They were all foreigners

Michael Kulikowski

  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
    Profile, 606 pp, £25.00, October 2015, ISBN 978 1 84668 380 0

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.

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