History, Literature

Book Review: SPQR

I just finished reading SPQR, by Professor Mary Beard. As a history of Rome, it’s the opposite of what I expected. It spends little time on individual deeds; there is no great man history here. More shocking, there is very little military history. As part of an audience taught to expect the history of Rome to be synonymous with the history of its military, I was shocked.

This book is perhaps best understood as a conversation with Romans masquerading as a political and social history of Rome. Prof. Beard sums this up in her epilogue: “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans… 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.”

Prof. Beard starts her history with the foundational myths of Rome: Romulus and Remus, the Rape of the Sabine Women, and the Seven Kings. She looks at themes of these myths and turns the speculations of ancient historians on its head. Rome was not beset by conflicts between powerful men because of a lingering proclivity for fratricide inherent to the successors of Romulus. The story of Romulus resonated and was passed down because Rome was beset by conflicts with powerful men. She shows us how this story was shaped by current events in every retelling, highlighting the differences in the versions told in the first century BCE and the first century CE.

This isn’t the only relationship Prof. Beard calls us to rethink. Ancient writers praised Romulus’s vision for Rome: somehow he picked the perfect spot for the city. We now know that Rome was not “founded” in the mythological sense, that it did not begin as barren hills colonized by a single pair of brothers. But Rome’s location shaped Rome’s development such that the location was indeed an ideal spot for the city Rome became. The spot seemed perfect in retrospect because it had created a people who would view it as perfect.

Prof. Beard later reminds us that Rome’s expansion wasn’t really planned either. While Hollywood may encourage us to think of Romans as motivated by a manifest destiny that caused them to attempt to rule the whole world, the historical reality was rather different. There was no cabal of senators in 300 BCE with a master plan for Roman expansion. Rome’s early expansion was done piecemeal and by accident. It was always in response to some crisis, to protect the commercial interests of some wealthy Roman, or because some consul wanted to be sure of a triumph when he returned to Rome. Manifest destiny came later, after Rome was already a far-flung empire.

And this far-flung empire was as responsible for shaping the politics of Rome as the politics of Rome were for shaping the empire. Republican institutions could not cope with the challenges of empire. There was a century of chaos as the empire grew beyond its ability to be governed and then a realignment of the government with the emperor at its head that ensured 200 years of stability and (internal) peace.

Of the traditions the emperor usurped, the most interesting was the right to be a voice for the people. Prof. Beard talks about the challenges of representation the Romans faced, challenges familiar to us even today, namely: what is the purpose of legislators? Should they be a conduit for the voices of their constituents? Or should the try and do what is best for their constituents? A source of instability in the first century BCE was populist politicians who cleaved to the first view.

By ending elections, the emperors didn’t disenfranchise the people as much as they broke the bonds between the populist politicians and the people. The emperor (in theory and often in practice) stood up for the common male citizen of the empire. The elites, on the other hand, were left to derive favour and legitimacy solely from the emperor. They lost their connection to the people and therefore lost any ability to challenge the emperor for popular support.

We see a similar thing today in one party rule (where dictators often style themselves “Protector of the People”) or in “democratic dictatorships”. These dictators try and set up a myth that only they will look out for the majority of people. They’ll claim that others can’t be trusted because they are in the sway of special interest groups and economic, racial, sexual, or religious minorities (the Jews are a perennial favourite here).

Speaking of racial and religious minorities, Prof. Beard covers them in some detail. She reminds her readers that Rome was a cosmopolitan and diverse city. Imagining classical people as monolithically white is just as much a mistake as imagining their buildings that way. But Prof. Beard cautions us to avoid swinging our perceptions too far in the other direction. Rome was unusually welcoming of foreigners for a classical culture, but it still had discrimination based on provincial origin. Provincials would never be truly Roman in the eyes of all of the senate. This didn’t stop some of them becoming emperor, including Septimus Sevurus from North Africa, but it did mean they would have faced snide remarks.

I wish I could describe how provincials below senatorial rank were treated, but Prof. Beard has little to say about this. I don’t think it’s her fault. She is explicit that the history we have is largely the history of the elites. It’s their letters and proclamations, monuments and mausoleums from which we gather the majority of our understanding of life in ancient Rome. From the common people, we must make do with far less evidence.

Evidence is a common thread throughout this book. It is in some places as much a work of historiography as history. Prof. Beard cautions us against too good to be true stories (they probably are) and against being too eager to make even simple conclusions, like believing that a certain bust is actually of a certain historical figure. She also drove home in a way that I had never experienced before the sheer paucity of evidence we have for Roman life and deeds before the mid-200s BCE.

Nowhere does evidence and its paucity become as important as understanding the emperors. She describes autocracy as “in a sense, an end of history… there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE”. And given this, she devotes at most a few pages to the combined individual achievements of the first 14 emperors (the book only covers up to 212 CE).

Instead of giving the normal account of the lives of the emperors, their battles and their victories, Prof. Beard focuses on the structure of the empire. She takes advantage of its relatively fixed nature during the rule of the first 14 emperors to go into detail on various facets of life in the empire. What was it like in the provinces? For the urban poor? The provincial elites? The slaves? The women? Many of these people left little historical mark, but Prof. Beard tries her best to give them some voice.

Prof. Beard views the emperors as largely interchangeable. Instead of fixating on “good” and “bad” emperors and turning their lives into moral lessons, she looks at what caused emperors to be described as good or bad in the first place. She believes it is all about legitimacy. When the succession was orderly, the successor could draw legitimacy from his predecessor, so it was in his interest to trumpet his predecessor’s virtues (and imply that as the rightful successor, he too possessed them). When the succession was disorderly (say, as the result of assassination), then this route to legitimacy was closed and the new emperor had to instead frame his reign as a break with a worse past. His predecessor would be smeared to turn the irregularity of his succession to the throne into an advantage.

As evidence, Prof. Beard points out that most of the vices found in “bad” emperors (from infidelity to wanton murder of senators) can also be found in the “good” as long as you read their biographies closely. She contends that this shows a difference in what is focused on, not a difference in behaviour. She points out how imposters to Nero would periodically show up in the provinces long after his death. Hucksters wouldn’t impersonate a universally reviled man.

Even if this isn’t true, Prof. Beard has one final beef with the theory of good and bad emperors: only the senate really cared. We don’t see any historical evidence of incompetence gross enough to touch the empire, it did just as well under Nero as it did under Hadrian. So even if the emperor was as liable to kill senators as talk with them, this was largely a problem for a few of the very wealthiest Romans in Rome.

To the common people in Rome it wouldn’t matter if the emperor was a saint or a psychopath, because they would never interact with him. This was doubly true for the people in the provinces. The plight of the poor was just as bad under Marcus Aurelius as it was under Nero.

Had you told me at the start that the author believed we had nothing to learn directly from the Romans, I probably wouldn’t have started this book. That would have been a grave mistake. I’m left with a deeper understanding of Roman history, the challenges posed in constructing it, and the challenges Roman history poses to us in the present day. I am left prepared to more readily question the beatification of leaders and foundational myths. I am left more alert to the nuances of people power in populism. And I’m left with a colossal respect for Professor Beard’s skill both as a historian and as a popularizer of history.

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