SPQR – Mary Beard

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Mary Beard’s recent documentary, Empire without Limit covers much of the same material as SPQR, and it may be that you would prefer this genre to the “textbook” version which I have just completed.  It’s obviously less dense and more visual – multi-media in fact, and so easier to access.  You might want to check it out here, or on Youtube:

Empire without Limit

I’ve been a great fan of the Romans since I was a child when I read and re read my copy of The History of the World – a Christmas present aged about 8 – and particularly, over and over again devoured the fantastic story of the foundation and growth of the Roman Empire.  I still find this era quite fascinating, though possibly for different reasons.

Beard takes an unusual approach, ending in around 200AD (sic) when the Emperor Caracalla chose to make all residents of the Empire into citizens.  This runs against the grain of other histories which often focus on the growth of the Republic, or on the fall of the Empire.

The opening section of the book deals with an episode from the life of Cicero, and uses this to introduce some key ideas about Rome and to show the nature of the evidence we have about Roman history.  This was an interesting opening as it focused on the key historical issue of the reliability of sources, and the idea that history is written by the victors – in this case by Cicero himself.

Next Beard goes on to look at the foundations and early history of Rome, acknowledging the role of myth in this, whilst at the same time searching for the underlying truths and facts.  She then explores the growth of Rome, pointing out the fortuitous and unplanned extension of the empire under the Republic, and considering its downfall in the first century BC (sic).  The final sections deal with the first 14 emperors.  Beard argues that these managed to maintain power in the same way as Augustus, who was the first, and suggests that we should not focus on them as individuals – which is the usual way of historical accounts – for example by Suetonius and in I Claudius.  She claims that what they had in common – the way they ran the Empire and administered their power – was more significant than what made them individuals – their quirks and eccentricities, their cruelties and madness.  In fact Beard queries many of the traditional accounts of the emperors’ lives, suggesting that the image of each was created by the next in line and depended as much on their relationship as on the truth.

Having read widely on this subject before, there were parts of the book which were less novel and interesting, but even in these sections Beard is informative and detailed.  Some of the most interesting sections come when she looks closely at the writings of Cicero and the Plinys: here Beard is detailed and knowledgeable in a way I could never be, having no Latin.  Her accounts are illuminating, especially on the way the Empire was run and the relationship between Pliny, the bureaucrat, and Trajan, his emperor.  The final sections deal extensively with daily life in the Empire.  Rome was primarily, for the historians, a military empire – think Julius Caesar and his The Conquest of Gaul.  The writings of politicians have survived alongside this account of Caesar’s war, but there are fewer examples of writing by ordinary Romans.  Beard makes extensive references to varied sources including wooden tablets with faint scratched messages, tombs from around the empire and graffiti on the walls of Pompey and elsewhere.

I suppose these last are most surprising and support the general thread of Beard’s argument which is that whilst we did not learn everything from Rome, as a cosmopolitan Empire it had faced so many of the problems and experiences that characterise our own world – problems to do with government and democracy, dictatorship, revolution and the role of the citizen – that we can benefit from having an ongoing conversation with or about it.

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