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Book Review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Mary Beard)

“SPQR” is proof that it’s possible to write something interesting where thousands of books have gone before. The author, Mary Beard, an English classicist, has managed to write a compelling book covering most of Roman history, with enough detail to give the reader, whether new to Roman history or already well-versed, a complete picture, and enough color to give the reader reason to remember that detail.

The jacket blurb states that the book is a “revisionist history,” which is simply not true. The book is instead a precise explication of what it is we know about specific selected events in Roman history, what it is we do not know, and why we do or do not know. Beard of course uses the latest scholarship, informed by modern archaeology, but in no way is this history revisionist. In fact, in many ways this is a traditional history, arranged by chronology and focusing on traditional matters, which is highly refreshing given the desperation for innovation that leads many authors to speculate on dumb and irrelevant topics. Not Beard—for her, it’s all about what the Romans actually did (and thought, to the extent demonstrable). And she very clearly loves the Romans.

It appears that one reason the blurb calls the book “revisionist” is because Beard spends some time (not a lot) talking about those allegedly ignored by historians—basically “common people,” whether those dirt poor or those merely not rich enough to matter, and women. That’s a silly reason to call it revisionist, and to her credit Beard never herself says anything of the sort. An exaggerated focus on common people and women in history has been universal for decades, even though naturally much less information is available about their lives, since written information about the ancient world more or less ignores everyone but the decision- and taste-makers of the upper classes, and the military. Modern archaeology can remedy this to a certain extent, and Beard takes full advantage of what’s available. Nothing she says about the common people and women is startling, but it’s always fascinating that in many ways the average person seems very like us today, at least in ways not purely cultural, and if you ignore unpleasantness like throwing unwanted children in the trash.

Of course, the reason common people and women are ignored in most histories is not just because there is little information available about them, but because they don’t really matter. They mattered to themselves, presumably, but as individuals they almost never changed or affected the course of anything. You don’t have to subscribe to the Great Man theory of history to realize that most common people are irrelevant, except on rare occasions when they act decisively as a group (and even then they are generally spurred on and led by members of the upper classes). And while in some societies upper-class women played an essential political role, that role was largely hidden from public view. It’s similar to the historical problem that Beard identifies in the early Empire—all government decisions that mattered were now made in secret, not in public like under the Republic, thereby vastly complicating the historian’s task. Similarly, the role of women influencing the men who made decisions was doubtless critical in some, or even many, instances. But we have practically no evidence of individual cases, except for vicious and dubiously reliable attacks upon men for being unduly influenced by women, so there is just not much to talk about. To her credit, Beard doesn’t fill the void with speculation, which would, indeed, have made this a revisionist history. Which it isn’t.

That’s not to say the poor weren’t important to the Roman political system. Usually, the poor’s role in the Roman political system is only mentioned in connection with rare elite-led commoner unrest—e.g., the Gracchi. But Beard makes clear that even though the Roman voting system effectively allowed the votes of anyone but elites to be ignored, the reality was that the elites competed aggressively throughout Roman history for the votes, favor and good opinion of the poor. “The votes of the poor mattered and were eagerly canvassed. The rich were not usually united, and elections were competitive. Those holding, or seeking, political office set great store on persuading the people to vote for them or for their proposed laws and devoted enormous attention to honing the techniques of rhetoric that would allow them to do that. They ignored or humiliated the poor at their peril.” Why this was is a bit of a mystery, but apparently it’s not disputed.

Beard, using a lot of the voluminous sources available from the provinces, particularly from archaeology of inscriptions, has many fascinating anecdotes. Here, connected to this type of campaigning for the votes of the common people, she tells how the Syrian king Antiochus IV Ephiphanes [“manifest god”], who had lived for a decade as a hostage in Rome before returning home to rule, “would dress up in a toga and go around the marketplace as if he were a candidate for election, shaking people by the hand and asking for their vote. This baffled the people in his showy capital of Antioch, who were not used to this kind of thing from a monarch and [modified his honorific to] Epimanes (‘bonkers’).”

One theme of the book is how “libertas,” or freedom, was the essential principle of Roman political thought (supplemented by individual “virtus,” meaning in essence “manliness”). Beard points out that throughout the history of Rome, “[P]olitical debate often turned on how far ‘libertas’ could ever be compatible with autocracy. Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the freedom of the Roman citizen be resolved? All, or most Romans, would have counted themselves as upholders of ‘libertas,’ just as today most of us uphold ‘democracy.’ But there were repeated and intense conflicts over what that meant.” We can recognize our own political debates in this type of question, and realize that, as in Rome, they are necessarily intractable of a comprehensive and lasting resolution.

