Monday, 5 October 2020

Book review: SPQR, Mary Beard (2016)

I bought this volume at Gleebooks for the recommended retail price. I like the minimalist cover design, one which points to the subject matter in a way that consciously borrows visual elements from the culture of the society the book promises to examine. Roman letters and twinned laurel branches are a fitting way to both acknowledge the high regard in which Beard is held by her peers and to accurately reflect the importance, to the community that harbours potential readers, of the Romans. Less is best, and according to the evidence – the books contains images showing the much-vaunted “warts and all” Roman approach to representation and ornament – it is most suitable for a cover of a book of this nature. 

The acronym stands for the Latin for “the senate and the people of Rome”. Merely to utter that syllable (“Rome” rhymes with “home”) enables you to evoke so many ancillary things, and Beard is conscious of this. She starts the book with an anecdote but other than that for most of the time concentrates not on individuals but on the Roman community more broadly. 

If anything the narrative tends toward the impersonal. In the first two-thirds of the book politics is its main focus though Beard makes a concession by inserting chapters on the family, women, and slaves. She gets onto literature in detail only at about page 450 but, even then, concentrates only on animal stories. The vast bulk of the literary output of Romans – either of the republican era or the time of empire – is passed over unacknowledged.

So the book’s contents match the cover but you are as a consequence made to feel slightly alienated from the story being told. I would’ve preferred more intimate glimpses of daily life and of the recorded meanderings of the minds of men and women alive at the time. It’s arguably more fun and informative to watch an episode of ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ than to watch ‘A Current Affair’. Beard is best when explaining the reasons for the successes of republican Rome. 

The relationship between the Roman people and their leaders, and between the polis and the people’s deities, is not so well articulated. This might be the reason why, when the time comes in the final century BC for the Roman people to transition from a republic to a system of government with a sole individual at the head of the administration, Beard has so many unanswered questions. The idea of a man who is the son of a god obviously has strong echoes in relation to the modern-day West, and it cannot have been an accident that both things – the birth of Christ and the appearance of the first Roman emperor – happened at the same chronological moment. 

It’s striking to me that, though I’ve been alive for almost 60 years, no-one made such a link in my hearing, nor in any of the tens of thousands of books and magazine articles or news stories that I’ve read since I started to read independently when I was about 12 years old. Is it not obvious to anyone else? The fact hit me with such force when it first came to my attention that, for a while, I could think of nothing else, and it was the big take-away for me from the book.

Which promises to be the first of many that I’ll read in order to find out more. Because Rome was ascendant such a long time ago, and because of its centrality to my own culture, it is arguably more rewarding to read about how people living in other societies related to Rome, than about Rome itself. Of course, if you want to understand what someone like the 18th century naturalist Joseph Banks or the 16th century scholar Erasmus thought of Rome, you’d better also know something about Rome yourself.


The lack of information from Beard about the Roman pantheon is, for me, this book’s major failing, and I also feel a bit let down by her making little of classical Roman literature. She notes that the available volume of textual material pre-empire is relatively low, though, at other times, she uses the merest hints found in the record to try to make her case, with regard to literature she doesn’t use much detail.

She makes solid sense of a large quantity of material and strings together a compelling story that coheres so that someone living in the 21st century can mostly make sense of it. One thing she fails to do is explain the early Romans’ constant military campaigning. She hints at a potential cause – the need to conquer nearby communities and secure their obedience in order to stop predatory raiding – but doesn’t explore far enough either to confirm it as the reason for Roman expansion in the early years or to rule it out in the reader’s mind. 

She does enable you to understand the benefits and strengths of the Roman method, notably the fact that people in satellite communities could become Roman citizens and that, under the republican model of government, the pool of candidates for leadership positions was wider than the traditional collection of established families. In fact, the extension of this right sits near the start of the story, at the point where republicanism was first practiced, in the 5th century BC. 

For about 500 years Rome survived as a republic but then (Beard tries to explain), due to geographical expansion, the political system was unable to ensure peace. It also failed to enable the proper running of such a vast empire. If anything, the administrative apparatus required to run it was better-developed under the emperors than it had been under the senate.

At around the time of Christ’s birth voting was abandoned although the emperor took pains to maintain the old structures. Instead of giving himself the despised title of “king” he arrogated to himself the powers, for example, of the consuls which, in the republican period, had belonged to elected officials. And he was, as Beard notes, consciously assuming for himself the guise of a god on earth. In fact, at least one predecessor of Julius Caesar, the first emperor, did the same.

If her book has one overall failing – apart from the ones already mentioned – it is that Beard uses qualifying linguistic formulas a tad overmuch. It’s usually “may” or “could” rather than something more definite. I can’t work out if this is due to the fact that she’s been unable to make the imaginative leap required to put herself in the shoes of the people she’s writing about, for certainly the Romans were different from us. Perhaps focusing more on the fiction produced at the time might’ve helped her to make that leap. Or perhaps if she was on top of the religion …

Her unwillingness to commit in such cases might also be due to the fact that there are so many viewpoints for any single event, with generations – nay, centuries – of historians writing about Rome, each of whom has had his or her own view about it. This problem becomes more noticeable at the end of the book, perhaps because at this point Beard feels the need to summarise her findings.

I was a bit alarmed by her reliance on a strongly Latinate vocabulary – something that, in my case, militates against comprehension, though her language is adequate for the task. A reluctance to delve too far was also, for me, a barrier to understanding – personal stories do more than increase the refinement of details available to the reader, they also enhance recall because when our emotions are engaged we remember details more faithfully – but at least now that I’ve felt the benefit of reading about ancient Rome, no doubt other, similar book reviews will follow this one.

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