SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Screen Shot 2016-01-08 at 21.32.28I’m not big on watching modern documentaries. I always make an exception for the music ones, but I won’t give time to the mainstream popular history or nature documentaries, simply because I cannot bear the padding of the content with the recaps and the previewing of information. Journalist Robert Hutton tweeted a brilliant parody of this structure a while ago:


Which is all by way of saying that I haven’t watched any of Mary Beard’s history docs on the telly, but I do have an abiding interest in the history of Rome, so when I saw this book on an Amazon Lightning Deal, I snapped up a hardback copy for a tenner.

Origin of this interest? Not sure. Almost certainly related to reading Rosemary Sutcliffe when younger, but also because I did (I actually did!) Latin at ‘O’ Level, which involved the study of the Cambridge Classics (Caecilius in Pompeii, just like in Doctor Who), the Aeneid, and Pliny’s letters.

I had Michael Grant’s The History of Rome on my shelf for years, but found it very dry and unengaging. As a popular historian, Mary Beard’s style is far more accessible, and the footnotes are deliberately in the format where you don’t even know there are footnotes unless you look in the back.

Beard’s tone is skeptical throughout: skeptical of founding myths, of anything written about the early and fabled Roman Republic by self-serving politicians from later eras who are always scoring points. She does her best, in fact, to produce a history of Rome that doesn’t focus on emperors and conquest but tries to concern herself with everyday life for ordinary people: hence her enduring interest in inscriptions, graffiti, and the contents of ancient rubbish dumps. What did they eat? How long did they live? How did they earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage was the condition of slavery?

Many of us were raised on the idea that history is about Emperors, Kings, and occasional Queens. This is the version of history that Gove and co. wanted to force back into the curriculum. Dates and battles, and Great Men. This is a far cry from the liberal days of the late 70s, when my own History ‘O’ Level included study of the Chinese revolution and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Beard refutes the conservative view. She laughs at the notion that anything much before what we now call Common Era can be dated. She gives us some detail on the conflict between Caesar and Pompey, then more detail on the first of the emperors, Augustus (who really seems like a completely different person once he changes his name – I could well believe a version of this story that argues that the person called Octavian/Augustus was actually two different people), but then goes on to argue that for the next 180 years, under various dynasties, life for ordinary romans was pretty much the same, whoever was in charge. It seems to have been a fairly stable period, when most of the monumental building work was completed. And after that, things become less stable and the Empire fragments, and even the monuments are remixes of previous work.

(Isn’t that always the way? You know, how rock music was invented in the 1950-1979 era, and then everything afterwards was a remix, a mashup, a sample, or a simulacrum of the origin music.)

Beard’s approach will be frustrating for anyone who dives in looking for a narrative, Grand or otherwise. The surviving materials are both too fragmented and too often self-serving for any one narrative thread to hold for long. Which suits me. Narratives are weapons, after all, and we live surrounded by political and media narratives that support and prolong preposterous levels of inequality. Why, it’s almost as if we, the voiceless ordinary people, are ruled by a super-rich class with no visible means of support (other than plunder and exploitation), who surround us with the evidence of their greatness while leaving us to live hand-to-mouth. What do we eat? How long do we live? How do we earn a living in an economy in which the minimum wage is the condition of zero hours contract?

Yes, the parallels are there, and so is the hope. The Emperors lost their influence, the centre couldn’t hold, the old Empire crumbled away. Looking back, that 180-year period of stability, the period of Augustus and Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Trajan, Hadrian and the rest, was a brief interlude, and maybe our own epoch of vast inequality will also be a brief interlude. One day historians will look at the ruins of London’s glass towers and wonder how ordinary people lived.

One note on my copy: I obviously got one from the first print run. The imposition of the pages was a bit off (page margins varied a lot, rather than being uniform), and there were a couple of typos, one involving text going missing from the main body and apparently being incorporated into a picture caption (or it was already repeated there). Anyway, I tweeted this with a mention of the author herself, and she was kind enough to reply and offer to arrange for a replacement to be sent. I declined the offer. I prefer to own one of the first print run.

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