Wednesday, February 17, 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Mary Beard's SPQR ( is a fascinating history of Ancient Rome that is packed with insights and surprises.  Beard is a Cambridge trained classicist who is unafraid of staking out controversial and, sometimes, unpopular opinions.  After the 9/11 attacks she suggested infamously that "the United States had it coming."
The Senate and People of Rome
SPQR stands for "Senatus Populus Que Romanus" or the "Senate and People of Rome".  A visitor to Rome will find SPQR plastered all over the city's public works from manhole covers to garbage cans.  An Italian parody of it is "Sonno Pazzi Questi Romani" or "These Romans are mad."  One might also loosely translate "SPQR" as the Roman equivalent of "You're Welcome".

We Americans owe an enormous debt to the Roman empire.  Without Rome we would have had no Senate and no Republic.  George Washington consciously styled himself a new Cincinnatus.  The American eagle is direct lineal descendent of the Roman Imperial eagle that topped the banners of the Roman legions.
She-Wolf or Prostitute?
The birth of Rome was, according to the myth / history that Romans told themselves, undeniably strange and violent.  The orphaned twin brothers Romulus and Remus were raised by a she-wolf.  Beard points out that "the Latin word for wolf 'Lupa' was also used as the colloquial term for 'prostitute'."  She asks, "Could it be that a local whore rather than a wild beast had found and tended the twins?"   According to the legend Romulus slew his brother Remus or otherwise we might be saying that "All roads lead to Rema".

After Romulus became Rome's first King he sought to people his dominion.  His solution was the rape of the neighboring Sabine women who were abducted and married by Roman men.  This would create raw material for legions of future artists eager to paint about sex, power and marriage.

Roman politics evolved from Kingdom to Republic to Empire until the collapse of the Western Empire in the mid fifth century.  Beard focuses on the Catiline Conspiracy and demonstrates its relevance to contemporary politics.  Cicero's question, "How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing out patience?" has echoed through political rhetoric to the present.

Caligula (Gaius)
Beard often challenges conventional wisdom about Rome.  According to her, the notorious Emperor Caligula (Gaius) may not really have been such a bad guy after all.  She writes, "Gaius may have been assassinated because he was a monster, but it is equally possible that he was made a monster because he was assassinated."  In assessing Roman history Beard reminds us that we are dependent upon the written sources which were invariably written to settle a score and justify a particular regime (the successors of Gaius) rather than an attempt at objective history (See...
73 mile long Customs barrier?
Beard even challenges the notion that Hadrian's Wall was a defensive structure built to keep barbarians out.  She posits that it may have been a customs barrier.

Beard is more convincing when she reminds us of the astonishing pluralism of Roman society.  The Romans were polytheists who adopted new Gods as their empire expanded. Christian monotheism was a challenge to the Roman order and they tried to crush it.  Beard comments, "The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world."

Beard also suggests that Romans were far from unanimous about the meaning and value of their own Roman empire.  It was Tacitus, a Roman historian, who put into the mouth of a barbarian prince the most anti-imperial line ever written -- "They create desolation and call it peace."

Beard's lifelong engagement with the Roman world has produced an amazing work that challenges us to delve more deeply into our past.

You can find signed copies of 
Italy Invades: How Italians Conquered the World


Marinella said...

I suggest you read the fascinating profile of Mary Beard in the New Yorker of September 1 2014, in which she explains her regret at expressing herself in the way she did in the London Review of Books. She did not say "the USA had it coming", she said that there were people who felt that, which is very different. Unfortunately statements are very often misquoted, quoted out of context and misinterpreted. She admits that she was wrong to say what she did, in a way that was open to misinterpretation and acknowledges that people were upset by it. She wrote to people individually to explain what she had meant. For that admission, she deserves our respect and admiration. How many public figures will retract or apologise for their statements? She equally deserves our admiration for the way she dealt with a vile and obscene mysogynist attack on her on Twitter (unrelated to 9/11), and for much else. Please do read that article.

Christopher Kelly, I am glad you gave SPQR five stars, and I think many of your points spot-on. A key word that you use is "challenges" and MB uses this in her Prologue :"The history of Rome is a big challenge". MB challenges us to think, challenges us to question accepted "wisdoms", to look at how different Roman historians constructed their histories in the light of their own times and prejudices - as do historians today! Many negative reviews on this site and the UK site (I'm in the UK) are by people who criticise MB for not writing the sort of book they expect about the Romans, in the style they assume is "right' for history books. Hundreds, thousands of books have been written about all aspects of Rome. What would be the point in writing yet another one if it didn't ask more of us than an unquestioning acceptance of "facts"?

I believe a young woman student wrote something like: "When I grow up I want to be Mary Beard". Well, if I weren't a decade older than MB, I too would want to be her when I grew up!

Commander Kelly said...

Thanks Marinella. Here is the link the New Yorker article that you referred to...