Beard: SPQR

August 1, 2021

SPQR
A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard
(Profile, 2015)
600 p.

A feature of my ongoing Roman reading project has been that I read primary sources only: ancient Roman history as told by the ancient Romans. But this strategy, sensible as it is, does have one drawback: the ancient Romans didn’t always fill out the context adequately for readers twenty centuries removed from them. So, as a concession to such shortsightedness, I decided to choose one good, modern history to give me a high-level overview and background, and I chose this fat volume by Mary Beard.

I think I chose reasonably well. She covers roughly the first millennium of Rome’s history: from the city’s beginnings down to about 200 AD, when the city ruled a far-flung empire, hitting the main historical highlights, and providing interesting context from archaeological evidence.

She relates the development of Roman law, from its rudimentary beginnings in the Twelve Tables; she discusses the strategies the Romans used as they expanded to bring new peoples under their political control (they focused on establishing dominion over “people, not places”, and never did really gain strong territorial control over the periphery of the empire); she describes the shape of the Roman political system, which, in the offices of consul, senator, and tribune combined elements of monarchy, oligarchy, and democracy, respectively; and of course she talks about the transition from republican Rome to imperial Rome, and the personalities of the most famous, and infamous, emperors. (She makes a modest attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Caligula, on the plausible but weak grounds that he probably wasn’t quite so black as he was painted.)

The archeological evidence she brings to bear I found quite interesting, on account of its being new to me. She claims, for instance, that the famous burning of Rome by the Gauls in about 390 BC, which Livy relates, is not well supported by evidence. Archeology also reveals much to us about the living conditions in the city over time. I was interested to learn that in Roman “high-rises” (of a few floors) it was, opposite to today, the poorest people who lived on the top floors on account of their being at greater risk in case of fire. And physical evidence, in statuary and inscriptions, also survives that gives us insight into what “being Roman” meant as one went further and further from the city.

Later chapters, expanding on this theme, delve into what she calls “Rome outside Rome”: what was it like, and what did it mean, to be “Roman” to the people — the great majority — who did not live in and around the city? The Romans made modest demands on those whom they brought into their empire: pay taxes, honour the emperor and the Roman gods, but retain your local customs, language, and religion. We can imagine that to those in the far-flung corners of the empire, “being Roman” might have been little more than a formality.

But there were some for whom even the modest Roman demands were too much. The Jews, of course, refused to honour the Roman gods and famously refused to admit a representation of the emperor into the Temple in Jerusalem. The Romans seem, for the most part, to have treated this intransigence with bemused toleration, at least until there was outright revolt in the late 60s AD, which occasioned a siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70.

Christians, likewise, were a problem for the Romans, for not only did they inherit from the Jews a fierce rejection of Roman religion, but they were not confined to a particular ethnic tradition: they spread, and converted people as they went. At first, of course, they were little more than a curiosity, but popular animus developed, so much so that Nero thought it a winning strategy to blame the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome. Beard reminds us that the persecution of early Christians was sporadic and on a modest scale, for the most part; this may be true, but it was nonetheless formative for the fledgling faith. A litany of those killed in Rome is still part of the prayers at every Mass throughout the world.

These difficulties notwithstanding, the success of Rome, Beard argues, is in no small part due to the modest demands they placed on those whom they conquered. There were distinctions, of course, between slaves, and free men, and citizens, but these distinctions very gradually declined in importance. Her history ends, in fact, with Caracalla’s decision to grant citizenship to every person in the empire — the apotheosis of Roman expansion, as it were. Naturally the story continues — all histories do — but this seems a fitting way to conclude her account of how a great thing called Rome arose from humble beginnings.

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