Rome fights Illyrian pirates. Queen Teuta pays tribute to Rome.

225: Two Roman armies surround and defeat a Celtic army at the Battle of Telamon.

223: Romans successfully campaign against the Celtic tribes of Cisalpine Gaul.

222: Rome conquers Cisalpine Gaul (modern-day Provence, France).

222: The Celts are defeated at the Battle of Clastidium by Roman forces.

219: Illyrian coast is under Roman control.

218 to 201: Second Punic War the main feature of which is Hannibal Barca bringing an army from Spain along the south of France and over the Alps into Italy where it remained for fifteen long years, and the non-confrontational, attritional tactics of the Roman general Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, surnamed ‘Cunctator’.

216: The Battle of Cannae, Hannibal inflicts the worst ever military defeat in Roman history at Cannae 200 miles south-east of Rome (p.180). The authorities consulted the famous Sibylline Books and, on their recommendation, two Gauls and two Greeks were buried alive in the main marketplace (p.180). Hannibal ante portas meaning ‘Hannibal at the gates’. Hannibal Barca, Carthaginian general, directly threatens the city of Rome, but cannot advance due to lack of supplies and reinforcements.

c. 215 to 216: The Boii crush a Roman army 25,000 strong at Litana. Victory was partly achieved by pushing cut trees down on top of the Romans as they marched.

214 to 205: First Macedonian War: Traditionally, the Macedonian Wars include the four wars with Macedonia, plus one war with the Seleucid Empire, and a final minor war with the Achaean League of Greece. All together they span the period 214 to 148.

The Greek peninsula and west coast of what is now Turkey were characterised by numerous states jostling for position. The triggers for war were some smaller states asking Rome for protection against the two largest powers in the region, the Macedonian Kingdom and Seleucid Empire. The first war ran in parallel to the First Punic War i.e. Rome was fighting on two fronts.

In 216 King Philip V of Macedon had allied himself with the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who was roaming at large through Italy. Rome dispatched an army eastwards which did little more than skirmish with Macedonian forces and seize minor territory along the Adriatic coastline. Rome wasn’t interested in conquest, but in keeping Macedon too busy to send forces to join with Hannibal. The war ended indecisively in 205 BC with the Treaty of Phoenice.

205: On the recommendation of the Sybilline Books, in response to the ongoing Punic War, a poor harvest and other ill omens, an image of Cybele/the Great Goddess was transferred from Asia Minor to Rome. Weirdly, the goddess turned out to take the form of a black meteoric stone accompanied by a retinue of self-castrated, self-flagellating, long-haired priests (p.179).

204: Scipio Africanus sails to North Africa to take the Second Punic War directly to the enemy (p.182). After he had defeated the Carthaginians in two major battles and won the allegiance of the Numidian kingdoms of North Africa, Carthage ordered Hannibal to return to protect the mother city, thus ending his 15-year campaign in Italy without a decisive victory.

202 October: Scipio wins the decisive Battle of Zama, destroying the Carthaginian army. Rome imposes a punitive peace treaty. Hannibal survives but goes into exile in the eastern Mediterranean. It was at this point that Publius Cornelius Scipio was given the agnomen or ‘victory name’ Africanus, so he is often referred to as Scipio (family name) Africanus (victory name) to distinguish him from other members of his (eminent) family.

201: As part of peace treating ending the Second Punic War, Sicily is definitively made a Roman province.

2nd century BC

200 to 196: Second Macedonian War: In the resulting Treaty of Tempea, Philip V was forbidden from interfering with affairs outside his borders, and was required to relinquish his recent Greek conquests. At the Olympiad in 196 Rome proclaimed the ‘Freedom of the Greeks and relapsed into its former apathy.

193: The Boii are defeated by the Romans, suffering, according to Livy, 14,000 dead.

192 to 188: Seleucid War Antiochus III, ‘the Great’, sixth ruler of the Seleucid Empire, invades Greece from Asia Minor. Various Greek cities appealed to Rome for help and a major Roman-Greek force was mobilised under the command of the great hero of the Second Punic War, Scipio Africanus, which landed and started inflicting defeats.

191 to 134: Various resistance movements against Rome in Iberia.

190: Roman army under Scipio defeats Antiochus III at the Battle of Magnesia. Apart from his other crimes, Antiochus was harbouring Rome’s long-term enemy, Hannibal (p.176).

c. 188: Treaty of Apamea Kibotos establishes peace with the Seleucid Empire and Rome plus its allies, such as Pergamon and Rhodes. The Seleucids have to evacuate their forces from Asia Minor and to pay a huge war indemnity.

