book cover imageAn interview with Mary Beard on the history and enduring myths of ancient Rome

After two thousand years ancient Rome still helps define and understand the way we live our lives today. To ignore the Roman past is not just to turn a blind eye to history, but also to ignore the trajectory of culture and politics in the West.

What we write and how we see the world and our place in it, depends upon and stems from the Roman world.

At least that’s the thesis Britain’s most loved popular classicist, Mary Beard, presents in her latest book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. SPQR takes its title from a famous Roman catchphrase: Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome.”

The narrative is driven by Beard’s enormous curiosity about Roman culture; she has spent nearly fifty years of her life meticulously reading and researching about it. The book also looks into debates about citizenship, terrorism, and the rights of the individual in Roman times, all of which still matter in debates on civil liberties today.

Beard is currently Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Her books include The Parthenon, The Colosseum, and Pompeii; while her TV series Meet the Romans attracted over 2 million viewers in the UK when it was first aired.

Beard spoke to JP O’Malley about why Roman history tends to have far greater archival evidence than Greek history, why the founders of the United States built their model of government on the Roman Republic, and why Julius Caesar helped lay the foundations for the political geography of modern Europe.

Why did you decide to start this book with a focus beginning in the middle of the first century BC, more than six hundred years after the city was founded?

Because it’s the one era of Roman history that we know absolutely intimately. There is evidence of all different sorts, and we can actually tell what happened day-by-day. Whereas if you start at the very beginning, you are left with [gaps and various inaccuracies]. I thought it was better to start at a place where there is a well documented story.

Why does Roman history tend to have far greater archival evidence than Greek history?

Because Romans had a fantastic habit of writing everything down. The Athenians wrote public documents, but Romans wrote accounts of themselves on their tombstones. For example, we still have graffiti that survives on the streets, in places like Pompeii. And also, Roman literature became part of the tradition of Western literature very early. Manuscripts were copied by monks, and they have never been out of circulation since.

What was it in Roman culture that spawned such a vast scale of literature?

Rome itself was an extraordinary melting pot. And the literature is very much sparked by their contact with the Greek world. Romans don’t take all of their culture from the Greek world. However, they do enter into a productive type of competition with Greek culture that really stimulates writing and art. And so Romans start reflecting and wondering about themselves. And a vast amount of literature arises as a result.

What other differences existed between Greek and Roman culture?

Well we don’t know a great deal about Greece. We know a lot about one city, Athens. And what you see there is a radical democracy: where people are chosen for office by lot. But the only way of having a really extreme democracy is to rigidly restrict the body of citizens. And you do that by not allowing new arrivals. And you make sure that women only have children of Athenian citizens. And that essentially restricts their freedom of action. Rome, on the other hand, thinks differently. It has less of what we would call democracy, but it has liberty and freedom of movement.

The end of the monarchy in Rome wasalso the birth of liberty and the free Roman Republic. The fall of the Tarquins at the end of the sixth century BC amounted to a new start for Rome: the city began again, now as a republic, with a series of new myths. What did these new myths entail exactly?

The most important myths that grew up was that the kings had not been Rome’s founders, and that Rome never ever had a king again. Even later, when they have an emperor, he is pretty much a king, but they never call him king. They see that Rome is founded on the sharing of power, not power by one man. That becomes difficult for them when one-man rule returns in the shape of the Roman emperors later on. Because they are always trying to distance themselves from the idea that they are monarchies.

Did the founders of the United States base their government model on this?

Yes. The U.S. founders looked back to the power-sharing of Republican Rome. Especially the civil liberties and rights of the Republic, which Rome seemed to embody.

How did the Roman Republic really begin? For example you write that the the Republic was born slowly over a period of decades, if not centuries. And that it was reinvented many times over. What kind of evidence do historians have about this?

We have loads of evidence written later by the Romans about how they thought the Republic began. But they see it all in terribly simple terms: rising one minute and then falling the next. And if you go back and look, you can see why that story—one told by people like Livy and other Roman historians—cannot possibly be true. One certainty is that although Livy and others see the Republic as as sort of one-off moment, there must have been at least fifty or a hundred years that were pretty messy during which those institutions sprang up.

You say that Julius Caesar laid the foundations for the political geography of modern Europe. In what way?

Well you can see it clearly, in terms of the Romans providing the underlying framework for our political geography. Paris is the capital of France, and London is the capital of the United Kingdom, because that is where the Romans put them. And the roads that we use, both in continental Europe, and in Britain, very often follow the roots that the Romans laid down. And underneath the soil, in the political geography of most of Western Europe, are the decisions and geography that the Romans created.

The assassination of Caesar became the model for the effective removal of a tyrant. But as you state in the book, it was also a powerful reminder that getting rid of a tyrant did not necessarily dispose of tyranny. This is a common theme throughout history, right?

Yes, you often find what looks like the simple act of getting rid of the tyrant, only produces the same thing again. It’s always very easy to rally around the cry of tyrannicide. But it’s very hard to change the political system.

So do you think that trying to get rid of the monarchy in any country is a waste of time?

(Laughs) I don’t know! I think if I was inventing the British political system again, I would not invent it with a monarchy. But getting rid of it is not top of my agenda at the moment. There are other things to fight against.

The Roman Emperor, Augustus, was one of the most radical innovators Rome ever saw. Did his influence over elections mean that the popular democratic process withered in Rome during his reign? What is his legacy?

Augustus is the big enigma of Roman history. He rewrites the rulebook, and he manages to establish one-man rule by using the institutions of the free Republic. People have been very quick to say that is a very hypocritical set of manoeuvres. But what Augustus is doing is trying to think about how to express autocracy and one-man rule in traditional terms. How he managed to pull it off is something we have never understood.

How should we today read Edward Gibbon, and his interpretation of Roman history, in his six volume compendium, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire published between 1776 and 1788. Is it outdated?

We should take it as a work of its time. Gibbon was living in a world in which you could conceivably say that it would have been better to live in the second century AD than the [time he lived in]. But you can only say that if you are a man, white, and rich. It’s well worth reading Gibbon, but it’s very much a male view on the history of Rome.

The rich and the poor lived cheek by jowl in Roman times. What was the reason for this?

That’s another extremely interesting difference between modern cities and ancient cities. We tend to think that there are poor areas and rich areas in our cities. This really only happened from the nineteenth century onwards, because they were zoned that way. In Roman cities, the poor lived next to the rich. Whether that is good or bad is a difficult question to answer. It means there is no such thing as Mayfair in Ancient Rome. But it also means that the poor live their lives looking into the vast houses of the rich.  

JP O’Malley is an Irish writer living in London.

Noted scholar Mary Beard recently spoke to JP O’Malley about Ancient Rome, including the roots of Western concepts of freedom, why Roman history tends to have far greater archival evidence than Greek history, and why Julius Caesar helped lay the foundations for the political geography of modern Europe.