|Senātus Populusque Rōmānus
(The Roman Senate and People)
Few modern historians have the ability to communicate the complexity of their subject in laymen’s language without dumbing down the content. Mary Beard however is no ordinary historian and has been defying convention, and thumbing her nose at the academic world she inhabits (not altogether tongue in cheek) for decades. Her story of Rome’s earliest history is uniquely detailed, informative, funny and often wryly observed but never overly academic.
“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 53 years, something previously unparalleled?”
Rome’s earliest history is devilishly difficult to uncover, little survives from that time and most of the classical sources were actually written hundreds of years after the founding of the city. Beard carefully lays out the many theories and a what little evidence exists to present as clear a picture of this unclear time as it is probably possible to achieve. More importantly she asks the right questions when looking back at this period. Where the seeds of future Roman success laid out in the cities foundation and was the rise of Rome as the worlds first superpower inevitable?
The task she sets herself in writing this book, reviewing such as vast swath of history, is truly colossal. On the one hand Rome’s story is one of warfare, of battles won and lost or enemies defeated and absorbed and she tells this part of the story effortlessly. But to really understand what drove Rome forwards one needs to understand Roman Politics. The rise of Imperial Rome is presented as an inevitable consequence of the way the Republic was formed and driven forwards. From an early point Romans were inclusive, outward looking and had an unshakable belief in their right to exist. There was no grand plan for world conquest but looking back through the prism of history it is clear that either Rome would be destroyed or would conquer. There was no third way for Rome.
The famous Monty Python film The Life of Brian a group of plotting revolutionaries ask “What have the Romans ever done for us?” and Mary Beard confidently and accurately asserts that the Romans are completely relevant to the modern world and to us, even if we don’t at first understand this:
“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.”
This book really is an excellent analysis of what ‘Roman’ really means to us and what it meant to the Romans. It challenges many of our modern preconceptions and tells the real story not just of Emperors and Generals but also of the ordinary people of the empire who, in typically Roman fashion, came from all corners of the known world.
Crucially the book tells the story of the ‘project of citizenship’. For centuries Citizenship was a valued status – a tool of control and oppression according to some – that the conquered, the poor and even slaves could one day aspire to and therefore ensured their willing participation in the Roman system. In 212CE this ‘project’ which started with the foundation of Rome reached its inevitable conclusion when the Emperor Caracalla decreed that all the free inhabitants of the Empire, wherever they lived, were Roman Citizens. Without the promise of Citizen status for those that cooperated the inevitable and slow decline of the Roman Empire had been set in motion.
This is a long book (it covers a thousand years of history after all!) but every page is a pleasure to read and will most certainly change how you view the Romans.
Author/s: Mary Beard
Format: Paperback, 606 Pages
Publisher: Profile Books (2016)