A prominent classicist explores ancient Rome and how its citizens adapted the notion of imperial rule, invented the concepts of citizenship and nation, and made laws about those traditionally overlooked in history, including women, slaves, and criminals.
Beard’s book is almost as much historiography as history, as she repeatedly relates the nature and limitations of our actual knowledge of the ancient world. For example, we know virtually nothing other than mythology about the founding of the city of Rome. And while we know a great deal about the politics of the Empire in the late first century B.C.E through the voluminous letters of Cicero, that detailed knowledge is one-sided, as seen through the eyes of only one of the participants. Beard is a skeptical analyst, and takes Cicero’s judgments with a practiced historian’s grain of salt. Moreover, many of the perceptions of classical historians have been supplemented or even altered by the discoveries of modern archeology, since many Romans wrote on stone or bronze as well as papyrus.
Beard asserts that the motivation that lay behind Rome’s early military expansionism, which ultimately subjugated the entire Mediterranean basin, was not clear, there being no plan to “conquer the world.” The Romans’ opponents generally were not peace-loving farmers, but were constantly at war with one another. Beard attributes much of the Romans’ success to their ability to incorporate and absorb their former enemies into the Roman polity. Each conquest brought not only booty, but also a source of new soldiers. Beard argues that the Romans expanded by outnumbering their opponents rather than through superior tactics or weaponry.
A persistent theme running through the book and through Roman history is the question of how the liberty of a Roman citizen was to be defined. Beard writes, “That was a controversial question in Roman political culture for … 800 years, through the Republic and into the one man rule of the Roman Empire….” There never was a Roman constitution, but Polybius, one of Rome’s most astute historians, “saw in Rome a perfect example in practice of an old Greek philosophical ideal: the ‘mixed constitution,’ which combined the best aspects of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.” The secret of the Roman Republic (before the rule of emperors) was in the delicate checks and balances between consuls, the senate, and the people, so that neither monarchy nor aristocracy nor democracy prevailed. Of course, all that came to an abrupt end once Julius Caesar became “Dictator for Life,” and was succeeded by his very able nephew, Octavian.
Interestingly, the Romans were very wary of “kings.” Although they allowed potentates of allied or subject powers to hold the title “king,” no Roman dared take it. Octavian had the foresight to call himself merely “Augustus,” roughly translatable as “very important person,” rather than “king.” In time, his title evolved into one that was even more august (pun intended) than king.
A number of modern ideas and institutions can be traced directly to the Romans: the legal systems of many Western European countries are quite similar to theirs. According to Beard, one of the most significant but often overlooked Roman institutions used today was their calendar, established by Julius Caesar, which served Europe well for more than a millennium until it was modified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.
One failure of the Roman Empire was that it never developed a cogent, universally accepted method of succession to the office of Emperor. As a result, many emperors were assassinated, and the threat of civil war loomed throughout the history of the Empire.
Beard does not merely chronicle the succession of various emperors and their conquests; she also explores the relationships among the various classes of society, with special attention to slaves. Slavery was common in Rome, but it was often as not usually temporary for individual slaves.
Beard devotes a few pages to the rise of Christianity, which did not become very influential until after the end of her book in 212 C.E. For the first two centuries of existence, Christianity “is hard to pin down.” Beard estimates that by 200 C.E. there were only about 200,000 Christians in a population of 50-60 million. Christianity did not assimilate well in the empire because it insisted on its own god as the only one, whereas the Romans usually treated foreign gods like it treated peoples: it incorporated them into its own society. Because they resisted this incorporation, Christians were systematically persecuted in the second century. But as Beard observes, “The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”
Beard concludes by saying that we may not have much to learn directly from the Romans, who “were as divided about how they thought the world worked, or should work, as we are.” Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from engaging with the history of Rome because “many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialog with the Romans and their writing.”
The book concludes with recommendations for “Further Reading” for each chapter, a timeline, list of illustrations (of which there are many) and an index.
Evaluation: The author, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, knows how to appeal to hoi polloi as well as academics. This is an engaging and worthwhile book.
OK, so much for the warnings, what about the reasons to read the book? First of all, Ms. Beard's wide angle view of Roman history opens up all sorts of compelling insights, and arguments. For example, she stresses again and again the inclusiveness of Roman identity, from the very earliest founding myths to the end of her story. This, she argues, is why Rome was able to extend its power so far and so fast, and to maintain it so successfully -- converting defeated enemies into current citizens is a great way of burying the hachet. Second, she is brilliant at choosing particularly vivid -- and instructive -- situations on which to focus. These include the rape (or abduction, or whatever), of the Sabine women, the impact of overseas victories in the second century BC, Cicero vs. Cataline, the world vs. Caligula (a discussion in which Ms. Beard observes that assassinated emperors -- except of course Julius -- were generally painted as monsters, justifying the assassination). Third, she tells us a lot about how historians know what they know about Rome, how they use archaeology, how they find and evaluate contemporary sources. how they guess -- a fascinating and illuminating accompaniment to the main theme.
