The Secret of Rome’s Success
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.
A British college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.
Her magisterial new history of Rome, SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome”), is no exception. Every history of Rome has to tackle the question of how the Romans—a people who once lived in a ramshackle collection of wooden huts on a muddy river in the middle of Italy, surrounded by other groups that were at least as prosperous and cultured—created one of the largest empires in the ancient world, and among the most enduring empires in all of world history. Many accounts, including some by the Romans themselves, have emphasized the internal divisions that doomed the empire to “decline and fall,” as the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon put it. Beard is much more interested in what made Rome succeed. Her fresh undertaking—aimed primarily at a general readership but sure to engage and provoke professional classicists, too—covers the whole story.
Romans could be people who might well not even speak Latin.
Her sweep is impressively large, starting with the (mythical) tales of the city’s foundation in the eighth century B.C., and taking in the conquest of most of the Italian peninsula in the fourth and third centuries B.C. as well as the defeat of Rome’s main Mediterranean rivals, Carthage and Greece, by the middle of the second century B.C. More than a century of civil wars followed, along with yet more foreign conquests (in Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and the East). In the wake of the political turmoil surrounding Julius Caesar’s rise to power and eventual assassination in 44 B.C., the Romans submitted to an imperial mode of government under Octavian, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. and renamed himself Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The empire held sway for about 500 years in the West, and 1,400 in the East, under the Byzantine emperors. How did the Romans do it?
One answer, which many Romans themselves favored, gives all the credit to their virtus, a word connoting both strength of character and masculinity. A related interpretation, popular among scholars a generation ago, portrays Rome as an exceptionally belligerent and imperialistic society that rose to power by bullying and massacring its neighbors. More recently, historians have proposed that the Roman empire’s growth was fueled by an evolving combination of hard and soft imperialism, and Beard builds on this current work. To be sure, the Romans slaughtered and enslaved huge numbers of people. The prosperity of Rome depended on loot, tribute, and taxes from conquered tribes and cities, as well as the manual and domestic labor provided by non-Roman slaves. (In the second century B.C., more than 8,000 new slaves a year—the bounty of overseas conquest—were transported to the peninsula.) But we have scant evidence that the Romans were any more warmongering than the various other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
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