Book Review: SPQR, A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard.

Mary Beard writes in a breezy, often anecdotal, style which makes her book both informative and entertaining. SPQR covers the history of ancient Rome from its founding by Romulus to the reign of Emperor Caracalla, who, in the year 202 A.D. granted Roman citizenship to the entire free male population of the empire. This is a very ambitious work and is well worth reading. Beard not only delves into the history of ancient Rome, but also has a lot to say about its sociology. She concerns herself not only with the famous personages but also with the lower classes and their lives, with long glimpses of what went on in the bars and eateries where the ordinary people hung out. In one such establishment in Pompeii, there was a frieze picturing seven notable Greek philosophers, but rather than discussing deep philosophical topics, they are depicted as giving scatological advice. She also writes extensively on the conditions of women, slaves and freed slaves.
Beard at times seems to have a cynical attitude toward the Romans; at least, toward the movers and shakers. For example, she says about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey: “The irony was that Pompey, their figurehead, was no less an autocrat than Caesar. Whichever side won, as Cicero again observed, the result was to be much the same: slavery for Rome. What came to be seen as a war between liberty and one man rule was really a war to choose between rival emperors.” Personally, I have a bit of difficulty swallowing this, because Pompey, as egotistical as he was, had ample opportunities to march on Rome and take over as dictator in the manner of Sulla and Caesar, but he never did. And if Cato the Younger, arguably the most obstinately principled notable in history, believed that Pompey had the same ambitions as Caesar to become an autocrat, we would have declared “plague on both your houses” and stayed home rather than followed Pompey into exile.
Beard relies on the writings of Cicero for much of her analysis, and she gives him extensive coverage in SPQR. This is understandable since more of Cicero’s writings have survived than any other writer of his time.
Beard has no liking for Augustus, and at one point refers to him as a “reptile.” She does make it very clear that he was a man of remarkable gifts, able to walk that tightrope of Roman power and co-opt the Roman elite where his Great Uncle Julius Caesar failed to do so. It probably helped that the proscriptions of the second triumvirate killed off most of the opposition. Under Augustus’ rule the Senate ceased to be a governing body and turned into a sort of civil service. Any opposition that wasn’t killed off was bought off. She describes Augustus as “a poacher turned game keeper.”
Beard also makes the point that during the next two hundred years after the end of the Republic it didn’t really matter who the emperor was or whether he was “good” or “bad.” I need to take some issue with that notion as well. If an emperor was particularly rapacious, as in the case of Nero, it could cause considerable unrest in the provinces. It was Nero’s instructions to confiscate the lands and possessions of Prasutagus, the husband of Boudicca, upon his death, that led to Boudicca’s rebellion which destroyed three Roman cities and killed an estimated 70 to 80 thousand Romans and Britons. One wonders if the same thing would have happened under a less rapacious Emperor. One suspects that Nero’s rapaciousness was also one of the causes of the full scale revolt that took place in Judea toward the end of his reign. None of the 14 emperors during this period were really “good” by modern standards, but some were more rapacious than others, and the quality of the emperor did have an effect on the running of the empire.
SPQR is a meaty work with a lot of events, analysis and ideas to digest. It gives the reader a vivid insight into the various lives of the Romans, from emperor to slave.

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