A british college student named Megan Beech recently published a poetry collection called When I Grow Up I Want to Be Mary Beard. Beech is not alone in her admiration for Beard, who was for a time the only female classics lecturer at Cambridge University and has since become the most prominent representative of a field once associated with dusty male privilege. In 2013, Beard was appointed to the Order of the British Empire for “services to Classical Scholarship.” A prolific authority on Roman culture, she construes those services broadly. Her academic work ranges from studies of Roman religion and Roman victory practices to reflections on Roman laughter, and she has written lively books about Pompeii and the Colosseum. As the erudite docent on a BBC series three years ago titled Meet the Romans, Beard introduced a bigger audience to a bigger Rome: a citizenry far beyond the handful of Latin-speaking men who populated the Senate, served as emperors, or wrote (often dictating to their slaves) the books that we call “Roman literature.” Whatever the context (she also writes a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement), Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process.
Her magisterial new history of Rome, SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus, “The Senate and People of Rome”), is no exception. Every history of Rome has to tackle the question of how the Romans—a people who once lived in a ramshackle collection of wooden huts on a muddy river in the middle of Italy, surrounded by other groups that were at least as prosperous and cultured—created one of the largest empires in the ancient world, and among the most enduring empires in all of world history. Many accounts, including some by the Romans themselves, have emphasized the internal divisions that doomed the empire to “decline and fall,” as the 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon put it. Beard is much more interested in what made Rome succeed. Her fresh undertaking—aimed primarily at a general readership but sure to engage and provoke professional classicists, too—covers the whole story.
Her sweep is impressively large, starting with the (mythical) tales of the city’s foundation in the eighth century B.C., and taking in the conquest of most of the Italian peninsula in the fourth and third centuries B.C. as well as the defeat of Rome’s main Mediterranean rivals, Carthage and Greece, by the middle of the second century B.C. More than a century of civil wars followed, along with yet more foreign conquests (in Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and the East). In the wake of the political turmoil surrounding Julius Caesar’s rise to power and eventual assassination in 44 B.C., the Romans submitted to an imperial mode of government under Octavian, who defeated Antony and Cleopatra in 31 B.C. and renamed himself Augustus, the first Roman emperor. The empire held sway for about 500 years in the West, and 1,400 in the East, under the Byzantine emperors. How did the Romans do it?
One answer, which many Romans themselves favored, gives all the credit to their virtus, a word connoting both strength of character and masculinity. A related interpretation, popular among scholars a generation ago, portrays Rome as an exceptionally belligerent and imperialistic society that rose to power by bullying and massacring its neighbors. More recently, historians have proposed that the Roman empire’s growth was fueled by an evolving combination of hard and soft imperialism, and Beard builds on this current work. To be sure, the Romans slaughtered and enslaved huge numbers of people. The prosperity of Rome depended on loot, tribute, and taxes from conquered tribes and cities, as well as the manual and domestic labor provided by non-Roman slaves. (In the second century B.C., more than 8,000 new slaves a year—the bounty of overseas conquest—were transported to the peninsula.) But we have scant evidence that the Romans were any more warmongering than the various other cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.
What was exceptional about this particular Italian tribe, as Beard explains with welcome clarity, was the way the Romans combined military prowess with a radically expansive notion of what it meant to be Roman—a notion that enabled them to spread the tendrils of Romanitas all over the Mediterranean world. Beard, who recently suffered some nasty sexist abuse for her sensible remarks in defense of immigrant workers in the United Kingdom, leaves the contemporary resonances mostly implicit. Her focus is on the historical evidence, which, as always, leads her to deft readings of traditions and myths as repositories not of exact facts about the past but of clues about how a culture imagines itself in the present. The Romans’ sense of their society as a hybrid one, Beard finds, is folded into their founding legends. Virgil’s Aeneid celebrates the Trojan hero who founded the city—a foreigner who, though he kills some of the native inhabitants, also unites the warring tribes. And without downplaying the horrific violence in the tale of Romulus and Remus and the rape of the Sabine women, Beard notes that the mass rape is portrayed not just as evidence of Roman aggression but as a way of creating a mixed society.
