608 pages, Liveright, ISBN-13: 978-1631492228
The Cambridge don and public intellectual Mary Beard, in her sweeping SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, reveals the eternal-yet-all-too-easily-forgettable lesson that national elites can ignore deep social divisions while steadily rigging the system in their favor for only so long before the plebeians catch on; once that happens, only the most ruthless, cunning, and daring will emerge when the dust settles. Rather idiosyncratically, Beard begins her history with the Second Catilinarian Conspiracy of Lucius Sergius Catilina (known in English as Catiline) in 63 BC, the event that marked the high point of the orator Marcus Tullius Cicero’s career – if she were going to flout standard chronology, one might have expected her to begin in 44 BC with Julius Caesar’s assassination, or possibly with the murders of the people’s champions, the Brothers Gracchus in 133 and 121 BC – but Beard’s work is not intended as a straightforward chronicle; it is, rather, a triumph of interpretation, and by the end of this modest book her readers will understand Rome in a way they hadn’t before.
But first, back to Catiline: Beard is careful to note that we might not be able to learn much directly from Rome’s travails, but our engagement with them can nonetheless teach us a great deal. Thus, the Second Catilinarian Conspiracy is a good fit for our current national mood, as it reflected the desperation of many ordinary citizens during (another) financial crisis in Rome and their apparent willingness to support the violent schemes of a flamboyant (though bankrupt) member of the Roman elite. Anger at the vast fortunes amassed by the top slice of society, and a lack of faith in the political system, spurred on Catiline and his supporters, yet just as important as the political programs of both Catiline the rebel and Cicero the defender was the way in which the public debates were dominated by the idea of what Rome was supposed to be. It was both to Jupiter and to Rome’s mythical founder Romulus that Cicero appealed in his peroration against Catiline (an appeal to original ideals that also drove much of America’s recent political contest, I would be so bold as to argue). Another aspect that should endear ancient Romans to modern Americans is that Rome was, from its start, a city of immigrants, invited by the mythical founder Romulus to populate his new settlement on the Tiber River. She ends her story just as idiosyncratically as she began it, in AD 212, when the emperor Marcus Aurelius Severus Antoninus Augustus – or Caracalla, to you and me – bestowed citizenship on every free male of the Roman Empire. In Rome’s granting of citizenship and its responsibilities to ever wider groups of foreigners, and in the attendant battles over the definition of just what it meant to be a Roman, a modern American will see more than a distant echo of his own country’s path to greatness, as well as of its current political disputes.
Beard does her best to bring to life the often invisible plebeians, women, and slaves of the empire, but the reader will come away with only a basic knowledge of how the Roman army evolved (even though historians from Howard Hayes Scullard to Adrian Goldsworthy have identified the military as perhaps the main element of Rome’s sociopolitical system). The centuries-long development of Rome’s distinctive political mechanisms is deftly sketched but not explored in detail, and in the end a sympathetic reader may well feel what it was like to be Roman but he will have little understanding of how it all came to be. While she gives us one of the best accounts of the Gracchi I have ever read, the last hundred years of the Republic are a little muddled: Why Lucius Cornelius Sulla before Gaius Marius? Where are Lucius Cornelius Cinna and the Carbos? As Beard assumes the reader knows a lot about the period, the first and second triumvirates are barely mentioned. Frankly, I found this brevity to be unnecessary. SPQR, then, is not a strictly chronological history of Rome, nor is it an academic book (no footnotes, even where you might have expected a discussion of alternate views on a matter). Rather, it is a set of chapters that have been chronologically organized more-or-less wherein Beard discusses specific aspects of the first 1000-years or so of Rome, looking beyond the traditional narrative. The book is easy to read, engaging as well as entertaining, and Mary Beard helps us to understand that Rome has not really fallen, but is with us in many ways today.