Finally, this book is a delight to read. Ms. Beard's scholarly qualifications are of the highest, but she writes like an engaging essayist telling us about something really interesting, not like someone writing for other scholars. Her language is brisk, vivid, and admirably concise. There are no footnotes, but there is an extensive "further reading section at the end".
As someone who has read a lot of Roman history, I tend to think that this book is most valuable when you come to it with some knowledge of the field -- Ms. Beard's insights gain further force in the context of broader reading. On the other hand, I would not warn off those who don't know much about Rome. It is so interesting, so informative, and so enjoyable that anyone with interest should give it a go.
I highly recommend this book!
Clearly written in a confident style, I took from this book a more intimate understanding of the Roman people and how they lived and worked. Thoroughly recommended.
So why have you not seen any new book reviews from me in something like a month now? Because I've been spending that entire time slogging my way through one single book, the 600-page SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by British historian and sometimes archaeologist Mary Beard, and wanted to go nice and slow so that I would really absorb everything that she says here. And she talks about a lot of stuff here, not a history of the Roman Empire per se but a history of Rome, the city, during the years when it was an Empire; although that's a bit misleading, because she starts all the way back at the city's semi-mythical founding (traditionally set at 753 BC, but most likely more like 1000 to 1500 BC), and then ends only at 200 AD, the date that the Empire gave full citizenship privileges to every single citizen on the planet.
And Beard has an additional complication in her book as well, which is that she hopes to examine not just the lives of the ultra-rich and famous that most histories of Rome concentrate on, but to shed some light on what daily life must've been like for all the normal everyday citizens as well, the wives and slaves and tavern owners, of whom there is barely any physical evidence and almost no written records; and that's where her experiences in archaeology come into play, examining the latest digs from both Rome itself and its far-flung outposts to give us perhaps the best view yet at what it was like to actually exist and live within the Roman Empire, whether that was at its height around the time of Christ or way back when Rome was nothing more than a series of huts being ruled by a competing series of barbarian-like tribes.
In essence what Beard shows is that Rome has always been a city of slow and steady transition, not frozen in "eras" like we usually think of the Empire but rather a fluid progression from chieftans to group rule, to a proto-form of democracy, to a slow and steady corruption of that democracy, to an eventual dictatorship as the Empire grew too large for a small group of consensus-builders to handle. And in the meanwhile, she brings great insights into living conditions within Rome itself over this approximate millennium that her book focuses on, the kinds of things Romans did for fun, how exactly urban life was set up back when a million people lived together without indoor plumbing or a police department, as well as extended looks at the ways the various colonies influenced and had a pull over what normal life was like in the capital as well. Plainly written but chock-full of actual information, this is not a book you can easily skim through; but if you give yourself the time and energy to do a thoughtful reading of the entire thing, armchair historians will find it a rewarding and insightful experience, a sort of "people's history" to serve as a great companion to all those dusty endless lists of emperors and the wars they officially fought.
Out of 10: 9.0
I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Despite the amount of information and ideas conveyed, it is a joy to read. (I saw an article in the NY Times today where they called it a "doorstop" history. This is ridiculous. The exhaustive notes start at page 537, which means the main part of this book is a lot shorter than most bestselling novels these days. And a whole lot more dramatic and entertaining.
I read this just before a trip to Rome - it made the reading and the travel that much more enjoyable.
Read August 2016.
What to expect
A review of the first millennium of Roman history. From the sketchy beginnings till the 3rd century, Beard covers many aspects of Rome’s development.
The book deals with how much we know, and more importantly don’t know, about the early beginnings. How much of Rome’s early history is actually dubious myths, and how much is reconstructed by historians for fragmentary evidence.
It covers the transformation from Republic to empire, as well as daily lives , so that we can glean from what it was like to be “Roman”.
What I liked
Trying to put everything in a larger context. Examining the surviving evidence (archaeological and literary), and critiquing it. The writing style itself, which is flowing and lets Beard passion for Roman history shine through.
What to be aware of
This is probably not the first book about Rome’s history you should read. Beard covers a thousand years of history, and necessarily somethings are left out. A working knowledge of the commonly accepted timeline and general events will make following the book easier.
I also wish Beard would have gone into further depth at a few points, but again this is probably more than a single, non-technical book can cover.
If you want to take your knowledge of Rome to the next level, and before you delve into original sources and academic papers, this is the book for you.
Assaph Mehr, author of Murder In Absentia: a story of Togas, Dagger, and Magic - for lovers of Ancient Rome, Urban Fantasy, and Detective mysteries.