Neil Tennant described his run of hits between ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Heart’ as the Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, when they owned the charts and charmed the critics by setting Che Guevara and Debussy to a disco beat. We are now in Mary Beard’s imperial phase, and she’s entered it with wit and charm and insight rather than the intellectual thuggery of Niall Ferguson. After A Don’s Life blog and its printed spin-offs, after the misogyny she faced for daring to present a BBC2 series without the looks of a film star, and after the OBE, comes the doorstop SPQR to charm the charts and critics both. Beard gives us a sweeping Roman history that’s both reassuringly familiar and abidingly strange.
The material matters, of course, and it doesn’t get better than Beard’s. An ordinary village is founded at a propitious ford on a river with good access to the sea. For six hundred years, it continues to look pretty much like the neighbours with whom it has annual inconclusive punch-ups, as they all become rudimentary city-states with a taste for Greek luxury imports. Then something changes. The statelet is captured and put to the sack by mercenary freebooters from the north, and the government seriously considers abandoning the site. But it doesn’t, the annual punch-ups get bloodier, they take the citizen army further and further from home, and suddenly, somewhere in the middle of the fourth century BC, Rome, hitherto indistinguishable from its neighbours, starts to swallow up everything it sees.
Three generations later, Rome was the only power that mattered in the Italian peninsula, so it picked a fight with Carthage, the other imperial power of the western Mediterranean, and began to interfere in the Greek world, by this time a motley assortment of ancient cities and Hellenistic kings. Some Greeks liked this attention, at least at first, because having Rome on your side was always a trump card in local rivalries. But the Romans also had a way of losing patience with their clients, turning on them and annexing their territory: by the end of the second century BC they had devoured Sicily, most of Spain, Carthaginian North Africa and the Mediterranean islands, southern Gaul, mainland Greece, and chunks of Asia Minor. Western Europe as far as the Rhine and the whole eastern Mediterranean, including the fabulously wealthy kingdom of Egypt, were annexed in the last century BC; the Balkans and most of Britain followed in the next, as did silver-rich Dacia north of the Danube in modern Romania. An unexpectedly bloody loss in Germany halted plans to push onwards to the Elbe; the weather and the poverty north of the Clyde-Forth line had a similar effect in Scotland. This was the largest empire the world had ever known. Its capital consumed a hundred million litres of wine and twenty million of olive oil each year. Yet its institutions were barely adequate to run a city-state, never mind a world empire.
Already in the fourth century BC, just before the age of hyperactive conquest began, the Roman ruling classes discovered an institutional framework that gave them both legitimacy and a lock on power: annual elected offices for which politicians had to compete, but with the (male) citizenry’s votes weighted according to wealth, so the rich and the powerful could always determine results as long as they were in broad agreement. Even so, poorer citizens who from the earliest times had marched out annually on campaign had a genuine if restricted say in who led them: Roman elections were at least as real as America’s money-saturated facsimiles of representation. It was this hierarchical, competitive and slightly ramshackle Roman Republic – SPQR is an acronym of senatus populusque romanus, the lopsided partnership between senatorial magistrates and the Roman people – that consumed its neighbours and then the world, before its leaders, bloated on the spoils of centuries, turned inwards, two generations of rival strongmen raising private armies to savage one another and dominate the Roman state. Civil war and wars of conquest overlapped, the ruling classes were decimated, until only one strongman was left standing, a chancer named Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who had been the first Roman strongman openly to embrace indefinite one-man rule in at least four hundred years. Octavian, or Augustus as he became, did the same thing but better, offering peace to an exhausted world and veiling autocracy beneath an appearance of decent respect for the Republican constitution. But the conquests kept coming, under the many later Augusti who followed him over the next century and more, while autocracy became ever more entrenched, passing from the first dynasty to several successors, vast imperial legions guaranteeing the emperor’s power.
There are many ways to tell this story; doing something new with your material is the hard part, because much of your audience has heard much of it before. Beard’s approach is to weave a couple of themes throughout. They don’t appear in every chapter but often enough to snap at your attention. One is rape and fratricide: the Roman polity founded on the murder of Remus by Romulus, its future secured by the treacherous abduction and rape of the Sabine women. The other is inclusiveness, the unprecedented willingness of Romans to take new members into their community and share the privileges of citizenship with them. This is perhaps the grandest story Beard tells, and it’s the most novel to a reader expecting the usual story of battles, battles, murders, and more battles. The openness was already there in the myth of fratricide: Romulus may have killed his brother, but he also welcomed all comers to his merry band of cut-throats on the Capitoline Hill. The Sabines became Romans, too, when the kidnapped women stepped between the raging armies and refused to allow their husbands and brothers to kill one another. The slowly accreted mishmash of Rome’s legendary history took things even further: Aeneas was a refugee from burning Troy, and his son Ascanius founded Rome’s Latin ancestor Alba Longa; the story linked Rome to the font of Mediterranean origin stories, the war of Greeks against Trojans, and it meant that far enough back, all Romans were foreigners.
