SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
by Mary Beard.
W.W. Norton & Company, 2015.
Paperback, 608 pages, $17.95.

Reviewed by Sarah Ruden

For a book with so many episodes of civil uproar in it, and so many accounts of both everyday and exceptional brutality, SPQR is surprisingly buoyant. The title is the abbreviation of Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Senate and the People of Rome”), the ancient designation of the Roman state. The letters are still inscribed on manhole covers and other public works throughout Italy, to indicate the state’s far-reaching yet minute authority. But Mary Beard does not, either in tone or argument, buy in to any of the awe of that authority that many modern historians of Rome evince, drawing too uncritically from Roman sources.

For example, her experience as an archeologist makes her bracingly confident in doubting the numbers around military campaigns, and it is about time that a senior academic popularized the archeological record in these terms. When I researched the works of Julius Caesar, I was amused to learn that the renowned general would, in his literary accounts, go so far as to double the depth of a trench that someone eventually excavated scientifically a couple of millennia later and discovered the truth.

The study of the ancient historians has evanesced almost everywhere, but military schools keep anything to do with battle in a sort of cult status, so it is refreshing to see Beard trampling down, in the course of her long, breezy strides, the “flanking maneuver,” which has been touted by classically educated imperialists in instances as rarified as the nineteenth-century Zulu military, but which any hunter or predator (and even the odd aggressive herbivore, like the Cape Buffalo) knows:

What is more, despite the almost mystical modern admiration for Hannibal’s battle plans at Cannae [the scene of a massive Roman defeat in 216 BCE], which are still on the syllabus of military academies, they amounted to little more than a clever version of going round the back of the enemy.

This recalls a fellow student’s remark many years ago, that his jargon-filled sociology course represented only “the study of common knowledge.”

Beard is skeptical toward nearly everything echoing solemnly from Roman civilization except the Roman propensity for assimilation, the theme of her book. Though the book takes its story conventionally from the mid-first millennium BCE era of the “kingship” (in reality, a small-time chieftainship, or maybe several), it ends in the Emperor Caracalla’s grant in 212 CE of Roman citizenship to all free people living under Roman rule.

At this point, the legalization of Christianity by Constantine was a hundred and one years away, the sack of Rome by the Visigoths almost another hundred—and in the East, there would be emperors until the Ottoman Empire took Constantinople in the fifteenth century.

But Beard, a senior classicist, naturally has to choose some endpoint that is bound to look from some angle arbitrary; otherwise, she could trail into the sinking of Roman power in the West onto church structures and emerging local chieftaincies and find herself deep in the premodern (and postclassical) era.

And the cut-off point, naturally, serves her controlling idea. Rome was, by comparison to other ancient polities, both dynamic and durable, which must have had a lot to do with inclusiveness. The public administration was shockingly understaffed by modern standards (the army often filled in—not always the most popular or reliable resource, then as now), and for long periods the center as well as the frontiers were unstable. But if people were minimally Romanized, responsibilities could be devolved and stakeholding shared to impressive effect.

Witness, courtesy of Beard, the ways provincials pictured themselves. She includes, among a number of telling photos, one showing the tomb of a Roman imperial functionary from Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey, then largely part of the Greek cultural world), who returned there as a splashy philanthropist: he is depicted alternately in a distinct Roman and a distinct Greek outfit. A temple facade in Egypt features the Emperor Trajan in the spitting image of a pharaoh, wasp-waisted and sledge-shouldered, flat as a flounder and with correct Egyptian dress and accouterments. The “We’re like them” and the “They’re like us” must both have been encouraging for energetic engagement in the Roman imperial project.

Beard emphasizes class as well as ethnic fluidity. Laboring slaves, driven like animals and now recovered as warped, malnourished remains, presumably would have made little more contribution to the body politic than machines did. A stone relief seems to provide a rare commemoration of a miner: he died at the age of four. But worksite pictorials, plus some extravagant theme monuments (starring a massive tomb/bread-oven) of those who made it big, suggest well-being, self-awareness, and hopefulness among ordinary workers and small-time entrepreneurs. This might well have assisted in brushing off the snobbery of an upper-class intellectual like Cicero, for whom manual labor was contemptible and not even acknowledged for leaving him free for bombastic statesmanship and pretentious intellectual pursuits.

In writing of the masses of slaves the Romans manumitted, Beard stresses assimilation, opportunities, and upward mobility; for instance, the former slave of a Roman citizen quasi-inherited his citizenship, which contained almost the same prerogatives. But she notes elsewhere that only the freeborn could legally enlist in the army (though the prohibition could be flouted in practice), that great reservoir of meritocracy and social insurance. (Does it provide the original model for the modern old-age pension system?) Moreover, the literature tells of many customary denigrations and exclusions freed people suffered, plus exploitation under the name of continued protection; a thwarted, disgruntled manumitter might punish “his” freedman or even take him back into bondage.

