Book review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

MARY Beard will make even the biggest devotees of the Empire’s history think again with her incisive new work

Historian and writer Mary Beard. Picture: Debra Hurford Brown

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard | Profile Books | 606pp, £25

Mary Beard is a sceptical historian, a questioning one. SPQR covers a thousand years of Roman history, from the (legendary) foundation of the city in 753 BC to when the Emperor Caracalla “not” (otherwise) “remembered as a far-sighted radical reformer… decreed that all the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire, wherever they lived, from Scotland to Syria, were Roman citizens”. She doesn’t claim to know the reason for this decree, but it’s an appropriate stopping-place: Rome, the little city on seven hills, now granted worldwide Roman citizenship.

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There’s an irony, however, on which she remarks. Emperors were no longer based in Rome.They were with the armies on the frontiers. They no longer consulted the Senate – the S of the SPQR. One-hundred years later Constantine, who made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, transferred its capital to the Greek city of Byzantium, renamed Constantinople – Constantine’s “polis”, which is also Greek.

Beard hasn’t written a straight chronological history. She darts back and forward in time, beginning with a pivotal moment of the late Republic, Cicero’s exposure and suppression of the Catiline Conspiracy. This is splendidly dramatic stuff. “How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?”, Cicero asked in the Senate House. Or did he? The question and the story of the revolutionary conspiracy are famous – but the evidence is mostly supplied by Cicero himself. So might there, Beard asks, be another version of the story? Evidence is scanty; it always is, and historians shouldn’t presume that they can deliver unchallengeable verdicts. Nevertheless, Beard knows that what people believed happened is often as important as what may have happened. She respects the great historians who have told the story of Rome, even when evidence more recently recovered has shown them to be wrong.

Much of the early history of Rome – the stories of the seven kings and the early republic – is legendary. It’s what people believed may have happened, and the Roman historian Livy was himself well aware of this. Romulus, the founder of the city, and murderer of his brother Remus, the pair of them abandoned infants suckled by a she-wolf , is more like our King Arthur than Julius Caesar. Beard doesn’t think we have much to learn directly from Roman history. You didn’t, she observes caustically, have to know the story of the millionaire general Crassus’s disastrous war against the Parthian Empire to know that it might be a bad idea to invade Iraq.

Nevertheless, Roman history and Latin culture are part of our inheritance. They have contributed to making us 21st -century Europeans what we are. The same may be said of Americans and the USA. Washington self-consciously declares itself an heir of Rome. After 1945 we talked of the Pax Americana. But Romans themselves were at times ambivalent about Empire. Tacitus has the Caledonian chief declare “you make a desert and call it peace”. Yet Virgil has the gods promise his Trojan hero Aeneas, from whom the Romans claimed descent, “empire without limits”. Beard notes that for 2000 years there has scarcely been a day when someone, somewhere, wasn’t reading Virgil.

Beard is acute and decisive, yet ready to admit puzzlement. She doesn’t quite know what to make of the emperor Augustus, even while admiring him as a master of black propaganda. His final remark was either “how have I played in the comedy of life?” or “if I have played my part well, then give me applause”. An actor, then? But all politicians play a part . What is real? What sincere? The historian can’t be sure – even less sure than contemporaries were. The historian holds up a mirror to the past, but mirrors can be deceptive.

Beard guides you on an enthralling journey through the Roman world. However well you think you know the country, she gives different views, new aspects. She asks you to question morality too: what are we to make of a society built on slavery? Or one where women were legally sub ordinate to men and denied a public role except as priestesses? Even those who know a lot about Rome will learn more, and find themselves questioning much of which they were previously certain. SPQR does what history should do.