The Observer, 5 October 2015

SPQR Review

Rome’s earliest history is lost within the mists and myths of time. Even the traditional date of the founding of the city was decided upon many centuries later, by Cicero’s great friend, Atticus. He narrowed things down using a chronological treatise, to the third year of the sixth cycle of the Olympic Games: 753 BCE. And the fall of Rome is almost as difficult to place. Did Rome cease to have an empire when Constantine became a Christian, in 337 CE? Did it limp on until the Visigoths pitched up in 410?

To add to our temporal uncertainties is the question of what the Roman Empire – and Rome itself – really was, even during the time when it was unquestionably a global superpower. As Mary Beard succinctly puts it in the introduction to SPQR, her history of Rome and its people, ‘There is no single story of Rome, especially when the Roman world had expanded far outside Italy. The history of Rome is not the same as the history of Roman Britain or of Roman Africa.’

Nonetheless, she embarks on the colossal task of telling as much of the story of Rome and its provinces as she can fit into 550 pages. She is never less than a vastly engaging tour guide around some of the best-known parts of the Roman story, debunking its myths with ease. Cleopatra’s final moments are on the receiving end of some trademark scepticism: ‘Suicide by snake bite is a hard feat to pill off, and anyway the most reliably deadly snakes would be far too hefty to conceal in even a regal fruit basket.’ Too few academics have a working knowledge of both the size of a royal fruit pile and the relative bulk of a snake.

The likelihood of Hannibal cracking open the chunks of Alpine rock which blocked his way is dismissed in a heartbeat (‘probably not’). And as for Caligula’s famous military debacle, when he ordered his soldiers to gather seashells as though they were the spoils of a victorious battle over the ocean? ‘The one about the seashells may well go back to a confusion about the Latin word musculi, which can mean both ‘shells’ and ‘military huts.’ Were the soldiers actually dismantling a temporary camp and not on a shell hunt?’

She has also filled her pages with the kind of stories which lure students to study classics in the first place. There is the great-grandfather of Cicero’s nemesis, Catiline, who ‘was a hero of the war against Hannibal, with the extra claim to fame of being the first man known to have entered combat with a prosthetic hand – probably just a metal hook that replaced his right hand, lost in an earlier battle.’ And then there is Pyrrhus (who survives for modern audiences in the phrase ‘Pyrrhic victory’): ‘… he was something of an engaging showman. He was the first to pull off the stunt of bringing elephants to Italy and on one occasion was supposed to have tried, unsuccessfully, to disconcert a visiting Roman by revealing one of his beasts from behind a curtain.’ It’s hard to imagine the elephant could have come as a complete surprise, unless it was an astonishingly thick curtain, but the image of Pyrrhus as a sort of proto-Barnum is delightful.

But the breezy tone belies the serious academic weight behind her narrative. Mary Beard doesn’t want you to learn how to live from the Romans, or anything as trite as that. She wants us to engage with the Romans (her italics): ‘Since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.’

And it is in the deconstruction of these ideals that she is at her most vital. She is very much of our time and yet she invariably avoids the pitfalls of anachronism when discussing the values and thinking of the ancients. On the law, she remarks that the Twelve Tables – the codified Roman legal system – were ‘a commitment to agreed, shared and publicly acknowledged procedures for resolving disputes…What was to happen if the guilty party was a child? The penalty in that case might be beating rather than hanging–’ A lesser writer might stop to wring her hands about child abuse. Beard goes on: ‘a distinction that heralds our ideas of the age of criminal responsibility.’

She is always alive to criticisms of the Romans, especially those made in their own time, and the contradictions therein. During the Social War, in the first century BCE, Rome fought a glorified civil war with much of Italy (her former allies, socii, which give the conflict its name). The allies mounted a propaganda war, minting coins which showed an Italian bull goring a Roman wolf. ‘The coinage certainly blazons some anti-Roman imagery. But it was based entirely on the weight standards of Roman coinage, and many of the other designs were directly borrowed from Roman issues.’ It’s a neat illustration of the problems which faced Rome’s enemies: even in insulting it, they couldn’t separate themselves from it.

Perhaps her tone is too chatty for those who like their history to be as dry as the bones of its characters. Some academics will doubtless twitch at seeing the triumvirate described as ‘The Gang of Three,’ or Augustus as ‘the old reptile.’ But Beard has been throwing rocks at those academics for her whole career, so it’s hard to imagine she would lose much sleep over it now.

And on the subject of projectiles, she tells the story of a siege at Perugia, during the civil war which saw Mark Antony’s wife, Fulvia, embroiled (at least according to Antony’s critics) in military command. Lead missiles with messages scratched into them were slung over the town walls, including one which read, ‘I’m going for Fulvia’s clitoris.’ The Latin word ‘landica’ is used, in its earliest attested use. As Beard notes, the abuse is ‘part bravado, part aggression, part misogyny, part ill-concealed fear’. No wonder she is so capable of dealing with the vile messages she herself sometimes receives.

SPQR is a tremendously enjoyable and scholarly read, on a subject which Mary Beard has championed for decades. The last word goes to the Greek historian, Polybius: ‘Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organisation, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than fifty-three years, something previously unparalleled?’