The pattern of absorption was set in the aftermath of the battle of Veii, a settlement 10 miles from Rome, in 396 B.C. Subsequent Roman legend played up the heroic action of the leading general, Camillus, who supposedly razed the town. The story was useful for a people eager to emulate the heroes of the Iliad, who sacked Troy. But Beard draws on existing scholarship to note that archaeological evidence suggests no wholesale destruction. Instead, the Romans seem to have allowed the town to operate more or less as before, but under their authority—thus increasing the size of their territory by 60 percent and expanding the pool of potential army recruits. This approach was repeated in the series of skirmishes through the next century that established Roman dominance over the Italian peninsula. Those who were, in Beard’s nicely cynical language, “forced, or welcomed, into some form of ‘alliance’ ” had one essential obligation to their new friends, the Romans: to provide soldiers for the army. By the end of the fourth century B.C., Rome could call on half a million troops. Its power was founded on people power.
Some readers may feel that Beard overemphasizes the gentler aspects of imperial rule. The newly subjugated were allies in name but not entirely in legal and political fact. But she is right to stress that the Romans pioneered a revolutionary understanding of citizenship, and in making the concept more central to the whole story of Rome than previous historians have, she highlights its truly distinctive facets. The idea that one could be a citizen, even a partial citizen, of a place where one did not live, and had perhaps never been, was virtually unprecedented. So was the idea that one could have a dual identity, as both Roman and Mantuan, Roman and Sicilian, or Roman and Oscan (when the Romans conquered the peninsula), or—later—Roman and Greek, Hispanic, Gallic, or British.
Most ancient societies assumed that being a citizen of a particular place meant not just living in that place, but also speaking the language and sharing in the common culture. Romans, by contrast, could be people who might well not even speak Latin. As Beard notes, in the later periods of the Roman empire, Greek was the lingua franca (or rather, the koine glossa—“common tongue”) in its eastern half. In contrast to many slave-owning societies, both ancient and modern, the Romans allowed large numbers of their slaves to become free, and to acquire at least limited forms of citizenship.
The flexible vision of Romanitas also meant that Roman women, at least in the elite classes, had access to far greater freedom and more legal rights than women in many other ancient societies. In ancient Athens, women were legally under the control of their fathers and husbands, whereas elite Roman women were allowed property rights, albeit with certain restrictions. But Beard takes care not to extrapolate too rosy a view of the lives of the Romans who left no literature behind, and calls attention to how little we can reconstruct about them from the surviving evidence. She warns, for example, against taking at face value the image of the “liberated woman” that became a stereotype in the literature of the first century B.C. The elite adulteress featured in the poems of Catullus and Propertius, who sleeps around and throws wild parties, says more about patriarchal anxiety than about women’s liberty.
Beard’s title hints at her central interest in a familiar but compelling historical question: How did the various classes interact in the radically inclusive society that was Rome? How, in particular, did the elite men of the Senate navigate power-sharing with the people (represented by the tribunes) during the time of the republic? And what power—if any—did the Senate or the people retain once Rome was under the command of a single emperor, who had control over the army? Beard’s well-balanced answers, in step with the most up-to-date scholarship, reflect a turn away from a top-down or “great man” approach. Reconciling the various social interests at stake in the Roman Republic, she argues, was ultimately impossible—beyond the capabilities of even the most impressive leader—given the new demands and opportunities of empire. She sums up the situation in a characteristically brilliant one-liner: “The empire created the emperors.”
Still, Beard does not disappoint the reader who opens a history of Rome hoping for tales of the daring battles and thrilling excesses at the pinnacles of imperial life. SPQR includes the never stale stories of lascivious Tiberius (who supposedly turned his Capri estate into a pleasure palace, complete with hired boys to nuzzle his genitals while he was in the swimming pool), crazy Caligula (who supposedly slept with his sisters), and extravagantly sadistic Nero (who killed his mother and fiddled while Rome burned). But Beard tells these stories with a finely skeptical tone and a sense of humor, alert to the ways in which the empire remained structurally very much the same, no matter whose carefully tended image happened to be stamped on the coins.
Beard’s book allows us—as did her television series—not only to “meet the Romans,” but also to acknowledge that we can never really meet them and that, in many ways, we may not want to. The problem goes beyond the limitation of our sources; it lies in the vast cultural gaps that separate us from their world, and the profoundly repellent facts of daily life in ancient Rome: slavery, filth, slaughter, illness, “newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps.” Yet Beard finds in Rome, if not a model, at least a challenge. Other histories of Rome have ended with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in A.D. 337, marking the end of pagan antiquity, or with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in A.D. 410. Beard closes instead with the “culminating moment,” in A.D. 212, when the emperor Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the distinction between the Romans and the people they had conquered, colonized, and ruled. Beard is far too clear-minded to treat this moment as the end of social hierarchies. It was, rather, a moment when distinctions of class and wealth became increasingly important. The ancient Romans, Beard shows, are relevant to people many centuries later who struggle with questions of power, citizenship, empire, and identity.