Arts and Culture

Why Rome continues to underpin western culture and politics - an extract from Mary Beard's book 'SPQR'

A pair of Italian men dressed as a former Roman emperor and gladiator, who make their living posing with tourists, use a special filter to view a partial eclipse of the sun outside the Colosseum in Rome March 29, 2006.   REUTERS/Chris Helgren - GM1DSGPXDHAA

Image: REUTERS/Chris Helgren - GM1DSGPXDHAA

Mary Beard
Professor of Classics, University of Cambridge
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This excerpt is from Mary Beard's book, "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome". The book was chosen as the World Economic Forum Book Club's monthly book for July. Each month, a new book is selected and discussed among the group, with the author joining in on the last day of the month to reply to some questions from our participants.

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Here is the prologue of the book, entitled: 'The history of Rome'.

Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our own world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After two thousand years, it continues to underpin western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.

The assassination of Julius Caesar on what the Romans called the “Ides of March” 44 BCE has provided the template, and the sometimes awkward justification, for the killing of tyrants ever since. The layout of the Roman imperial territory underlies the political geography of modern Europe and beyond. The main reason that London is the capital of the United Kingdom is that the Romans made it the capital of their province Britannia – a dangerous place lying, as they saw it, beyond the great Ocean that encircled the civilised world. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from “senators” to “dictators”. It has loaned us its catchphrases, about “fearing Greeks when bearing gifts”, about “bread and circuses” or “fiddling while Rome burns” – even “where there’s life there’s hope”. And it has prompted laughter, awe and horror in more or less equal measure. Gladiators are as big box-office now as they ever were. Virgil’s great epic poem on the foundation of Rome, the Aeneid, almost certainly found more readers in the twentieth century CE than it did in the first century CE.

Yet the history of ancient Rome has changed dramatically over the last fifty years, and even more so over the last two hundred and fifty years since Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, his idiosyncratic historical experiment that began the modern study of Roman history in the English-speaking world. That is partly because of the new ways of looking at the old evidence, and the different questions we choose to put it. It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not. But we come to Roman history with different priorities – from gender identity to food supply – that makes the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.

There have also been extraordinary array of new discoveries -- in the ground, under water, even lost in libraries – presenting novelties from antiquity that tell us more about ancient Rome than any modern historian could ever have known before. We now have a manuscript of a touching essay by a Roman doctor whose prize possessions had just gone up in flames, which resurfaced in a Greek monastery only in 2005. We have wrecks of Mediterranean cargo-ships that never made it to Rome, with their foreign sculpture, furniture and glass destined for the houses of the rich, and the wine and olive oil that were the staples of everyone. As I write, archaeological scientists are carefully examining samples drilled from the ice-cap of Greenland to find the traces, even there, of the pollution produced by Roman industry. Others are putting under the microscope the human excrement found in a cess-pit in Herculaneum, in south Italy, to itemise the diet of ordinary Romans, as it went into – and out of – their digestive tracts. A lot of eggs and sea urchins are part of the answer.

Roman history is always being rewritten, and always has been; in some ways we know more about ancient Rome than the Romans did themselves. Roman history, in other words, is a work in progress. This book is my contribution to that bigger project; it offers my version of why it matters. SPQR takes its title from another famous Roman catchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome” (Fig. 00). It is driven by a personal curiosity about Roman history, by a conviction that a dialogue with ancient Rome is still well worth having, and by the question of how a tiny and very unremarkable little village in central Italy became so dominant a power over so much territory in three continents.

This is a book about how Rome grew, and sustained its position for so long, not about how declined and fell, if indeed it ever did in the sense that Gibbon imagined. There are many ways that histories of Rome might construct a fitting conclusion; some have chosen the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity on his deathbed in 337 CE or the sack of the city in 410 CE by Alaric and his Visigoths. Mine ends with a culminating moment in 212 CE, when the Emperor Caracalla took the step of making every single free inhabitant of the Roman empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the difference between conqueror and conquered and completing a process of expanding the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship that had started almost a thousand years earlier.

