The Rise and Rise of Rome


Review of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, by Mary Beard

New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

There are many ways to write the history of ancient Rome.  In part, this is an expression of the sheer varieties of modern historical inquiry.  In part, too, it results from the great abundance of the evidence for Roman history.  Many tens of millions of words of literary texts survive, in multiple languages, as well as an extraordinary body of both public texts on permanent media—everything from epitaphs and building dedications on stone to laws inscribed on sheets of bronze, and private texts of a more ephemeral kind, including letters on papyrus and prepared wax, as well as laundry lists on broken pieces of pottery. To all this must be added the results of archaeological investigation, which continuously expand, not simply because more and more sites, and a greater variety of kinds of sites, undergo excavation, but also because the science brought to bear on the remains is of greater sophistication.  We can now know a great deal about the food that humans in any given community consumed; the species of animal they raised and sacrificed; and the plants that the humans and other animals digested.

The fecundity of Roman history as a field of study results also from the duration and expanse of the empire itself.  Stretching from Scotland to the Euphrates, and from there west to the Atlantic coast of Africa, the Roman Empire demands and rewards capacious vision.  What is more, the Romans gradually awarded Roman citizenship to more and more of their subjects until, in 212 CE, the emperor Caracalla extended citizenship to all free persons residing in the empire.  A startling consequence of this act was that, in later antiquity, as the empire fragmented, a number of states that we might term "post-Roman" or even "Byzantine" could and did claim to be inhabited by Romans living in deep historical accord with Roman customs.  In this way, a curious preoccupation of Roman literature in the first century BCE, namely, that Roman sovereignty might be transferred elsewhere than the city of Rome itself, was realized not in consequence of violent transformation or political rupture, but as an outgrowth of Roman success in spreading its political culture and reduplicating its institutions across the expanse of empire.  Edward Gibbon's claim that Roman history ended with the loss of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 is perhaps the most famous expression of this truth in modern historical research.

Ghostly memories of the unity created by Roman imperial action have established important horizons for European imagination ever since.  An important trope in this discourse was established already in the second century BCE by the Greek historian Polybius.  An important politician in a confederacy of Greek cities that resisted Roman hegemony, Polybius was taken to Rome as a hostage and there became an intimate of numerous leading Romans of the day.  He then wrote an extraordinary history to explain to the world, but especially to his fellow Greeks, how in a span of but fifty-three years (as he saw it) Rome had progressed beyond the bounds of Italy to rulership over the world.  To this transformation he gave an essential gloss:  before that time, world history had been chaotic, unintelligible and disharmonious; in consequence of Roman power, history had tended toward unity and harmony.

The modern disciplines of Classics and ancient history are themselves the products of blinders such as were crafted by authors like Polybius.  It suited Greeks and Romans to engage in acts of circumspect mutual recognition, and thereby to exclude from the realms of politics, public memory and cultural production the non-Greek and non-Latin cultures of the ancient Mediterranean.  Classics and ancient history sometimes define themselves as area studies, whose boundaries are geographic and political rather than moral, religious and aesthetic.  In point of fact, the Roman Empire included numerous peoples speaking "non-classical" languages, who occupied the same space and time as did the objects of traditional ancient historical study.  What is more, the erasure of such peoples from European historical memory, in favor of unity and empire, mirrors an earlier act of erasure, namely, the loss of the extraordinary linguistic and cultural diversity of Italy.  When Polybius took the Romans' departure from Italy as his starting point, he largely took as natural the unity under Roman rule of Italy below the Apennines, though it had taken centuries of warfare to achieve and would issue in a last, horrific conflagration of violence decades after the death of Polybius.  The Florentine historian Leonardo Bruni commemorated this fact when he left a 700-year silence in his narrative, between the Roman conquest of Etruria and the collapse of Roman power in Italy:  under an imperial power, the oppressed people of Tuscany could have no history.  Or one might cite Saint Augustine's qualified praise of the advance in human sociability enabled by the spread of Latin as universal language:  it was a good, to be sure, but it was also the product of empire.  And so he asked, at what cost of blood and suffering had it been achieved?

It should therefore be clear that ancient history involves enormous difficulties at the level of method, and writing the history of Rome requires deeply meaningful acts of selection; and furthermore, the resulting pressures often cross-cut one another.  Where method is concerned, the sheer variety of kinds of sources, and the conditions under which they reach us, pose extraordinary challenges to aggregation.  The materials of ancient history are so hard-won—are often so difficult of access—that the desire simply to use them or, one might say, to assimilate them to one another in some grand narrative, is nearly irresistible.  But can archaeological data—dining assemblages, or faunal remains—be readily situated in historical and causal relation to diplomatic or legal instruments, which record the formal resolution to the ephemeral public and private disputes of the day?  Are they part of the same story?  What politics, what security of knowledge of law, what problems of language, shall we adduce to explain the difference between legal norms as articulated by academic jurists in Rome itself and legal practice as it emerges from private documents in the sands of Egypt or the Judaean desert?  And besides, as I have emphasized, no history of Rome can take all this on board.  One must choose, and all choices bring some peoples and issues forward into history and relegate others to silence.

