Michael Fontaine’s review of Mary Beard’s SPQR (“What Rome Can Teach Us Today,” March/April 2016) contains several serious flaws. First, Fontaine writes that the phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “the Senate and the People of Rome,” was “an advertisement for the link between Rome’s citizens and its elected leaders.” The term did name two distinct and separate categories of people whose collaboration through Rome’s complex political institutions marked its form of government. But the people did not elect the Senate, and the Senate was often in conflict with those who were elected to office by the citizens of Rome.
Second, Fontaine writes, “Rome’s classical era spanned the last two centuries BC and the first two centuries AD. At the beginning of that period, Rome already commanded a sizable empire, governed by democratic principles. By the end of it, Rome had become increasingly authoritarian but was still at peace internally.” There are two problems here. In the second century BC, Rome indeed commanded a sizable empire, but only Rome itself was governed by anything approximating democratic principles. The empire was governed autocratically.
Also, how can Fontaine assert that at the end of this period Rome was still at peace internally? What of the massive civil wars that plagued most of the first century BC, the very chaos that led to the collapse of the republic and its replacement by the authoritarian imperial rule to which Fontaine alludes? “Still at peace” implies that it had been at peace internally throughout, which could not be further from the truth.