Jaques-Louis David's The Oath of the Horatii (1784) portrays the Roman ideal of loyalty and self-sacrifice. © Warburg.edu/Wikimedia Commons

What the Romans really did

Mary Beard's colorful chronicle of Ancient Rome debunks familiar myths, says Edith Hall
November 12, 2015

Ancient Roman literary critics admired writing that plunged readers into the thick of the action—in medias res—rather than boring them with preambles. Mary Beard plunges her reader, from the first page, into one of the most exciting episodes in Roman history.

In 63BC, the orator and statesman Cicero exposed what he claimed was a revolutionary conspiracy. It was led by the disaffected aristocrat Catiline, whom Cicero accused of plotting to assassinate all the elected magistrates of Rome, set fire to the city’s buildings and cancel all debts indiscriminately. Beard writes with her customary energy, charm and intensity, resurrecting the titanic personalities who struggled to control Rome while its republican constitution was hurled into its final death throes. She uses contemporary terms like “homeland security” to make the unfamiliar accessible. Her ambivalence towards Cicero—brilliant, prolific, brave, eloquent, but vain and obnoxiously self-pitying—is palpable. By the end of the chapter we are primed to take the story forward to the next phase: the assassination of Julius Caesar and the climactic conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian, soon to become Augustus. But Beard chooses instead to disorient us completely.

In chapter two she abruptly transfers us back many centuries to the very beginnings of Rome, or rather its mythical origins in the stories of Romulus and Remus and of the rape of the Sabine women. All except the final two chapters then take a broad historical sweep, structured in conventional chronological order stretching from archaeological finds dating to as early as 1000BC all the way to 212AD. The sense of chronological disorientation is, I think, deliberate. The version of the early history of Rome which has come down to us was mostly filtered by later Roman writers, both Cicero and authors working under Augustus—Livy, Propertius, Virgil and Ovid. Beard is laudably keen that we see the early history as not only gappy and inconsistent but artfully manipulated to suit the political agenda of later writers. But the effect is confusing, right from her opening sentence: “Our history of ancient Rome begins in the middle of the 1st century BC.” By “Our history of Rome” she means “My history of Rome,” but any Roman history novice will assume her meaning is that “The history of Rome” commences at that date.

Beginners will then spend the next five chapters struggling to understand the successive waves of data about the preceding centuries—the kings of Rome, the consolidation of the Republican regime, the widening of Rome’s horizons in the fourth and third centuries BC, the expansion of the empire, the violent upheavals of the “new politics” at the time of the Gracchi in the late 2nd century down to the slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73BC. We do not rejoin Cicero until nearly halfway through Beard’s narrative, in chapter seven, where he is now taking on Verres, the governor of Sicily accused of corruption. But that confrontation preceded Cicero’s denunciations of Catiline, with which “we” had begun “our” history. As a Classics graduate I know some Roman history, but must admit to intermittent bewilderment. I would recommend any new Roman history enthusiasts to begin on page 78 with Beard’s enthralling account of the archaeological evidence for early habitations in the Roman area. These include the remains of a two-year-old girl found in a coffin beneath the forum in a dress decorated with beads; in the 1980s archaeologists unearthed the sort of house she might have lived in north of the city, a small timber edifice with a primitive portico. It contained the remains of the earliest known domestic cat in Italy.

Beard is always at her dazzling best breathing life into the material remnants left by the ancient inhabitants of the Roman world, as she did in her prizewinning 2008 book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town. One of her hallmarks is an exceptional ability to remain up-to-date with the most recent archaeological discoveries, and communicate their contents and significance in a lively and user-friendly manner. The public has been waiting eagerly for SPQR since her engaging 2012 BBC series Meet the Romans. The greatest virtue of SPQR is her ability to choose individual objects or texts and tease out from them insights into Roman life and experience. These range from the enigmatic “black stone” found in the forum inscribed with words including “KING,” to a relief sculpture depicting a poultry shop, complete with suspended chicken and caged rabbits. The book contains 21 colour plates and more than a hundred others embedded in the text, every one adding an exciting dimension to her colourful chronicle.