172 to 168: Third Macedonian War: Philip of Macedon’s son, Perseus, challenges Rome and is defeated.

168: Roman legions smash the Macedonians at the Battle of Pydna. Twice Rome had withdrawn from Greece, leaving the city states to their own devices, assuming there would be peace, but instead facing renewed threats. So now Rome decided to establish its first permanent foothold in the Greek world. The Kingdom of Macedonia was divided by the Romans into four client republics.

154 to 139: Viriato leads the Lusitanians against Rome.

150 to 148: The Fourth Macedonian War Macedonian pretender to the throne Andriscus was destabilizing Greece. The Romans defeated him at the Second Battle of Pydna.

149 to 146: Third Punic War: Despite the fact that Carthage had obeyed all the provisions of the treaty which ended the Second Punic War, hawks in the Senate wanted to finish her off for good. When Carthage broke the treaty by retaliating against Masinissa king of the neighbouring Numidians’ repeated raids into Carthaginian territory, the hawks took this as an opportunity to declare war. Rome sent an army of 50,000 men then demanded that the Carthaginians must hand over all of their armaments and warships.

Carthage agreed to this humiliating demand, but when Rome went on to insist that they burn their city to the ground, relocate inland and change from being a seafaring, trading people to becoming farmers, the Carthaginians rebelled and broke off negotiations. The Roman army settled down for a siege of the city which dragged on for two long years. In the spring of 146 the besiegers, led by Scipio Aemilianus (an adopted grandson of Scipio Africanus) broke into the city which they burned and ransacked for 6 days, finally selling the 50,000 survivors into slavery, and razing the city to the ground.

The remaining Carthaginian territories were annexed by Rome and reconstituted to become the Roman province of Africa with Utica as its capital. Roman Africa became a major source of foodstuffs for Rome for centuries to come.

146: The Achaean War Following on from the fourth Macedonian war, the Achaean League mobilised for a new war against Rome. It was a foolish idea the historian Polybius blames on the demagogues of the cities of the league. The Achaean League was swiftly defeated and, as an object lesson, Rome utterly destroyed the city of Corinth in 146, the same year that Carthage was destroyed. To try to ensure peace Rome divided Macedonia into two new Roman provinces, Achaea and Epirus. From this point onwards Greece was ruled by Rome.

139: Law introduced the secret ballot.

137: 4,000 Celtiberians trap a force of 20,000 Romans at the Siege of Numantia, forcing their surrender.

135 to 132: First Servile War in Sicily, led by Eunus, a former slave claiming to be a prophet, and Cleon from Cilicia.

133: Rome captures Numantia, ending Iberian resistance.

133: Attalus III, the last king of Pergamon, bequeathes the whole of his kingdom to Rome.

133: The plebeian Tiberius Gracchus proposes sweeping land reforms which are so bitterly opposed by aggrieved landowners that he is murdered, bludgeoned to death. 70 years later Cicero saw this murder and the year 133 as opening up the fault lines of Roman society between two groups he calls the optimates and the populares (though modern scholars doubt the existence whether these really existed as organised groupings).

125: Rome intervenes on behalf of Massalia against the Saluvii Celts.

121: Gallia Narbonensis becomes a Roman province.

112 to 106: The Jugurthine War Numidia was a north African kingdom roughly covering the northern coastal part of what is now modern-day Algeria is. When the old king died the kingdom was disputed between his two sons and Jugurtha, his ambitious nephew.

111: Jugurtha murders his main rival along with many Roman merchants in a Numidian town. The Roman populace cried out for revenge but the event triggered an amazing sequence of delays caused by Jugurtha’s wholesale bribery and corruption of envoys sent to parley with him and then, once he’d gone to Rome, of various senators and officials dealing with him. The way Jugurtha was able to bribe and cajole his way out of various tight spots came to be seen as symbolic of the endemic corruption which had infected the body politic and inspired a vitriolic history of the war by this historian Gaius Sallustius Crispus, usually referred to as Sallust, writing a generation after the events (86 to 35 BC).

113 to 101: The Cimbrian War The Cimbri were a Germanic tribe who, in one account, hailed from Denmark and went trekking through Germany and down towards the Danube. Local tribes allied to the Romans asked for help and Rome sent an army under the Roman consul Gnaeus Papirius Carbo which was annihilated.

