SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Book Review by Alex Johnston

In her new book, SPQR, Mary Beard writes about the history of the first millennium of ancient Rome – roughly covering the period of time from Rome’s foundation, on the implausibly precise date of 21 April 753 BCE, to the year 212 CE when the Emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen. Yet she chose to begin the book roughly three-quarters of the way into that millennium, with a discussion of the suppression of the Catiline rebellion by Cicero in 63 BCE. Why did she do that?

Her portrayal of Cicero is not entirely flattering. She speaks freely of his obvious talents, and about how he rose from provincial nobody to the pinnacle of the Roman elite, without the advantages of pedigree or military prowess. But, as she illustrates throughout the book, he could be both bombastic bore and whining victim. Orator, slumlord, judge/jury/and executioner, he was a man of many parts, and not all of them particularly likeable. I loved her translation from the Latin: O fortunatam natam me consule Romam – a jingle with something of the ring of ‘Rome was sure a lucky state / Born in my great consulate’.” Sulla said of Julius Caesar, “I see many a Marius in him.” I can imagine him saying of Cicero, “I see many a Donald Trump in him” in some Star Trek-kind of scrambled time continuum. He became a legend in time, but began as a legend in his own mind. And, as is the case with Mr. Trump, his self-promotion was a key element of his huge success, like it or not.

But still, I like that she begins her book by paying homage to Cicero. From the book: “Almost a thousand letters in all survive, written both to and by the great man over the last twenty years or so of his life.” Ms. Beard is a classicist by trade, after all. What would her career look like, if Cicero had not been so ambitious? Not apparently an overly brave man, he might have chosen to remain comfortably on the sidelines, like his best bud Atticus, and to write solely of domestic affairs and local politics in Arpinum (yawn). What would study of Roman antiquity look like if he had made that choice? Would she even be in the biz? In a very real sense, he helps put food on her table!

But it’s more than that. Much of what we know (or think we know) about ancient Rome is what we read from historians and other commentators of the time – Cicero, Livy, Juvenal, and others. But they were also often writing about “ancient” Rome – in their cases, about events that occurred several centuries in the past. And they didn’t have a Cicero providing eyewitness commentary on the “founding” of Rome, the rape of the Sabines, the assault on Lucretia’s virtue. Ms. Beard even cautions us to question – what do we mean by founding, anyway? Surely, Rome didn’t just suddenly spring into being as a fully developed city, now did it? What of these things do we believe that may not be the case?

And with writing comes spin. When, during the Catiline controversy, Cicero appealed to Jupiter at His temple and reminded Him of His debt of origin to Romulus, his audience got the drift. From the book: “The implication that Cicero was casting himself as a new Romulus was not lost on the Romans of his day, and the connection could rebound: some people used it as another excuse to sneer at his smalltown origins by calling him the Romulus of Arpinum.”

The life and writings of Cicero illustrate what Ms. Beard takes pains to make us understand – much of what we think we “know” about ancient Rome needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. We are lucky that Cicero did his thing – his voluminous first-hand commentaries do not characterize much of the “history” of ancient Rome (including his own commentaries on earlier times). In her brilliant discussion, “Kings or chiefs?” she says this about ancient historians writing of Rome’s regal past: “According to their accounts, the early Romans already relied on such institutions as the senate and assemblies of the people, which were part of the political institutional furniture of the city half a millennium later.” And, a few sentences later, “At this point a reality check is required. However else we may choose to describe the urban community of the early Romans, it remains somewhere on the spectrum between tiny and small.” The facts behind what we have come to know of established monarchies presiding over senators and citizens, and drafting complex treaties with other large military-political complexes, are probably more akin to small bands led by rural warlords engaging in skirmishes with other tribes.

Again, from the book: “Even now, this inscription (RECEI in Boni’s inscription) puts the idea of the Roman kings centre stage and raises the question of what kingship might mean in the context of a small, archaic community of a few thousand inhabitants living in wattle-and-daub huts on a group of hilltops near the river Tiber.” Brilliant!

To say that I loved this book would be an understatement. Mary Beard is a scholar with a common touch. She certainly set an ambitious goal for herself in writing this book – to recount the history of Rome’s first millennium – but as it actually happened, not just as it is written. We all know that Rome had seven kings, right? “Even if we imagine unusually healthy lifespans, it is impossible to make seven kings, Romulus included, spread over the 250 years – from the mid eighth century to the late sixth century BCE – that Roman writers assigned to them. That would mean each of them reigned, on average, for more than three decades. No modern monarchy has ever equaled that consistent level of longevity.” She questions everything, but is very forthcoming about her own speculations and lack of definitive answers to questions of Rome’s murky past. And that, I think is one of the central messages of her book – that the first millennium of Roman history includes writings and artifacts that can be more or less established as fact, but also a lot of speculation and propaganda that needs to be understood to fully appreciate this crucial period in our planet’s history.

Eh – I didn’t even scratch the surface – barely got out of the first chapter! This book is about 600 pages of compelling content and detailed historical commentary. And, most importantly, I ENJOYED THE HELL OUT OF READING EVERY PAGE OF IT! Buy it and read it – just as soon as you can!

Alex Johnston is the author of several fiction books about Marcus Mettius, a minor character in Julius Caesar's Commentaries on the Gallic War.

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