SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Ancient Rome was a village that grew into a world empire. At the peak of its territorial reach, AD 117, it stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia and from the Rhine to the Sahara. Its history spans more than a millennium. Before the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century, Romans enjoyed a standard of living not seen again in the West until the mid-nineteenth century. They had flush toilets, granite countertops, indoor heating, and even cosmetic dentistry. The government that safeguarded this way of life styled itself Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “the Senate and the People of Rome.” An advertisement for the link between Rome’s citizens and its elected leaders, the abbreviation “SPQR” was proudly displayed everywhere.
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. Engineering, literature, philosophy, theater, and the arts flowered; with lasting effects, Romans crucified Jesus and destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple. The events and personalities that populated this age are Rome’s most famous.
Historians usually justify the decision to write a new account of familiar events by emphasizing the discovery of sources that challenge or clarify the conventional understanding. That is not the case with SPQR, Mary Beard’s retelling of Roman history from its origins through the end of the classical period. What makes Beard’s effort so compelling nonetheless is the contemporary, politically charged idiom in which the Cambridge don recasts an old story. SPQR is a translation of Roman history into the English of today—into the phrases and patterns of thought that we absorb from mass media and that bring order and meaning to our lives—and Beard’s genius is in using this idiom alone, rather than outright comparison, to suggest ancient parallels with the politics and controversies of the twenty-first century. Her book thus offers insights into not only Rome’s history but also the challenges of the present.
Take Beard’s treatment of Romulus, Rome’s legendary first king. When his mother, a virgin priestess, first became pregnant, she accused Mars, the Roman god of war, of raping her. When Romulus and his twin brother, Remus, were born, their great-uncle, who had seized the throne from the boys’ grandfather and feared that they would grow up to threaten his hold on power, sent government agents to kidnap them and then abandon them in a reed basket in the Tiber River. But the government men botched their job: rather than dying, the twins were soon discovered by a she-wolf, who suckled them back to health. According to legend, Romulus went on to found Rome, establish its government, and, on his death, ascend into heaven.
Beard’s retelling does more than just conjure up the obvious biblical parallels with the Virgin Birth, Moses’ reed basket, and the Ascension. It evokes contemporary concerns, such as contentious accusations of rape (Beard uses that term rather than the euphemisms, such as “abduction” or “seduction,” preferred by some historians of Rome) and the incompetence of government officials. By describing the layers of telling and retelling in Roman sources that obscure the details of the Romulus story, Beard adopts a detachment from her subject that invites readers to share her skepticism. And when she points out that even many Romans disbelieved their city’s founding myths, she makes us wonder whether we today are any savvier than the men and women who lived two millennia ago.
Or consider the emperor Augustus’ clever use of institutional reforms toward the end of the first century BC to disempower potential rivals in the military and the Senate. Beard’s telling evokes the dangerous consequences of U.S. military interventions in the Middle East. “As is often the case in regime change,” she writes, “the new guard is more or less forced to rely on a carefully reformed version of the old guard, or—as we have seen in recent history—anarchy can result.” Beard does not need to explicitly mention Iraq or Libya to make her point.
Nor does she need to reference today’s U.S. Congress to make readers appreciate the subservience of a Roman senator who, when asked to vote on a matter in an open ballot by the emperor Tiberius, responded, “Could you tell me in what order you will cast your vote, Caesar? If you go first I shall have something to follow. If you go last of all, I fear I might find myself inadvertently on the wrong side.” The anecdote can’t help but make one think of the servility of some members of the U.S. Congress to powerful special interests such as the National Rifle Association. In similar ways, Beard’s discussion of the debate over 4,000 “stateless” sons of Roman soldiers and Spanish women in 171 BC conjures up the rancor surrounding so-called anchor babies today, and contemporary arguments about undocumented immigration lurk just beneath the surface of her discussion of a speech that Marcus Tullius Cicero gave in 62 BC to defend the right of Archias, an ethnic Greek, to Roman citizenship. We even hear echoes of the frequent denunciation of so-called political correctness by today’s conservatives in comments made by Cato the Younger the year before Cicero’s speech, in 63 BC. “Long ago we lost the real names of things,” Cato warned. “Giving away other people’s money is called ‘generosity.’ Flagrant misbehavior is called ‘courage.’ We’ve reached the tipping point and it’s killing our country.”