These were the sorts of puzzling story the Romans told themselves later on, when they’d already conquered the world. It isn’t easy to know how far back they go, though the difficulty the Romans had in getting all the contradictory strands to fit together suggests their relative antiquity. And it wasn’t just stories: the Roman embrace of foreignness was put into practice too. Very early in the historical period, as the Sabine myth shows, the Romans had incorporated the Latin neighbours they conquered into the Roman state: they became Romans who happened not to live at Rome, but who had the same rights, and owed the same military service, as Romans from the city. As citizenship spread, the armies got bigger and so won more battles more frequently and further away. They imposed alliances on those they conquered, letting them live more or less in peace as long as they provided troops to support further conquest. Giving up your young men to fight someone else’s wars was no doubt oppressive at first, but the Romans came up with incentives as they went along: not just wealth, but a form of half-citizenship (‘Latin rights’) that made possible such things as legally enforceable business contracts and a right of intermarriage. Children of such marriages were Roman. Eventually, the allies fought bitterly to win full citizenship for themselves (in the Social War, from the Latin socius, ‘ally’), and succeeded. At the same time the Romans began planting citizens’ colonies overseas – the citizens were mostly retired veterans. The children of Roman soldiers and natives were given Latin rights, which could make them Roman within a generation. Soon enough it made sense to enfranchise whole communities and regions: southern Gaul, Italy north of the Po, Sicily and parts of Spain, individual cities scattered across the empire. Romans also freed their slaves in great numbers, making them citizens on manumission (it helped that for hundreds of years the supply of new captives was effectively boundless): on that basis alone, the city of Rome became more ethnically diverse than any other before the modern period.
We have to remember the impossible strangeness of this, and Beard reminds us of it frequently: no other ancient state, least of all the Athenian cradle of democracy, did anything like it. The Athenians guarded their citizenship like dragon’s treasure, and the kings who succeeded Alexander had subjects not citizens. This fixity of citizenship, its exclusivity, formed the hard core of their self-identification. To have two patriae, to be a Roman and also an Athenian, a Gaul or a Samaritan, was only made conceivable by the Romans, who created the only ancient culture that could see noble motives in those that opposed it: Romans ‘make a desolation and call it peace’, Tacitus imagines a Caledonian chieftain saying.
We must not, and Beard doesn’t, sugarcoat the extreme violence (sexual and otherwise) of Roman expansion; it isn’t wrong to characterise what Caesar did to Gaul as genocide. But we understand nothing if we ignore the reverse of the medal, the unprecedented and since unequalled willingness of Romans to bring their victims into the heart of their polity, whether to share in the riches of a joined-up economy or to help victimise others for profit. It is the reason, especially after Augustus had put an end to civil war, so vast a territory could be ruled without interference from the tiny central government of the emperors. Local elites, many of them Roman citizens or aspiring to be, were willing collaborators (in the neutral not the invidious sense of that word). They worked with the emperor’s representatives not just for self-protection, or to hang onto their own local power, but because they could share in the direction of a new world with an ever expanding horizon, and because their communities could do so too. No one ‘Romanised’ these people. They made themselves Romans. Rome had indeed made desolation, but in the new-found peace the desolation bloomed, and bloomed as it never had before. That is the paradox at the heart of the Roman story, and the central tension in Beard’s version of it.
The paradox of Roman violence and Roman citizenship gives Beard her stopping point: the emperor Caracalla’s decision to grant Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire in ad 212, at a time when those who were legally Roman made up perhaps 20 per cent of a population of tens of millions. It’s a decision that has never been plausibly explained on practical grounds, but Caracalla was a shocking megalomaniac and the sheer grandiosity of the gesture may be explanation enough. Caracalla’s citizenship edict is, for Beard, the culmination of the logic implicit in Romulus’ asylum, the welcome given to all things foreign that made Rome unlike any other ancient state. Caracalla can hardly have seen that implicit logic, but it’s a winning conceit with which to bring the curtain down and the houselights up.
Beard’s performance takes risks that only a scholar in her imperial phase can take, with what material turns up when, and what gets left out altogether. The pre and semi-historic years before the destruction of Carthage occupy more than a third of the book, but jump around from the (mythical) expulsion of the kings to the (real, but much mythologised) fourth-century struggle between patricians and plebeians, to the Carthaginian defeat at Zama in 204 BC, then back to the Roman debacle at Cannae a decade earlier where Hannibal and his allies left tens of thousands of Romans dead on the battlefield. These are exemplary moments; they tell an analytical story, not a narrative one. The last two centuries of the Republic are similarly jumbled: Marius and Sulla both show up, but their intersecting stories arrive in such different places that it’s hard to spot the moment Beard links the two of them together. After Augustus, we jettison the Year of the Four Emperors and handle evidence for Caligula (r.37-41), Hadrian (r.117-138) and Commodus (r.180-192) outside narrative time, because under the emperors Roman politics ceases to change.
There are pages on the unknown archaic king whose inscription (RECEI, an early spelling of rex) was discovered in 1899 under one of the earliest parts of the forum, and who proves that a regal period of Roman history is not purely imaginary; on Scipio Barbatus, consul of 298 BC, whose four-line epitaph is the first real evidence for a Roman magisterial career (our hundreds of pages of Livy are at best anachronistic); and on the Gaius Julius Zoilus from the Greek city of Aphrodisias who was enslaved by pirates in the first century BC, bought and freed by a Roman master, thus gaining Roman citizenship, got to know the first Augustus and retired to his hometown to lavish on it the riches he’d earned in Italy. These examples make important analytical points, but – and this is a deliberate decision on Beard’s part – they won’t excite the historical imagination like the larger-than-life figures of the late Republic, on whom there’s surprisingly little here. Sulla is a butcher, but we don’t really learn why. Pompey’s agonising between Caesar and Senate disappears from view. Caesar exists only in his actions, and mainly in his calendrical reforms. Even Mark Antony, who thanks to Plutarch is one of the most compelling figures in ancient history, gets only a couple of scattered sentences. We can guess at quite a lot more about the motives, anxieties and tics of Pompey, Caesar or Mark Antony than most premodern figures, but Beard grants that sort of psychosocial legibility only to Cicero. She wants us to get past the centuries-old habit of analysing Roman motives in order to draw lessons from them. It’s a surprisingly austere approach to the past, one that sheers just the right side of alienating, and it’s another part of what makes SPQR so much more interesting than another romp through narrative fields.