109: Cimbrian War: the Cimbri invade the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis and defeat the Roman army there under Marcus Junius Silanus.

108: Jugurthine War: Gaius Marius elected consul and given command of the army against Jugurtha.

107: Jugurthine War: the Tribal Assembly awards command of the Roman army in north Africa to the very ambitious general Gaius Marius Lucius Cornelius Sulla as his quaestor.

107: Cimbrian War: The Romans are defeated by the Tigurini, allies of the Cimbri. The Cimbri defeated another Roman army at the Battle of Burdigala (Bordeaux) killing its commander, the consul Lucius Cassius Longinus Ravalla.

106: Jugurthine War: The Second Battle of Cirta Romans under Gaius Marius with quaestor Lucius Cornelius Sulla as cavalry commander, defeated a Numidian-Mauretanian coalition led by King Jugurtha and king Bocchus and captured the Numidian capital of Cirta.

105: Cimbrian War: Battle of Arausio where Cimbri, Teutons, and Ambrones divide a huge Roman army (80,000 men plus support personnel) led by two  rivals, Gnaeus Mallius Maximus and the proconsul Quintus Servilius Caepio. Only Caepio, Maximus and a few hundred Romans escaped with their lives across the river choked with corpses. The Battle of Arausio was the costliest defeat Rome suffered since Cannae and the losses and long-term consequences were far greater.

104 to 100: Second Servile War in Sicily, led by Athenion and Tryphon.

104: Cimbrian War: Rome declared a state of emergency and the constitution was suspended to allow Gaius Marius, the victor over Jugurtha of Numidia, to be elected consul for an unprecedented five years in a row, starting in 104. He was given free rein to build a new army and took the opportunity to make sweeping reforms in structure, organisation, recruitment, pay and strategy. Marius created a professional standing force composed of able-bodied but landless volunteers. Meanwhile the Cimbri unaccountably lost the opportunity to invade Italy while Rome was without an army, instead trekking to Iberia where they experienced their first defeats.

102: Cimbrian War: The Cimbri along with several other allied tribes finally invaded Italy, dividing their forces into two distinct armies which took separate routes south. Marius defeated the army of the Teutons and Ambrones at the Battle of Aquae Sextiae.

101: Cimbrian War: The main body of the Cimbri penetrated north Italy and ravaged the valley of the Po. Marius waited for reinforcements and then took on the Cimbri at the Battle of Vercellae near the confluence of the Sesia River with the Po on the Raudine Plain. The Cimbri were virtually annihilated, both their highest leaders, Boiorix and Lugius, fell, their womenfolk killed both themselves and their children in order to avoid slavery, bringing the Cimbrian War to an end. The war had two massive consequences:

  1. The end of the Cimbrian War marked the beginning of the rivalry between Marius and Lucius Cornelius Sulla who had served under Marius during the Jugurthine War, and served during the Cimbrian War as military tribune. Their rivalry eventually led to the first of Rome’s great civil wars.
  2. Following the victory at Vercellae, and without first asking permission from the Senate, Marius granted Roman citizenship to his Italian allied soldiers. Henceforth all Italian legions became Roman legions and the allied cities of the Italian peninsula began to demand a greater say in the external policy of the Republic. This led eventually to the Social War.

So the final part of the Cimbrian War sowed the seeds of civil strife in Italy for the next 15 years.

1st century BC

91 to 87: The Social War between Rome and its Italian allies who wanted Roman citizenship and an equal share in power. Only won by Rome granting citizenship and other rights to the allies. Once achieved, this hastened the Romanisation of the entire Italian peninsula but was a bitter and destructive internecine struggle.

89 to 63: Mithridatic Wars against Mithridates VI, ruler of the Kingdom of Pontus in northern Anatolia.

88 to 87: First Civil War between Marius and Sulla. First march on Rome by Sulla.

83: Sulla’s second march on Rome. Mass proscriptions i.e. lists of Sulla’s political enemies to be hunted down and liquidated. Not quite Stalin’s Russia, but similar in intent.

80: Sulla is persuaded to give his junior general, Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus known as Pompey, his first ‘triumph’ in Rome.

73 to 71: Rebellion of Spartacus also known as the Third Servile War.

71: Pompey is granted his second ‘triumph’ for his victories in Spain.

70: Pompey and Marcus Licinius Crassus, generally referred to as Crassus, are made consuls.

67: The Gabinian Law is passed, giving Pompey extraordinary power to deal with pirates in the Adriatic.