There is plenty to learn from the Romans—if we have the courage to entertain the possibility.
Not all of SPQR’s contemporary resonances relate to U.S. politics. Beard sees Rome’s early kings as warlords, foreign delegations to Rome’s imperial administration as ethnic lobbies, triumvirates as juntas, Rome’s masses as its “99 percent,” and the destruction of Cicero’s house by his enemy Clodius in 58 BC as a retributive demolition. She even writes about crimes against humanity—a category in which she includes the atrocities Julius Caesar committed during his conquest of Gaul.
Beard has written a kind of history as irony that makes comparisons between Roman and modern politics inevitable. Nowhere is this clearer than in when she chooses to start and end her narrative. Although Rome’s origins date to the eighth century BC, Beard begins SPQR in 63 BC, with Cicero—an Obama-like political outsider (he was the first in his family to achieve high office and was born in the provinces) with an Obama-like gift for rhetoric. That was the year Cicero took office as consul of Rome—a political position that resembled the U.S. presidency—and then discovered a terrorist plot to assassinate him and his co-consul and burn down the city. Relying on the word of informers, Cicero arrested a group of young men who admitted their involvement in the conspiracy. But despite the arrests, Rome was gripped by panic: no one knew how far the conspiracy extended, and its leader, Catiline, managed to slip away and joined his paramilitary supporters in Tuscany.
These events left Rome’s government in a bind. The conspirators had confessed, and there was evidence of their guilt, but because they had been stopped before they could carry out their plan, it wasn’t clear what should be done to them. Under Roman law, they were entitled to a trial, but with an unknown number of their coconspirators still at large, there seemed to be no time for such niceties. The Senate met to discuss its options; the ensuing debate is what Rome’s greatest historian, Sallust, later made the centerpiece of his account of the episode. “In the case of other offences,” thundered Cato the Younger, in the same speech in which he denounced his contemporaries’ tendency toward euphemism, “you can proceed against them after they have been committed; with this, unless you make sure it doesn’t happen, there’s no point appealing to the laws after it’s happened. Once a city has been taken, nothing is left to the vanquished.” The thing to do, Cato suggested, was to execute the plotters immediately; that was the best way for Rome to project strength and persuade the other conspirators to give up and go home. The problem with Cato’s idea, however, was that it was illegal.
If his argument nonetheless sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Days before the first anniversary of 9/11, Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser to U.S. President George W. Bush, appeared on television to sell the idea of invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. “The problem here,” she mused on CNN, “is that there will always be some uncertainty about how quickly [Saddam] can acquire nuclear weapons. But we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud.” Just like Cato’s, her implication was clear: speedy preemptive action was the only way to prevent an irreparable catastrophe.
Caesar, then a senator, answered Cato’s proposal with an objection that should be equally familiar. “Many mortals remember only what comes last, and in the case of heinous individuals, they forget their crime and talk only of the punishment they have received, if it was a little too severe,” he said—lines that echo the argument against torture made by U.S. Senator John McCain in 2005. “Prisoner abuses . . . inevitably become public,” McCain wrote, “and when they do they threaten our moral standing, and expose us to false but widely disseminated charges that democracies are no more inherently idealistic and moral than other regimes.”
Beard’s endpoint, in the third century AD, is also arresting. In 212, only around 20 percent of the free inhabitants of the Roman Empire were citizens. That year, the 24-year-old emperor Caracalla unilaterally granted citizenship to all those free subjects who had not yet received it—without asking old-stock Romans how they felt about the extension. Two decades later, Rome descended into a half century of economic depression, violence, and political anarchy that historians call “the crisis of the third century,” an upheaval that ended when the warlord Diocletian defeated his rivals and imposed a new and Orwellian political order on Rome. Because Beard alludes to this aftermath only briefly, it is impossible to know whether she considers it related to Caracalla’s decision. Yet the connections among immigration reform, prosperity, and stability are no less relevant today, and it is presumably these dynamics that Beard wants readers to consider.