To think of freed slaves as similar to legal American or British immigrants would require us to project backwards a broadly and deeply enforceable legalism; but Beard does explicitly lay out that law enforcement was scanty, and frequently a private province. Likely, she would agree that more or less whatever the powerful wished to happen, happened. If military recruitment fell short and qualified freedmen were available, then fine. If rich men needed their freedmen as business agents and wished to treat manumission as a sort of indenture, then fine too; considerable benefits might still fall to the freedmen over time. But in grim parallel, a shortfall in industrial or farm labor in one region could set off lawless round-ups and enslavement of peasants in another, and there wouldn’t be any ready recourse.

The relentless complications, which would have required ingenuity to get through, don’t diminish but rather affirm Beard’s claims about the contributions of ex-slaves to economic dynamism. The modern history of the Jews and the Dissenting sects reveals that the sharpest spur toward entrepreneurship is not for the powerful to grant equality of opportunity, but for them to bar a certain group from their own favorite privileges and professions (which may, for all their allure, not be all that profitable), so that the group has to come up with other things to do and creative ways to do them.

The Roman system worked, literally and figuratively, like none other had before. Beard’s climactic example is the 100-ton granite columns fronting the Emperor Hadrian’s Pantheon. The granite was extractable in only one place in the known world, in the Egyptian desert many miles from barge transport; yet the columns were hacked out whole, not in pieces, given their rudimentary shape, and transported 2500 miles to Rome.

The immense weave of resourcefulness that made this possible challenges the imagination, but hints of how people coped come from the papyrus letters recovered on the quarry site, and from other hot-dogging Roman enterprises. Julius Caesar had not only a will of iron and a traditional system of military organization and discipline to enact that will; he also had what his own social position would not have allowed him to credit sufficiently: ways to draw up through the ranks and reward—no matter its ethnic or class origin—a new strategy or handy device for naval warfare in unfamiliar waters, or for breaking an unusually stubborn or tricky siege. It all conduced to an array of visible, material power and achievement that those endowed with any degree of “Romanness” could feel they communally owned.

In some connections, Beard is limited—though anybody would be; reading in a cultural vacuum chamber would kill any historian. Heinously violating multicultural evenhandedness myself, I have to note that Beard’s viewpoint (she is a Cambridge professor) is post-imperial and post-religious—good for skepticism, but bad for a full appreciation of what made Roman culture quite cheery and vigorous despite the preponderance of poverty (directly in the face of stunning wealth), filth, disease, toil, noise, corruption, and oppression that she outlines.

She gives short shrift to Polybius, the Greek slave who emerged as a mentor to leading Romans in the late second century BCE and wrote a once-influential appreciation of how different parts of the Roman polity balanced their interests against each other, which was supposed to make for the stable though participatory exercise of power. And granted, deliberative intellectualizing and successful state design was of course no more a reality in Rome than it had been anywhere in the Greek world of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Constitution of Athens: leaders stumbled through crises and made the deals they could, keeping any effective measures in place.

But for Rome the result was immensely far beyond a tribe (plus conquered peoples, if any) and set of customs and territory under more formal supervision than in the Bronze Age; it was instead the transcendent res publica (not “republic” but “public entity”) and the imperium (not “empire” so much as “commanding entity”), the abstracted and then re-embodied will-of-its-own we now call a state. No wonder it offered itself as a model for an actual and successful project of state design in America; a model superior to the centuries-long British development of an unwritten constitution, mainly through monarchical succession crises—which during the Roman Imperial period hardly had such a positive outcome.

For Beard, Christianity is also a blind spot, flicked over in dismissively twenty-first-century language. But Gibbon was right in seeing a great conflict between old Rome and the new religion—though he was wrong in ascribing the conflict to a distorted ethical hierarchy. Christianity was fearsome to the Roman state and ultimately engulfing of it because Christianity was a super-state: comprehensively inclusive of class, ethnicity, and legal status, more self-justifying and self-perpetuating than Rome, more welcoming to cosmopolitan people’s hunger for self-definition, community, and a higher purpose. Christianity was the civitas dei, the one God’s single polity, so what was Rome, the champion of unity, going to say to that?

Nevertheless, Beard’s is a terrific book. She translates colloquially and penetratingly Latin words that have never before had the benefit of this treatment but have tended to drift through modern consciousness (if at all) on the gossamer pull of their derivatives in our own languages. Civilitas is, for example, hardly “civility,” but more like Beard’s “We’re all citizens together.” She speaks modestly but forthrightly of her own (to me, anyway) dazzling range of reading. She reflects on her changes in attitude over the years. She is a lighthearted, friendly, but exemplary companion in learning. 

Sarah Ruden published two books in 2017: The Face of Water: A Translator on Beauty and Meaning in the Bible (Pantheon) and The Confessions of Augustine: A New Translation(Modern Library). She is working on a new translation of the Gospels.