The book is chronologically arranged, in, as I say, a traditional format. One interesting thing Beard does is make clear how much, or how little, reliable information is available from each era of Roman history, and from where that information comes. We generally have a feeling that we know little with certainty about ancient history, and for earlier periods that’s certainly true. But we actually know enormous amounts about later periods, from the late Republic onward, even if sometimes the sources are contradictory (and the author must select for exposition a tiny subset of available material, at least beyond 200 B.C.). Beard’s explanations of the precision with which we know things at a given time really help the reader get his footing, and for that alone the book is valuable.

There are occasional quirks, of course. Beard discusses Marius and Sulla without ever mentioning they were contemporaries and enemies. She uses the silly dating nomenclature of “BCE” and “CE,” for Before The Common Era and Common Era, when those are both more easily confused for each other, and are merely an attempt to deny the Christian origins of our Western dating system, although “Common Era” necessarily means “Christian Era.” (In fairness, this dating nomenclature is moderately common in academic literature, although it fortunately has not penetrated the general public, not even Wikipedia.) Similarly, Beard notes that the main reason that any Roman literature has survived is due to medieval monks, and she notes that there was a “significant but often forgotten contribution from medieval Islamic scholars who translated into Arabic some of the philosophy and scientific material.” That’s true, of course, but that Muslim contribution is hardly forgotten—in fact, for political reasons today it’s exalted grossly out of proportion to its actual impact, and the monks’ contributions are generally downgraded (and Byzantine contributions are utterly ignored). But Beard’s quirks are few and far between, and do not erode the value of her book in any way.

Beard touches on Christianity, of course, although given that she ends her history at the emperor Caracalla (died 217 AD), it is not a focus of the book. Oddly, Beard claims that “The victory of Christianity . . . ensured that there is an enormous amount of surviving evidence, argument and self-justification from Christian Roman writers and almost nothing from their traditional, ‘pagan’ Roman opponents outlining their objections to the new religion.” This is not true. Yes, the books of the anti-Christian writers did not generally survive intact (not so much because they were destroyed, but because they were not preserved by monks of the Middle Ages—as Beard makes clear in other contexts, a vast array of literature has simply disappeared, such as Sulla’s 22-volume autobiography). But pagan objections to Christianity are very well preserved, in the writings of Christian apologists responding to the pagan arguments. The classic example of this is Origen’s “Against Celsus,” a voluminous, point-by-point refutation of the arguments of the anti-Christian philosopher Celsus, which extensively quotes Celsus’s arguments.

In fact, then as now, Christians were very much aware of philosophical and logical objections to their religion, and from the very beginning, Christian apologists have responded with vigor and detailed argument to their opponents. This is what makes today’s so-called New Atheists, like Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, so foolish. They imagine that their arguments are new and sophisticated, while really they are as old as Christianity and they are simplistic compared to the arguments of the Second Century, in which the brightest minds of the time carefully responded to each other. But Dawkins and his ilk are unaware of this, and act as if there are no responses to their skeletal (and often factually inaccurate) “arguments,” when the reality is that they would be totally flummoxed and defeated if forced to actually debate with any prominent Christian theologian of the early Church.

Beard does not say anything negative or positive about Christianity as such, but she does talk about how the Romans viewed Christians—namely, that they could not understand them. It is a commonplace that the Romans, and other pre-Christian peoples, did not think about morals in the way we do. We think that the ideal is the Golden Rule (a purely Christian concept) and that throwing children in the trash is wrong. They did not. Their general view toward human relations is encapsulated by the famous epitaph Sulla wrote for his own tomb: “No enemy ever wronged me, whom I have not repaid in full.” But another moral gulf between the Romans and us, less well known, or rather less noted, is the value Christianity placed on poverty. As Beard notes, “[T]he ambitions of the poor were not radically to reconfigure the social order but to find a place for themselves nearer the top of the hierarchy of wealth. Apart from a very few philosophical extremists, no one in the Roman world seriously believed that poverty was honorable—until the growth of Christianity. The idea that the rich man might have a problem entering the kingdom of heaven would have seemed as preposterous to [the poor] as to the plutocrat in his mansion.” Such insightful contrasts, coupled with the fascinating history of the Romans as a whole, are what make this book well worth reading.

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