66: The Manilian Law is passed, giving Pompey extraordinary power to deal with Mithridates VI of Pontus.

64: Galatia becomes a client state of Rome.

63: Pompey defeats the Seleucid Antiochus XIII and incorporates Syria as a province of the Roman empire.

62: Pompey returns to Italy, and disbands his army upon landing.

61: Cicero’s accuses Catalinus of being the ringleader of a coup attempt. Pompey holds another ‘triumph’ in Rome celebrating his military achievements in the East.

60: Gaius Julius Caesar, Pompey and Crassus make a behind-closed-doors deal to share power between them, bypassing traditional constitutional arrangements, a moment later writers lamented as sealing the fate of the republic. It comes to be known as the First Triumvirate, or the Gang of Three as Beard jokily calls it.

58 to 51: Under the terms of the triumvirate, Pompey campaigns in the east, Caesar conquers Gaul.

58: Caesar attacks the Helvetii while on migration and defeats them.

58 to 57: Cicero is exiled from Rome.

56: The navies of Rome and the Veneti Gauls clash resulting in a Roman victory, the first recorded naval battle in the Atlantic Ocean.

55: Caesar attempts to invade Britain.

54: Caesar successfully invades Britain but then withdraws to Gaul. The island will be decisively conquered under Claudius.

54: Ambiorix of the Eburones tribe destroys around 9,000 Roman soldiers at the Battle of Atuatuca, up towards the modern French border with Belgium, one of the most serious setbacks suffered by Julius Caesar during his conquest of Gaul.

53: Rome loses the Battle of Carrhae to the Parthians, on what is now the border between southern Turkey and Syria. Crassus, one of the Triumvirate, is captured and executed by the Parthians.

52: Julius Caesar is defeated at the Battle of Gergovia in south-central France by Vercingetorix.

52: After becoming trapped and besieged at Alesia, Vercingetorix surrenders to Caesar.

51: Caesar’s successful siege of Uxellodunum ends the Gallic War.

49: Burebistas sends Acornion of Dionysopolis as ambassador to negotiate an alliance with Pompey.

49: Caesar decides to march back from Gaul into Italy to dispute ultimate power with Pompey. According to tradition the ‘die is cast’ for war when he leads his legions across the river Rubicon. Civil war between Caesar and Pompey begins.

48: The Battle of Pharsalus the decisive battle of Caesar’s Civil War fought near Pharsalus in central Greece. Although Pompey enjoyed the backing of a majority of Roman senators and the larger army, his forces were massacred by Caesar’s legions, battle hardened from their long wars in Gaul. Pompey survived the battle and fled to Egypt, where he was assassinated on the orders of Ptolemy XIII who thought it would please Caesar.

46: The Bellovaci unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule in Belgica. Caesar holds a ‘triumph’ through Rome in which he displays peoples he has defeated and loot he has taken. The parade featured floats with people posing in dramatic tableaux, and placards, one of which read pithily: veni, vidi, vici – I came, I saw, I conquered. This referred to Caesar’s quick victory in his short war against Pharnaces II of Pontus at the Battle of Zela, in Turkey, up towards the Black Sea, in 47 (SPQR p.290). The historian Suetonius says Caesar used it in his triumph but the biographer Plutarch says he used it in a report to the Senate. Either way it’s indicative of the way the phrase was still quotable 150 years later and a token of Caesar’s skill as a writer, rhetorician and self publicist.

44: The Allobroges unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule in southern Gaul.

44: Caesar becomes dictator for life. On the ‘Ides of March’ (15th) he is killed by conspirators including Brutus and Cassius. Octavian, son of Caesars niece Atia, is posthumously adopted as his heir.

43 to 36: a Second Triumvirate is set up by Marcus Antonius (Mark Antony), Gaius Octavius (Octavian) and Marcus Lepidus, in opposition to the assassins of Caesar, chief among them Marcus Junius Brutus and Gaius Cassius Longinus (p.341). Following the innovation of Sulla in the 80s, the triumvirate draws up a long list of proscriptions i.e. people they want to see liquidated. The list includes the most eminent writer of Latin prose, Cicero, who is caught trying to flee, and beheaded in 43 (p.341).

42: Octavian and Antony defeat Republicans under Brutus and Cassius at the Battle of Philippi (Greece)

36: Octavian strips Lepidus of all power but the purely ceremonial Pontifex Maximus (supreme priest). Lepidus dies of old age in 12 BC, leaving Mark Anthony, allied with Cleopatra of Egypt, as Octavian’s main enemy.