SPQR is not, however, a simple work of admiration. There is much in the classical world – both Roman and Greek -- to engage our interest and demand our attention. Our own world would be immeasurably the poorer if we did not continue to interact with theirs. But admiration is a different thing. Happily a child of my times, I bridle when I hear people talking of “great” Roman conquerors, or even of Rome’s “great” empire. I have tried to learn to see things from the other side too.

In fact, SPQR confronts some of the myths and half-truths about Rome with which I, like many, grew up. The Romans did not start out with a grand plan of world conquest. Although eventually they did parade their empire in terms of some manifest destiny, the motivations that originally lay behind their conquests through the Mediterranean world and beyond are still one of history’s great puzzles. In acquiring their empire, the Romans did not brutally trample over innocent peoples who were minding their own business in peaceable harmony until the legions appeared on the horizon. Roman conquest was undoubtedly brutal. Julius Caesar’s conquest of Gaul has not unfairly been compared to genocide, and was criticised by Romans at the time in those terms. But Rome expanded into a world not of communities living at peace with one another, but one of endemic violence, rival power-bases backed up by military force (there was not really any alternative backing) and mini empires. Most of Rome’s enemies were as militaristic as the Romans; but, for reasons I shall try to explain, they did not win.

Rome was not simply the thuggish younger sibling of classical Greece, committed to engineering, military efficiency and absolutism, whereas the Greeks preferred intellectual inquiry, theatre and democracy. It suited some Romans to pretend that was the case, and it has suited many modern historians to present the classical world in terms of a simple dichotomy between two very different cultures. That is, as we shall see, very misleading, on both sides. The Greek city-states were as keen on winning battles as the Romans were, and most had very little to do with the brief Athenian democratic experiment. Far from being the unthinking advocates of imperial might, several Roman writers were the most powerful critics of imperialism there have ever been. “They make a desert and call it peace” is a slogan that has often summed up the consequences of military conquest. It was written in the second century CE by the Roman historian Tacitus, referring to the Roman conquest of Britain.

The history of Rome is a big challenge. 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. Most of my own focus will be on the city of Rome itself and on Roman Italy, but I shall take care also to look in at Rome from the outside, from the point of view of those living in the wider territories of the empire, as soldiers, rebels or ambitious collaborators. And very different kinds of history have to be written for different periods. For the earliest history of Rome, and when it was expanding in the fourth century BCE from small village to a major player in the Italian peninsula, there were no accounts written by contemporary Romans at all. The story has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence – a single piece of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone – as hard as it can. Only three centuries later the problem is quite the reverse: how to make sense of the masses of competing contemporary evidence that may threaten to swamp any clear narrative.

Roman history also demands a very particular sort of imagination. In some ways, to explore ancient Rome from the twenty first century is rather like walking on a tightrope, a very careful balancing act. If you look down on one side, everything seems reassuringly familiar: there are conversations going on that we almost join, about the nature of freedom or problems of sex; there are buildings and monuments we recognise and family life lived out in ways we understand, with all their troublesome adolescents; and there are jokes that we “get”. On the other side, it seems completely alien territory. That does not just mean the slavery, the filth (there was hardly any such thing as refuse collection in ancient Rome), the human slaughter in the arena and the death from illnesses whose cure we now take for granted; but also the new born babies thrown away on rubbish heaps, the child brides and the flamboyant eunuch priests.

This is a world we will begin to explore through one particular moment of Roman history, which the Romans themselves never ceased to puzzle over and which modern writers, from historians to dramatists, have never ceased to debate. It offers the best introduction to some of the key characters of ancient Rome, to the richness of Roman discussion their own past, and to the ways in which we continue to recapture and try to make sense of it – and to why the history of Rome, its Senate and People still matter.

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