I was a bit daunted at the prospect of reading SPQR, Mary Beard’s 608-page epic history of Rome, while also teaching five classes and amidst a hectic tour schedule, but it was so engaging that I found myself pulling it out at bus stops or while waiting for students or tours. The sweeping story from Romulus, founder of Rome, to 3rd-century AD Emperor Caracalla boasts up-to-date archeological and documentary evidence, which made my Forum tours feel fresh and new. Beard also offers a very interesting new proposal for the effective end date of the Roman Empire, traditionally given as 476AD when the Ostrogoths deposed Emperor Romulus Augustus. Beard suggests the date of 212AD, the year Emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the Empire. In one edict, she notes, “30 million provincials became Roman overnight.”
While much has been made in this heated political season about the question of immigration, Beard, from the beginning, focuses on the matter of Roman identity – what it meant to be a “Roman” and how the Romans came to define themselves as they slowly grew to master the
Mediterranean. Beard did, however, get into the twittercage with Big Brexit Brit Arron Banks with hilarious results. SPQR is not a light and easy read—no 140 character chapters here—but it moves quickly and offers many new insights on the history of the Eternal City.
My editor at Harcourt once told me that history needs a new rewrite once a generation. The way we understand, absorb and process information changes; historical data increases and some older theories are discredited. In our personality-driven world, readers like to have a single figure as a guide to the story and in SPQR, Beard gives us Marcus Tullius Cicero, a figure that the modern reader can begin to grasp. A “new man,” meaning not from the Roman aristocracy, Cicero used his gifts to make it to the top. A man of ambition and vision, of deep philosophical bent, but also subject to petty self-aggrandizing, Cicero did his best to navigate his love of country, love of comfort and desire for legacy in a crumbling Republic. As Cicero tried to embody the ideal of a Roman citizen, the meaning of Rome was already changing.
The book contains something for everyone: facts and figures of battles, currency and population, but also magnificent moments of literary analysis. The reader learns to delve more deeply into the story of Romulus and Remus, instead of dismissing it as mere myth, and while the inconsistencies of Rome’s own historical record are evident, Beard keeps the reader on track by focusing on a people creating a collective story as well as a government and an administrative system, all the while fighting constant wars.
She thankfully almost never strays into the temptation to make modern political commentary—which I sometimes find hard to resist—and keeps her eye on this amazing people and their remarkable story. The usual suspects all get close examination: the Gracchi, Gaius Marius, Julius Caesar, Augustus and Hadrian, and of course the Pantheon and Coliseum are prominently featured.
I have long appreciated Mary Beard’s literary sensitivity. She loves poems, plays and novels the way I love paintings and sculptures, and as a result I found her discussions of these people and places had certain nuances that made me look at them in a different light. If ancient Rome is a diamond, then Beard’s book is the “princess cut,” allowing light to sparkle from the corners as well as the center.
It took me a while to get to this book, not only because I had little time, but also because I had heard it described as a modernizing of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which held Christianity responsible in large part for the Fall of Rome, and I dreaded slogging through another antichristian tract. Beard devotes very little time to the Christians as it is clearly not a major interest of hers. Her meticulous scholarship does, however, dip with the entry of Christianity, and the minimal critical apparatus here indicates that this just isn’t the focus of her study. Indeed, for a history that ends in 212AD, she is right to do so; the small sections regarding Christianity will not please students of Christianity, but these minor failing should not keep people from reading the book.
I was particularly pleased to find that in the Venn diagram of how I see history and how Beard sees history there was an important intersection. Instead of blaming the Christians or lead poisoning or barbarian invasions for the Fall of Rome, Beard seems to suggest that Rome ceased to exist when it lost its identity and sense of citizenship. I have long thought that when Rome abandoned its sense of self and allowed ideals and virtues to give way to decadence, and when the government thought to tame its populace by indulging their basest instincts, Romans grew incapable of resisting hardship and suffering when it came upon them in both the form of economic recession and of invasion. They gradually stopped fighting because they didn’t know what they were fighting for. It is nice to know that coming from two opposite ends of the socio/political spectrum, there is a place where minds can meet.
SPQR by Mary Beard 608 pages Profile Books 2016