33: The Belgic Morini and the Celts of Aquitania unsuccessfully rise against Roman rule.

31: 2 September Battle of Actium. Octavian defeats Mark Antony and Cleopatra VII of Egypt.

29: Octavian’s ‘triumph’ displays images of the people he defeated in the East along with such vast amounts of loot that it took 3 days to process through central Rome.

27: Octavian is given extraordinary powers and the name Augustus by the Roman Senate. Although many of its constitutional forms live on for centuries, the Republic is in effect dead, and historians date the start of the Roman Empire from either 31 or 27.


Credit

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.

Superficial

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)

Or:

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.


Credit

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) – 1

SPQR is a long book – including the notes and index, it totals a chunky 606 pages. I picked it up at the British Museum’s Nero exhibition, my mind fired up by a couple of hours looking at exhibits illustrating all aspects of ancient Roman life in the first century AD.

Mary Beard’s ubiquity

By the bottom of page one I was disappointed. Dame Mary Beard DBE FSA FBA FRSL is a tiresomely ubiquitous presence across all media:

  • she has a regular column in the Times Literary Supplement, ‘A Don’s Life’, columns which have been gathered into not one but two books
  • she has fronted seven TV documentary series – Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town (BBC 2), Meet the Romans with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Caligula with Mary Beard (BBC 2), Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard (BBC 1), Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit (BBC 2), Julius Caesar Revealed (BBC 1), she wrote and presented two of the nine episodes in Civilisations (BBC 2) and she hosts a new BBC arts programme Lockdown Culture
  • she regularly appears on Question Time and other BBC panel shows
  • she is very ‘vocal’ on her twitter account and has been ‘controversial’ enough to trigger a number of twitterstorms
  • she’s written nineteen books and countless articles and reviews

To churn out this huge volume of content requires compromises in style and content, especially when making TV documentaries which have to be lucid and simple enough to appeal to everyone. Listing her enormous output is relevant because it helps to explain why this book is so disappointingly mediocre. What I mean is, SPQR is a readable jog through all the key events and people of ancient Rome – and God knows, there are thousands of them. But it contains few if any ideas worth the name and is written in a jolly, chatty, empty magazine style.

Compare and contrast with Richard Miles’s book about Carthage which combines scholarly scrupulousness with teasingly subtle interpretations of ancient history, propounding interesting and unusual ideas about the cultural struggle waged between Rome and Carthage. Well, there’s nothing like that here.

On the back cover there’s a positive review from the Daily Mail:

‘If they’d had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have an empire!’

and this jolly knockabout attitude accurately captures the tone of the book. Beard is the Daily Mail‘s idea of an intellectual i.e. she’s at Cambridge, she knows about a fairly obscure subject, and she can speak a foreign language. She must be brainy!

And she’s outspoken, too. She’s what TV producers call ‘good value’. She can be relied on to start a twitterstorm by being outspokenly ‘controversial’ on statues or black lives matter or #metoo or any of the usual hot topics. Indeed Beard first came to public notice when she wrote in the London Review of Books in the wake of the 9/11 attacks that America ‘had it coming’, an off the cuff remark which prompted a storm of abuse. More recently she sparked ‘controversy’ through with her apparent defence of Oxfam workers practising sexual exploitation in Haiti, and so on.

Like so many other people on social media, Beard mistakes being provocative for actually having anything interesting to say; in which respect she is like thousands of other provocateurs and shock jocks and arguers on social media, all of whom think they are ‘martyrs to the truth’ and ‘saying the unsayable’ and ‘refusing to be silenced’, exactly the kind of rhetoric used by Tommy Robinson or Nigel Farage. She is the Piers Morgan of academia.

Mary Beard’s reasons to study ancient Rome

The superficiality of her thinking becomes horribly clear on page one of SPQR where Beard gives us her reasons why ancient Rome is still relevant to the present day, why it is important for us all to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

As a lifelong specialist in Classics you’d hope these would be pretty thoughtful and persuasive, right? Here are her reasons, with my comments:

1. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world, and think about ourselves.

No it doesn’t. I imagine you could study economics and international politics, biology and geography, climate science and sociology and psychology without ever needing to refer to ancient Rome. Marx, Darwin and Freud go a long way to defining how we understand the world. Cicero a lot less so.

2. After 2,000 years, Rome continues to underpin Western culture and politics.

No, it doesn’t. Brexit, Boris Johnson’s current problems, Trump’s popularity, modern music, art and design; all these can be perfectly well understood without any knowledge whatsoever of Roman history.