In light of ancient Rome’s enormous influence on the development of European political and cultural thought in the centuries that followed its collapse, the study of Roman history can reveal much about the underpinnings of today’s West. It should come as no surprise, then, that in SPQR’s conclusion, Beard writes that “we have an enormous amount to learn—as much about ourselves as about the past—by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments.” Yet Beard’s disclaimer in the same passage, that “I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans,” should be judged more critically. It is true that the distance between the material and social conditions of ancient Rome and those of the modern West is enormous: ancient Romans, for example, no more contemplated abolishing slavery or enfranchising women than most twenty-first-century Americans contemplate abolishing marriage. But the outsize extent to which republican Rome’s political system served as a model for that of the United States nevertheless allows for the application of lessons from Roman history to the challenges of the present.
The founders envisioned the young United States as an heir to the Roman Republic, and the United States’ system of checks and balances; its freedoms of conscience, divorce, and speech; its competitive elections; its rule of law; and its enshrinement of peaceful transitions of power are all partly descended from the Roman example. Like the Roman Republic did, the United States governs overseas territories through republican institutions; like Rome, as e pluribus unum, the Latin motto on the U.S. dollar bill, suggests, Washington prefers national unity to imperial diversity, encouraging assimilation by choice. Such features are relatively uncommon in world history, and it is even more unusual to find them in a single country. From this point of view, the United States is more like republican Rome than it is like many of the past century’s authoritarian states.
Beard sees Rome’s early kings as warlords, foreign delegations to Rome’s imperial administration as ethnic lobbies, triumvirates as juntas, and Rome’s masses as its “99 percent.”
Like the contemporary United States, Rome was made up of a culturally and ethnically diverse population, and like some Americans today, some prominent Romans doubted the loyalty of certain minority groups. In the year 111, for instance, Pliny the Younger, then the governor of Bithynia, a Roman province in northwestern Anatolia, encountered the adherents of a strange and relatively new religion called Christianity, then still illegal under Roman law. Pliny felt bound to subject the Christians to loyalty trials, and he wrote a letter to the emperor Trajan asking whether the ad hoc procedures he had adopted, among them making use of an anonymously provided list of alleged local Christians, were acceptable. The emperor’s reply was remarkable. The Christians “must not be hunted out,” he wrote. “If they are brought before your court and the case against them is proved, they must be punished. . . . But anonymous lists must not have any place in the court proceedings. That would set a terrible precedent. It’s un-Roman.” Despite Rome’s official intolerance of Christianity, Trajan’s lesson is worth remembering: strong state values can be invoked to avoid setting particularly disastrous precedents in the treatment of marginalized minority groups. Nor is this the only lesson that Roman history offers the present. Rome’s difficult campaign against the North African kingdom of Numidia in the second century BC illustrates that protracted wars against distant, poorly understood enemies often bring military victories with crippling costs in blood, treasure, morale, and military overexpansion. The aftermath of Rome’s final victory over Carthage, in 146 BC is a reminder of the challenges of hegemony in a newly unipolar world: in Rome, domestic strife filled the void opened up by the disappearance of an external enemy, and minor threats took on the appearance of existential dangers. And the emperor Theodosius’ decree of AD 380, which required all Roman subjects to believe in the Christian Trinity and led inevitably to the persecution of religious dissidents, should remind us to be wary of politicians who seek to prohibit the expression of an unpopular belief or mandate the acceptance of a popular one.
There is in fact plenty to learn from the Romans—if we have the courage to entertain the possibility. Viewed in this light, SPQR is a broad introduction to the best thousand years of Roman history that proves why, as Beard writes on its first page, “Rome is important”—and reminds us why it is particularly important now.