The leading dramatis personae are evoked in stunning pen-portraits. Some ask us to reassess figures we thought we already understood well. She is impressed by Pompey, who “has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor.” She is sceptical about Brutus’s commitment to Republican ideals. She sensibly refrains from trying to penetrate the assiduously crafted public image of Augustus to the “real” man behind the propaganda, although she admires some of his achievements. There are finely-tuned cameos in the whistle-stop tour of the 14 emperors who ruled between the death of Augustus in 14AD and the assassination in 192AD of Commodus (the son of Marcus Aurelius who plays the villain in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator).

Although there are mercifully few signs of the controversialism which used to be her sole irritating characteristic, Beard rightly challenges the tradition of dividing the rulers of the Imperium Romanum into heroes and felons. The tradition, extending back to Tacitus and Suetonius, was inherited by Edward Gibbon. Beard pleads, instead, for a less judgemental and more nuanced appraisal of the way that the sensational ancient accounts of the emperors reveal the anxieties and socio-political values of the imperial era. She also emphasises that for many inhabitants of the empire, especially those living in the more far-flung territories, the personality of the emperor made little difference. This is a wonderful, lucid and thoughtful section of the book and should be required reading for anyone setting out to study Roman emperors.

There is an attempt at a thematic rather than linear approach in one central chapter, “The Home Front,” where the discussion of family life and women is compromised by being focused, yet again, on Cicero—or rather Cicero’s relationships with his wives and daughter. But the two other thematic chapters—the last in the book—are outstanding. Here she abandons the chronological structure and looks at the rich-poor divide and the experience of people living under the Romans outside Rome. The luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy across the empire was astounding: some owned dozens of sumptuous villas with central heating and lavish murals, swimming pools and shady grottoes, all serviced by armies of slaves. Some rich people paraded their wealth by indulging in ostentatious feasting and pastimes; others subsidised public amenities—libraries, theatres, gladiator shows—in order to ward off the dangers posed by the inevitable envy of the poor.

Beard points out, however, that much of the physical unpleasantness of life in ancient urban centres was suffered by rich and poor alike: traffic jams, uncollected refuse, disease, gangrene-infected water. She has a pitch-perfect ear for class snobbery and the insults poured on the allegedly vulgar newly rich by the educated or aristocratic. She writes movingly about the gravestones of ordinary Romans, artisans and semi-skilled labourers, informing posterity about their expertise and achievements as bakers, butchers, midwives and fabric dyers. She evokes well the squalid cafes and taverns where the poorer urban classes caroused. Yet she makes us face the reality that the majority of the empire’s 50 million inhabitants would have lived on small peasant farms, struggling to extract more than a subsistence livelihood. There were few changes in agricultural technology or fundamental lifestyle from the Iron Age to medieval times. The letters of Pliny the Younger are a rich source of evidence for the relationship between Roman governors and such “ordinary” people of the provinces, in his case in Bithynia and Pontus; Beard leads us from these into a revealing discussion of the problems Roman governors faced in policing the boundaries of empire (including Hadrian’s Wall) and how they largely tolerated local religious practices and cultural diversity, although Christianity became an exception.

The turbulent showdown between the Illyrian Emperor Diocletian and the martyrdom-hungry Christians in the early fourth century is one of many fascinating episodes in the history of the Romans which Beard excludes from her account by ending it in 212AD. Her logic for ending here is impeccable: this was when the Emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a Roman citizen, thus causing 30m individuals to “become legally Roman overnight.” Beard stresses the significance of the erasure of the millennium-long boundary between the rulers and the ruled—the completion of what she calls the Romans’ “citizenship project,” from which we can still learn, even though it subsequently failed and had always been fundamentally blemished by slavery.

Besides the history of Rome as it continued in the third and fourth centuries CE, the element I most miss is an attempt to get inside the minds of the remarkable ancient Italians in terms of their philosophy and ethics. Beard writes well on priesthoods and public religion, but is not much interested in philosophy. Despite her fixation on Cicero, who wrote philosophical treatises, she offers less on the complex thought-world and extraordinary psychological strengths—self-control, resilience, acceptance of uncompromising discipline, fearlessness in the face of death, moral fortitude, high ideals and principles—which many members of this tough and soldierly people drew from their Stoic, Neoplatonic and Epicurean convictions. She is good on Virgil’s Aeneid as a political poem, but has little to say about the earliest surviving Roman epic, Lucretius’s inspirational work On the Nature of Things. I finished SPQR hoping that we will one day be treated to a Beard book on the inward contours of the Roman psyche.