3. The assassination of Julius Caesar… has provided the template… for the killing of tyrants ever since.

Has it?

4. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond.

Well, yes and no. Italy and France and Spain are undoubtedly similar to the Roman territories of the same name and many cities in western Europe have Roman origins – but everywhere north of the Rhine or Danube was untouched by the Romans, so the borders and cities of modern-day Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Russia, Poland, Ukraine, Czech republic, Slovak republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania and Croatia have bugger-all to do with ancient Rome. It’s a tendentious fib to say ‘modern Europe’ owes its political geography to Rome.

5. The main reason London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province of Britannia.

Well a) after the Romans left in 410 London, like all other British cities, fell into disrepair. The reason London slowly rose again as a trading centre during the early Middle Ages has more to do with the fact that it is the logical place to build a major city in England, being close to the continent and at the lowest fordable point of a major river which reaches into the heart of the country and is thus a vital transport hub; b) London is capital of the United Kingdom because of political developments vis-a-vis Wales, Scotland and Ireland which took place a thousand years after the Romans left.

6. Rome has bequeathed us the ideas of liberty and citizenship.

This is true, up to a point, although these ideas were developed and debated in ancient Greece well before the Romans came along, and have undergone 1,500 years of evolution and development since.

7. Rome has loaned us catchphrases such as ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’.

It was when I read this sentence that I began to doubt Mary Beard’s grasp on reality. Is she claiming that ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ is by any stretch of the imagination a ‘catchphrase’ which anyone in Britain would recognise, who hadn’t had a classical education?

She’s closer to the mark when she goes on to mention a couple of other catchphrases like ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ or ‘bread and circuses’, which I imagine a large number of people would recognise if they read them in a magazine or newspaper.

But lots of people have given us comparable quotes and catchphrases, from Shakespeare to the Fonz. The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations includes over 20,000 quotations. Citing just three quotations as the basis for persuading people to study an entirely new subject is far from persuasive. If the number of quotations which a subject has produced is taken as a good reason for studying it, then Shakespeare would be a hugely better relevant subject for everyone to study, to understand where the hundreds of quotations which float around the language deriving from him come from (Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo? To be or not to be? Is this a dagger I see before me? All that glitters is not gold. The be-all and end-all. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.)

And then came Beard’s showstopper claim:

8. Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were.

Is Mary Beard seriously claiming that ‘Ancient Rome is important’ (the first sentence in the book) because ‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’? Let’s ponder this sentence and this argument for a moment.

Can Beard possibly be saying that actual gladiators, trained professional warriors who fight each other or wild beasts to the death in front of huge live audiences, ‘are as big box office now as they ever were’? I wish she was. I’d definitely pay to see that. But of course she isn’t she must be referring to the entertainment industry. I’m guessing it’s a throwaway reference to any one of three possible items: the television show Gladiators, which started broadcasting in 1992, some of whose expressions became jokey catchphrases (‘Contender ready! Gladiator ready!!’); to the 2000 movie Gladiator, directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, that was very successful and won five Oscars; and possibly to the 2010 American TV series Spartacus. Two TV shows and a movie about gladiators in 30 years. Hardly a deluge, is it?

Beard’s argument appears to be that, because a successful game show, movie and TV series have been made on the subject of ‘gladiators’ that is a sufficient reason for everyone to drop everything and study ancient Rome.

a) That’s obviously a rubbish argument on its own terms, but b) it ignores the wider context of modern media, of the entertainment industry, namely that there is a huge, an enormous output of product by film and TV companies, all the time, on every subject under the sun. If your argument is that, because a subject has been chosen as the topic of immensely popular movies or TV shows this proves that we must study that subject, then we should all be studying the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The reality of modern media is that it chews up and spits out any subject which it thinks will make money. In the last twenty years I have been dazed by the enormous explosion in the number of science fiction movies and TV shows, about alien invasions and artificial intelligence and robots and androids, which have hit our screens. Does this mean we should all study artificial intelligence and robotics? No. These are just entertainment products which we may or may not choose to watch.

Placed in the broadest context of western cultural products, then, gladiators, or even the overall subject of ancient Rome, pale into insignificance. Ancient Rome is just one of half a dozen hackneyed historical settings which TV and film producers return to from time to time to see if there’s some more profit to be squeezed from them, up there with Arthur of the Britons, Henry VIII and the Tudors, Regency-era dramas like Bridgerton, Dickens adaptations, the Wild West, not to mention the perennial subject of the two world wars which never go out of fashion.

