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Book review: “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” by Mary Beard

One night in Asculum in 91 BC, the crowd at the theater was made up of Romans and people from the town and other parts of Italy that were allied with Rome.

That alliance, though, was fraying, and a four-year conflict, known as the Social War or the War of the Allies, was about to break out. Tensions were high.

One comic performer took the stage, and, as was his schtick, he made fun of Rome. Bad move. The Romans in the audience got so mad that they attacked him on stage. And killed him.

Then, it was the turn of the next comic to come out, a comic whose routine, a great favorite of Roman audiences, ridiculed the country bumpkins outside of city. Fearing that the other part of the theater crowd would take out their own anger on him, he pleaded:

“I’m not a Roman either. I travel throughout Italy searching for favors by making people laugh and giving pleasure. So spare the swallow, which the gods allow to nest safely in all your houses!”

It worked. The comic did his act and survived.

But there was a bloody postscript, as Mary Beard writes in SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, “Soon after, all the Romans in the town were killed.”


Senate and people

SPQR, of course, is an odd title for any book, especially one about Rome. There’s nothing in the title or subtitle to hint at world conquest or the sexual shenanigans of emperors or gladiators and wild animals or murdered emperors or persecuted Christians or any of the other provocative stuff. It’s even a hard combination of letters to remember.

The letters are the abbreviation of a Roman catchphrase: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus (The Senate and the People of Rome).

While most other histories of Rome focus on the emperors and generals (often, the same people), Beard seeks to fit those power-mongers into a context. She actively works to get past the Caesars and to tease out insights about the lives of average people as well as the more documented Senators and other officials, especially the wonderfully prolific and thoughtful Cicero.

SPQR is a book about the warp and woof of Roman society, high and low, and about the roots and evolution of Roman culture. And, it seems to me, Beard chose the title exactly because it doesn’t suggest any of those sensational and scandalous facets that have defined popular ideas of Rome down the centuries.



The stories cesspools tell

It’s not that she doesn’t deal with these aspects although she suggests that many of the juiciest were the product of myth-making, character assassination or political oneupsmanship. Her goal, though, is the create a nuanced portrait for the first 1,000 years of Roman history, looking at such details as the way laws became laws, how generals kept their troops loyal, what sort of homes the non-wealthy residents of the city lived in and what kind of stories ancient cesspools tell.

In fact, archeologists who studied the remains of the cesspool for a small block of stores and apartments in Herculaneum found out much about the eating habits of ordinary folk. Beard’s description of the findings give a glimpse at her love of facts and her droll humor:

It was a varied and decent diet: among other things, they were eating fish, sea urchins (fragments of the spikes survive), chicken, eggs, walnut and figs (the pips go straight through the intestines undigested).

Such multi-story housing blocks (insulae or “islands) were the home of many Romans, and they were a lot like modern apartment buildings with one major difference:

The basic logic was always that the lower down in the building you lived, the more spacious and expensive your accommodation was, and the higher up in the building, the cheaper, pokier and more dangerous, with no facilities for cooking or washing and no means of escape in the (frequent) event of a fire. As Juvenal jokes, someone living at the top…was simply the last one to die if a blaze stated further down.


“Thrown away”

It may seem odd for me to have mentioned Beard’s love of facts. After all, she’s writing a history book, right? But, over and over again throughout SPQR, she shows herself willing to live with the complexity and confusion that facts bring rather than gloss over unsightly details and make sweeping statements.

For instance, she is careful and brings a subtle eye to her examination of an ancient Roman practice guaranteed to shock modern readers — the exposure (i.e., disposal) of newly delivered babies.

The ones that appeared weak or disabled would have been ‘exposed,’ which may often have meant being thrown away on a local rubbish [dump].

Notice, Beard says “may often,” a suggestion that the evidence isn’t as solid as she’d like.

This would also happen, she writes, to unwanted children, and she notes that there are “hints” that girls may have been less wanted than boys. One husband, writing to his pregnant wife from Egypt, told her:

“If it is a girl, discard it.”

Pretty cold-hearted, right? Nonetheless, while the modern reader might jump to conclusions about this, Beard adds that part of the reason was the need to have a dowry with a girl, a significant drain on the budget of many families.

Also, the garbage dump wasn’t necessarily a burial ground for all such babies. There are indications, according to Beard, that the dumps were thought of as a good place to find new slaves.

And don’t get the idea that Romans didn’t love their children, at least those not exposed. She writes:

It is true that a newborn baby may not have been viewed as a person as such until after the decision of whether or not to rear it had been taken and it had been formally accepted into the family…

But the thousands of touching epitaphs put up by parents to their young offspring suggest anything but a lack of emotion. “My little doll, my dear Mania, lies buried here. For just a few years I was able to give my love to her. Her father now weeps constantly for her.”


Thinking like a Roman

In many ways, SPQR is a book about what it meant to think like a Roman. For instance, rape plays a significant role in Rome’s mythical and recorded history, and Beard considers the impact that those stories had on the way Romans thought of marriage.

Similarly, there is an odd pull and push having to do with Rome’s ideas about outsiders. Throughout its history, Rome welcomed people from outside the city and granted them Roman citizenship, even slaves freed by Roman citizens. Yet, the word for foreigner was also the word for enemy.

Beard raises tantalizing ideas of how this may have played a great role in making Rome as strong, as competitive and as outer-focused as it was although she doesn’t come up with any bottom-line answers.

In fact, Beard’s book is more about questions than it is about clean and clear answers.


“Engaging with”

That’s because, to her mind, Rome shouldn’t be seen as something dry and solid and set, like stone, in the past. The best reason for studying Rome, she writes, is for what the experiences of Romans may suggest to us about our own modern lives. It’s also the best reason for reading her book

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments….

[M]any of our most foundational assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

This, to my mind, is the best way of writing about history, and the best way of reading history — to be in conversation with what has gone on before in order to form and test ourselves for today and the future.

The importance of Rome today isn’t about whether Nero fiddled or the Sabine women were raped or Cleopatra corrupted. It’s how the Romans faced the same core questions that we face day-in and day-out.

Knowing how they thought and acted will help us know how to think and act. That is the point — and value — of SPQR.

Patrick T. Reardon

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