Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Bearding the Empire

When regarding ancient history it is common for Westerners to admire the Greeks but identify with the Romans. For all their cultural achievements (or perhaps because of them), the classic Hellenes strike us as truly ancient. Not so Rome, which by contrast is eerily familiar. Despite the passage of two millennia, Rome at the time of Augustus somehow seems hardly more alien than the 19th century of our own country. To be sure, there are elements of Roman life that are strange or that shock us, including gladiatorial games and casual brutality, but then again aspects of 19th century American life shock us too.

Despite the vast amount of Greek and Latin literature that has been lost – most simply having rotted away uncopied in the Middle Ages – quite a lot survives: history, epic poetry, fiction, epigrams, drama, rhetoric, and more. The plays of Plautus and Terence read like modern sitcoms (in fact, their plots have been stolen repeatedly for modern sitcoms), Suetonius is as gossipy as TMZ, and Cicero is as bombastic as any US Senator. Anyone interested in Roman history is well advised to visit the basic original sources: Livy, Polybius, Plutarch, Tacitus, and others. (All these authors once were standard fare in secondary school, but no longer.) However, for the modern reader, who more often than not has only a passing acquaintance with Classical civilization, a standard history textbook is a useful accompaniment if only to keep the original sources in proper context. There are plenty of texts from which to choose, and new ones are published regularly. Some are little more than simple chronologies while others are thematic, the most ambitious of the latter still being Edward Gibbon’s 18th century six-volume The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Much more concise, but still tending to the thematic, is a new (2015) treatment by Mary Beard, classics professor at Cambridge: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.

Why do we need another one? As Beard explains in her prologue: “It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that make the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.” Mary Beard’s book is a solid and readable addition to the literature, and one with 21st century priorities. I would not recommend the book to those whose only exposure to the classics are the movies Gladiator and Spartacus. Beard writes for a reader who has at least some prior sense of the general outline of the history of Rome, and when she mentions an author such as Plautus, Juvenal, or Pliny the Elder she assumes the reader has some idea who the person is. For readers with at least this much background, however, she offers an interesting perspective in engaging prose.

Beard’s arrangement of the material is not strictly chronological. She starts in medias res with the conspiracy of Catiline (63 BC), relating it to the modern style of politics, and then backtracks to Rome’s earliest years. Her theme is that there was nothing inevitable about the rise of the city and the Empire. Much of Rome’s success was a throw of the dice that easily could have come up snake eyes. To the extent the Romans made their own luck, however, it was by being adaptable to changing circumstances. The odd Roman mixture of ruthlessness and inclusiveness (slaughter your enemies but give the survivors citizenship) was particularly effective. For all the complexity of the late Roman Republic’s unwritten constitution, the Romans weren’t much interested in political theory other than a nod to libertas – sometimes little more than a nod. They distrusted a concentration of power but weren’t committed to democracy or aristocracy or to some particular mix; they altered their government to suit the needs of Empire. If in the end a concentration of power happened anyway, that too is relatable in the 21st century.

The Romans still matter. They are old family who largely inform who we still are. Thanksgiving weekend is an especially apt time to encounter old family. It’s also a time for a very Roman bout of over-eating though I trust most tables are a little less extravagant than Trimalchio’s

The crude nouveau riche braggart Trimalchio hosts dinner in Satyricon, Fellini’s adaptation of Petronius’ 1st century novel


  1. Mary Beard's book sounds fairly interesting, though I'm not that familiar with Roman history or its early authors. It's been a while since I'd seen Satyricon, if indeed it's the movie I'm think of. Fellini is not one of my favorite directors though I have seen some of his work like La Strada that I found interesting.

    When thinking of feasting on a large Thanksgiving meal I thought that video clip might be from one of the Monty Python films, The Meaning of Life, where Terry Jones plays the fat man purging scene. Although gross, it's still funny.

    1. Fellini is weirder than his ancient countrymen were.

      The MP gang have their moments.