If you base your case for studying an academic subject on its TV and movie ratings (‘Gladiators are as big box office now as they ever were’) then it follows that a) subjects with higher ratings are even more necessary to study (the Edwardian society of Downton Abbey, say) and b) low ratings for the subject you’re promoting undermine your argument. My son told me about an HBO series titled simply ‘Rome’ which only ran for two series (2005 to 2007) before it was pulled due to huge expense and disappointing ratings. Maybe ancient Rome isn’t as popular a subject as a professor of Classics likes to think.

Summary

Anyway, the eight sentences I’ve listed above constitute the list of the reasons given by ‘Britain’s leading Classicist’ for studying ancient Rome.

Not very persuasive, are they? Every one of these instances sounds plausible enough at a first glance, if you read it quickly, skimming over it as you skim over a magazine on a plane flight or listen to the script of a big budget documentary about Pompeii you’re half paying attention to.

But stop and ponder any of the eight arguments for more than a moment and they disintegrate in your hands. They are all either factually incorrect or laughably superficial, and they strongly indicate the fluent but facile nature of the mind which selected and wrote them.

Missing obvious arguments

In passing, it’s odd that Beard misses several obvious arguments from her list.

Because I’m interested in language, I’d say a good reason for studying Classics is because Latin forms the basis of a lot of contemporary English words. If you grasp a relatively small number of principles about Latin (such as the prefixes e- for ‘out of’ and in- for ‘into’ and ab- for ‘from’) it can help you recognise and understand a surprising number of English words.

Easily as important as Rome’s impact on political geography is the obvious fact that three major European languages are descended from it, namely Italian, French and Spanish. That’s a really massive lasting impact and people often say that studying Latin helps you learn Italian, French or Spanish.

In fact, having studied Latin, French and Spanish I don’t think it’s true. The main benefit of studying Latin is that it forces you to get clear in your head the logical structure of (western) language, understanding the declension of nouns and the conjugation of verbs, the arrangement of adjectives and adverbs – in other words, it gives you a kind of mental map of the basic logic of western languages, a mental structure which then helps you understand the structure of other languages, including English.

My son studied Latin at school and remembers his teacher trying to persuade his class that Latin was a ‘cool’ subject by telling them that the Chelsea footballer Frank Lampard had studied it. Beard’s efforts t opersuade us all to take ancient Rome more seriously are on about the same level.

But maybe I’m missing the point because Beard is talking about history and I’m talking about languages.

Once we got chatting about it, my son went on to suggest that arguably the most obvious legacy of ancient Rome is its architecture. All over the western world monumental buildings fronted by columns and porticos, sporting arches and architraves, reference and repeat the Architecture of Power which Rome perfected and exported around the Mediterranean and which architects copy to this day.

But again maybe I’m missing the point talking about architecture when Beard is determined to focus very narrowly on the history, on the events and personalities of ancient Rome.

Then again, having discussed it with my son made me realise that how narrow that focus is. If we agree that the biggest legacy of Rome was its political geography, the founding of important towns and cities in western Europe, its ancestry of widely spoken languages, and its hugely influential style of architecture, then this places the actual history of events, long and colourful though they may have been, in a relatively minor role – in terms of direct enduring influence on our lives, now.

Feminists can be boring old farts, too

Just because she makes a point of not wearing make-up and makes a big deal on the radio, on TV, in the TLS, in countless reviews and in all her books about being a ‘feminist’ doesn’t make Mary Beard any less of a privileged, out of touch, Oxbridge academic than hundreds of fusty old men before her. She attended a girls private school, then the all-women Newnham college Cambridge, and went onto a long and successful academic career at Cambridge, rising to become Professor of Classics.

This is all relevant to a book review because I am trying to convey the powerful impression the book gives of someone who is fantastically pleased with themselves and how jolly ‘radical’ and ‘subversive’ and ‘outspoken’ they are and yet:

a) who is apparently blind to the fact that they are exactly the kind of out-of-touch, white privileged media figure they themselves have expended such effort in books and articles criticising and lambasting

More importantly:

b) who mistakes sometimes dated references to popular culture or trivial ‘provocations’ about gender or race on twitter, for thought, for real thought, for real deep thinking which sheds new light on a subject and changes readers’ minds and understanding. As the Richard Miles’ book on Carthage regularly does; as this book never does.

