SPQR by Mary Beard

 

You can’t doubt Mary beard’s academic credentials, but she has written SPQR for the general reader. She starts the story with Cicero and the Cataline conspiracy. We get the characters involved and we get a description of what the world the action is taking place in looked like. This is history as entertainment, and it is very entertaining. But that doesn’t stop it also being very informative.

 

One of the problems of writing about Roman history is that it is quite popular, so you have to assume that your readers already know quite a bit about it. But you also need to take account of people who are reading about this stuff for the first time. I really love the way this book handles it. I think the only names that get dropped in without some background are Julius Caesar and Spartacus. All the other characters we meet are introduced with enough information to work out who they are. And we often get a to know them as people as well.

 

The other trick is to go from the big picture down to the nitty gritty.  So we hear about say Claudius invading Britain, and what his motives for so doing were.  And then we plunge into some archeology that casts a light on what it was like to live in Roman Britain.  It gives you a feeling that you are getting a lot of depth to your knowledge without having to be burdened with too much in the way of facts.

 

The story is basically one where a state and the elite who control it grows in power and influence at the expense of everyone else.  The Romans started out as farmers. The first rulers were supposedly kings, but as Mary Beard points out the actual facts relating to the regal period in Roman history are very thin on the ground indeed.  It is much more likely that the so called kings are simply a memory of a period when Rome was basically a gang rather than a state. The Rome that first shows up in history is already a republic, and its origins were already of some interest and much of what the Romans themselves believed about their origin was either fanciful or deliberately made up to serve the political purposes of one person or another.

 

The early republic relied on its farmers to provide the manpower in its army. This naturally led to a republican form of government. Everyone was called on to do their bit, so everyone naturally had a say and had to have their opinions and interests respected. It was equally natural that the richest, who could afford all the right war gear, would be more influential.

 

The ideal early Roman was Cinicinnatus, who was at the very least semi-mythical and quite likely entirely mythical.  He led the Roman army during a military crisis, but when the danger had passed modestly returned to his plough. That isn’t a metaphor.  He had literally left his plough in his field, and when the war was over went back and carried on ploughing.

 

(If you like historical trivia, the city of Cincinnati is named after him.)

 

But as the Roman state grew the demands placed on the soldiers grew and the riches available to the elites increased.  The story is often told that the men away on campaign left their families behind in debt and so easy prey to the rich who bought up more and more of the land driving the now penniless and homeless former small farmers into the city where they were obliged to live on the bread doled out by the rich and live just to enjoy the circuses provided for them.

 

It is a good story though the details can’t actually be confirmed. The details of the sociology of the Roman Empire haven’t been sorted out and may well never be.  But the fact was that the rich did steadily get richer at the expense of just about everybody else. The struggles between the top dogs in the republic dragged the the whole state into several civil wars. Before long it was clear that the Senate was not capable of controlling things.  

 

The most famous Roman of all is Julius Caesar. We get a good introduction to him and the kind of man he was.  For example I didn’t know that he was the first Roman to have coins printed with his own image on them while he was still alive.  We get an interesting bit of perspective on the practice of making dead Romans into gods. It wasn’t quite as weird an idea as it sounds to us when you have a bit more background on Roman society.

 

Julius Caesar was not in fact ever emperor of Rome.  He was murdered before he had the chance to achieve that ambition.  His successor Octavian, known to history as Augustus was the man who set up the empire in the form it was to keep for the next couple of hundred years and the form that most of us think of when we hear the word Roman Empire. He was an artful politician well versed in the kinds of skills that would make him a handy spin doctor on any modern election campaign. And in fact he kept the whole edifice of the republic pretty much intact. It was possible to ignore the fact that the republic had ended if you didn’t look too closely at the details.

 

But the Romans were no fools and were well aware that the republic was gone for good and that they now lived in a military dictatorship. They seem to have been reconciled to it being a pretty multicultural empire as well. The Greeks rapidly became more or less the second race in the empire and there was no attempt to impose Latin on the large Greek speaking area.

 

Local elites came to terms with the Romans too.

 

The Roman Empire soon became a rather large melting pot of different cultures and religions.  The provinces  developed into what we would think of as provinces run by a governor.  In the early empire it was routine for governors to treat their spell in the provinces as nothing more than a money making exercise.  Later on they became rather more formally representatives of the emperor.   The role of the emperor was to become steadily more important, and in many ways more oppressive.   It isn’t at all obvious why the empire should have stopped growing as soon as the empire replaced the republic.   There was a piece of advice from Augustus to his successors recommending against it.   But this was hardly binding.  When every emperor with the sole exceptions of Claudius and Trajan deciding against further military conquest,  some kind of explanation is needed.

 

In particular, why did none of them finish off the plan that Augustus was working on of establishing the frontier not on the Rhine but on the Elbe?   That would have shorted the frontier and also removed the weak point in the defences that enabled an enemy a relatively short route to the conquest of Italy via what is now Austria?

 

The answer seems to be that the politics of the republic revolved around who could create the biggest splash in the forum.  Coming back from conquering Gaul or Asia Minor was the foundation of the careers of the likes of Caesar and Pompei.    With all the political power in the hands on an emperor, the focus of ambition now became internal.  The only gig in town was now becoming an emperor.  In fact, getting into a foreign conquest as a general  was as likely to provoke jealousy as promotion.   The  only way to get on now was to be the emperor.   Everyone else was just his subject.

 

As the the political importance of the senatorial class fell away, so did the significance of Rome as a city.  And so did the role of the Roman Citizen.  The book ends with the decree of the emperor Caracalla that all free men in the empire were now citizens.  This is logical.  The Roman Empire was now a continent wide state with only an emotional attachment to Rome as its capital.  In later years it would be ruled from places such as Ravenna, Milan and from newly built Constantinople.

 

The only actual mistake made by this book is its title. SPQR is well known to fans of Roman history as the official designation of the Roman state. It was used, notably on the legions’ standards, right up to last days of the empire in the fifteenth century. Its meaning – the Senate and People of Rome – is well known to history anoraks but not to the person who is curious about Roman history and looking for a quick well written introduction. This is certainly that book, but the name doesn’t tell them that.  I would rename it “A Brief Introduction To The Senate and People Of Rome – a chance to get to know them,”   And I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who wants to know about ancient Rome’s people, or who just likes reading stuff that is well written.

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