Mary Beard's colorful chronicle of Ancient Rome debunks familiar myths, says Edith Hallby Edith Hall / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.