Facebubble

A Facebubble is what is created among groups of friends or colleagues on Facebook who all befriend each other, share the same kinds of values, are interested in the same kind of subjects and choose the same kinds of items from their newsfeeds. Over time, Facebook’s algorithms serve them what they want to read, suggesting links to articles and documentaries which reinforce what they already know and like. After a while people become trapped in self-confirming facebubbles.

It is a form of confirmation bias, where we only register or remember facts or ideas which confirm our existing opinions (or prejudices).

Again and again Beard’s book confirms your sense that, despite her rhetoric about making the subject more accessible and open, she is in fact addressing a relatively small cohort of readers who are already interested in the history of the ancient world. The oddity is how she again and again gives the impression of thinking that these already knowledgeable readers are somehow representative of the broader UK population.

Of course this is true of more or less any factual book which addresses a specific audience for a specialised subject – it assumes a tone of general interest. What makes Beard’s book irritating is the references to the notion that ‘we’ are ‘all’ still fascinated by ancient Rome, that ‘everyone’ ‘needs’ to be engaged with the subject. That ancient Rome ‘demands’ our attention. Those are the words she uses.

But no, ancient Rome does not ‘demand’ our attention and no ‘we’ are not ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome. My Chinese postman, the three Albanians who put up my new fence, the Irish labourers who took away the wreckage of the old fence, the Asian woman on the checkout at Tesco, the Jamaican guy who blows leaves out the road for the council, the Turkish family who run the delicatessen round the corner – are they ‘all’ fascinated by ancient Rome? Does it ‘demand’ their attention? It feels as if she’s writing for a white, middle class, university educated Radio 4-listening public and badly mistaking them for representing the big, complex, very diverse population of modern Britain.

On page two she tells us how:

SPQR takes its title from another famous catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (p.16)

Is this a famous catchphrase, though? Roughly how many people know what SPQR stands for? What percentage of the population do you think could translate Senatus PopulusQue Romanus? Maybe people with degrees in the humanities, particularly in the arts and literature, probably ought to. And anybody who’s been to Rome as a tourist might have noticed the letters SPQR appearing on letter boxes and manhole covers. I know what it stands for and what the Latin means because I happen to study Latin at my state school and went on to do a history-based degree, which is precisely why I bought and am reading this book. But I have the self awareness to know that I represent a fairly small, self-selectingly bookish percentage of the total population.

Myth busting

On page 3 of the introduction, Beard says her book will set out to smash some of the ‘myths’ which ‘she, like many’ grew up with’ (p.17). These are:

  1. that the Romans started out with a plan for world domination
  2. that in acquiring their empire the Romans trampled over peace-loving peoples
  3. that Rome was the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece

Are these myths which you grew up with? Is it very important that ‘we’, the British people, have these ‘dangerous’ myths corrected? No, not really. They are only remotely important in the mind of someone who specialises in the subject.

All this rhetoric of ‘need’ and ‘must’ and ‘demand’ builds up an impression of special pleading, defined as when someone ‘tries to persuade you of something by only telling you the facts that support their case’. Beard is a Professor of Classics. Her job is to teach students Classics. She has taken it upon herself to make Classics more ‘accessible’ to a wider public, which may well be admirable. She tries to persuade us that everybody ought to know more about the history of ancient Rome.

But the arguments she uses to do so are weak and unconvincing.

I am not attacking Beard or her subject. I am critiquing the poor quality of her arguments.

First impressions

All these arguments and my responses to them occurred in the first few pages of the book. I hope you can see why, before the end of the 5-page introduction to SPQR, I realised that this was not going to be a scholarly book, and was not going to show much intellectual depth. It is a long, thorough and competent Sunday supplement-level account of its subject, stuffed with interesting facts, with some novel spins on things I thought I knew about (for example, the latest thinking about the legend of Romulus and Remus).

But it is disappointingly magaziney, features article-y, lacking in real depth. Instead of really unsettling and disrupting your ideas, of opening new vistas of understanding, as Richard Miles’s book does, Beard’s ideas of ‘controversy’ are on a disappointing twitter level – telling us that ancient Rome was a very sexist society, that its political debates about freedom versus security are very like our own, that there’s a lot we still don’t understand about its origins, that the archaeology is still much debated.

These are all ideas you could have predicted before you opened the book. That’s what I mean by comparing it to a very long magazine article which is packed with the latest knowledge and hundreds of dates and historical personages, but doesn’t really change your opinion about anything.

Very disappointing.


Credit

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

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