Mary Beard needs scarcely any introduction as an historian of Greco-Roman antiquity.  Professor in the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, editor of Classics for the Times Literary Supplement, writer of a popular blog and host of several splendid series for the BBC, she has done extraordinary work introducing the substance and practice of ancient history to the world.  She is also a writer of remarkable intelligence and precision.  Beard has now authored a one-volume history of Rome.  What choices has she made, and what stories find voice in her work?

Although these questions can be posed in absolute terms, it might be helpful to know that Beard is as responsible as any historian working today for affirming two fundamental claims about method in ancient history.  First, Beard has insisted that ancient sources must be assessed first as sources for the context in which they were produced and not, that is, mined for data about the contexts they purport to describe.  A text produced under the emperor Augustus at the turn of the millennium can therefore not be mined for nuggets of information about Rome 700 years earlier, until we have understood the political, cultural and epistemic conditions under which the text was written and the landscape in which it intervened.  Second, Beard insists on casting a similarly critical eye on modern scholarly literatures:  what notion of the classical, she has asked, was at work in any given act of scholarly recuperation or reconstruction of the ancient world?

In light of these reflections, Beard's History seems to me in some respects an oddity.  Chronologically, it extends from the foundation period to the universalization of Roman citizenship by Caracalla.  But a surprising portion of the narrative—a full third—treats periods about which the Romans confessed themselves nearly wholly ignorant.  To be sure, such confessions are embedded in elaborate narratives produced in spite of that ignorance.  What is more, SPQR opens with scrupled reflections on the interested nature of those narratives.  But the simple fact of the matter is that, the more one studies Roman narratives of early Rome, the more they appear calques on Greek histories, or, one might say, local versions of an Athenian metanarrative of very considerable power.  In this standard story, early states are ruled by kings; royal bad behavior leads to a rupture and the foundation of some form of democratic rule; the limits of popular sovereignty are contested and consolidated.

Roman dependence on Greece for the form of their historical self-consciousness in this regard is flagged by two types of evidence:  their insistence on synchronisms in Roman and Athenian history (i.e., their insistence that Rome threw off royal rule in the very same year that Athens did); and the embedding in Roman history of narratives of cultural interaction in the form of embassies.  That is to say, being trained by the priorities of their education to see certain patterns of similarity and difference between themselves and famous Greek cities, the Romans explained these not by reference to matrices of power relations or long-lasting networks of trade and interaction, but by insisting on ad hoc moments of culture transfer (or rejection), carried out by embassies and historical personalities of great moment.

As regards method, I might have expected Beard to dispense with the encrusted narrative forms of ancient literature in favor of a more modern analysis.  As regards politics, the emphasis on early (unknowable) Rome surprises:  it seems to me to hearken to a sense that to know a "people," one must know seek out its earlier, purest form.

The rest of the volume interweaves a narrative focused on Rome as center of power and, consequently, also of both the production and consumption of culture, and social-historical glances out and down:  to the classes of persons excluded from politics as the Romans and Greeks conceived it, and to the wider Roman world that Roman imperial action had created.  These are often marvelous to read.  The breadth of Beard's knowledge of even very recent discoveries is remarkable, and her ability to reveal important features of ancient life via minute observation is enviable.

Although the volume is long, it is very easy to read. One therefore ends with regret.  Beard opens with the claim that "Ancient Rome is important."  By ending with Caracalla, and by enforcing disciplined acts of selection, Beard left this reader longing for more detailed accounts of those features of Roman life that long determined Rome's "importance":  the story of the law, for example, or an evocation of monumental architecture in the provinces, or of how the Roman empire as political form was understood and evoked—those features of its history that enabled Gibbon to name it, with misgivings, "a polite and powerful empire."  This is nevertheless a very splendid book, as Beard is a superb guide to world of ancient Rome.

Posted on 29 February 2016

CLIFFORD ANDO is David B. and Clara E. Stern Professor and Professor of Classics, History and Law and in the College at University of Chicago; and Research Fellow, Department of Biblical and Ancient Studies, University of South Africa. He is the author most recently of Imperial Rome AD 193 to 284: The Critical Century, (Edinburgh University Press, 2012) and Roman Social Imaginaries: Language and Thought in the Context of Empire, (University of Toronto Press, 2015).