'S.P.Q.R.' offers a learned, intimate view of ancient Rome

The survival of what Romans wrote about themselves gives Mary Beard’s project its heft.

S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome By Mary Beard Liveright 608 pp.

As it is not prosecutable, I’ll admit to a form of stalking Mary Beard, professor of classics at Newman College, University of Cambridge. I’ve watched – from the distance of the written page, though it felt more immediate – as she engaged with pagan priests, classical art, the Parthenon and the Coliseum, the classics again and again, and the jokers of ancient Rome. She hasn’t known it, but I have been there, up close, because Beard invites intimacy with her thinking – intimate because it is welcomingly shared, and artful in its elemental honesty and experienced depth.

In S.P.Q.R. Sentatus PopulusQue Romanus, the Senate and the people of Rome – she is back at a favorite time and place: the first millennium of Rome. We are here because there are always new ways of looking at old evidence (and corrective measures that need to be applied to that evidence) and because so much of ancient Rome is still with us, Beard writes: in our political geography, notions of citizenship and responsibility, imperial pretensions, assumptions about luxury and beauty, bread and circuses. New discoveries are made – ice cores from Greenland tattle on Rome’s polluting ways, monastic library stacks surrender overlooked material, fossilized excrement tell us about a diet of eggs and spiny urchins – and the more we meet ancient Rome, the more we understand about our own way of being in the world.

"S.P.Q.R." is a summary, too, going over the old evidence as well as introducing the new. It is easy to imagine Beard emerging from a stint in the archives, covered in marble dust, having squeezed the primary source material once more – a thorough interrogation, but not so much as to coerce a confession. She starts with shards and splinters – a piece of fresco, the scant remains of marauding Gauls – and gathers steam in the first century BCE when Romans began the systematic study of their history and influence. Beard and those whose works she pores over fashion a version of early Rome, its stories and institutions striking a contemporary chord. It is a realization of fragments; only those carefully vetted are allowed to join in, and sloppy thinking is beaten with a stick. Of one modern approach to the story of Romulus and Remus: “That is an over-ingenious, not to say desperate, attempt to explain the oddities of the tale, and it misses the most important point.” It can’t be fun to be on the receiving end of that blast.

The survival of what Romans wrote about themselves gives Beard’s project its heft. Each stage of this history – from the kings to the republic to the emperors – has its references that accrete and gradually snowball into a trove of “poetry, letters, essays, speeches and histories ... novels, geographies, satires and reams and reams of technical writing,” much of it saved by medieval monks and Islamic scholars. And more and more comes to light: “papyri from the sands and rubbish dumps of Egypt, wooden writing tablets from Roman military bases in the north of England.” This source material is the oxygen historians breath, bringing not only Technicolor to the picture, but from “notes sent home, shopping lists, account books and last messages inscribed on graves,” we get a look at the man on the street, which for Beard is the meat of the matter, if the magisterial, senatorial, and aristocratic potatoes are critical to the dish as a whole.

Although Beard wants the evidence to show her the money, she is also a freethinker; she is not about to buy the myth of Romulus and Remus wholesale. But still, it is a foundation story that addresses what it is to be Roman, where they came from, the strengths and failings – conduct and consequences—of the populace of a tiny village on the Tiber now 3,500 years old. Beard is not made uncomfortable by the fuzzy line between myth and history; instead, it is a precinct she enjoys groping within. That suckling wolf, for instance: The Latin word for wolf – lupa – is colloquial for prostitute. “Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast has found and tended the twins?” This pulling at threads makes Beard plain fun, just as it signals the fullness of her knowledge, a stunningly easygoing familiarity with many particulars, arcana, and mysteries.

Beard’s pace is relaxed – What’s the rush? Too much good stuff to consider – so that we are nearly 100 pages into the book before Rome materializes as more than a hut settlement on top of the Palatine, but as “an urban community, with a centre and some public buildings,” and likely a shared sense of identity and aspiration. What is to be made of the regal period and its seven kings, its rituals and gods, calendar and census, the rise of the state, political responsibility and privilege? How much do we know and what is concocted for whatever purpose? Then, egads, the monarchy folds, and births liberty and the Roman Republic. Enter the consuls: elected by popular vote, with limited terms and ruling in pairs, and the beginnings of “a commitment to agreed, shared and publically acknowledged procedures for resolving disputes,” which is brilliant even if “the themes of the regulations point to a world of multiple inequalities.” Plebs and patricians, where “the success of the rich was a gift bestowed by the poor.” As Beard said, it strikes a chord.

War being the structural principal of history for the Romans, it is not surprising that the republic would give way to a parade of emperors – “Sometime around 10 January 49 BCE, Julius Caesar, with just one of his legions from Gaul, crossed the Rubicon” – and violence would become a political tool turned inward; not that it hadn’t in the past, but now it became a modus operandi. Beard’s portraits of the emperors are both hardheaded – “Claudius may have had a better and far more bookish reputation than Gaius.... But scratch the surface and he too has a grim record of cruelty and criminality” – and playful: “It is thanks to his parents that Gaius ended up with the embarrassing nickname Caligula (‘Bootikins’).”

Here, too, she delves into what is known of the commoners’ lives: the taverns with takeaway food; the poor living at the top of the apartment houses, the better to burn in a fire; the work of the dyer of purple, the baker, the toga maker; the rise and spread of Christianity; Barates, a gentleman from Palmyra, Syria, living near Hadrian’s Wall and who married Regina (“Queenie,” born north of London, an ex-slave), 4,000 miles away from home. Her memorial, tender and inscribed in Aramaic, Barates’ native language, “nicely sums up the movement of peoples and the cultural mix that defined the Roman Empire, and raises even more questions.”  

Surely, history is a messy business, but Beard is a discerning ragpicker. Looking backwards from the end of the book when Rome is eclipsed as a power center in the third century CE, we have followed a fragile and fantastic chain of connections from very deep in antiquity. It makes your hair stand on end.

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