With two reviews of books written by lively British authors fixated on Cicero published in the last ten days, I here offer a link to one of Robert Harris's political thriller DICTATOR which appeared in last week's GUARDIAN and a pre-print of Mary Beard's eagerly anticipated SPQR, the paywalled version of which appears in the current Prospect Magazine.
Roman literary theorists admired writing that plunged readers into the thick of the action—in medias res—rather than boring them with introductory preambles. Mary Beard plunges her reader, from the first page of chapter I, into one of the most familiar but undoubtedly exciting episodes in Roman history. It took place in 63 BCE. The orator and statesman Cicero exposed what he said was a revolutionary conspiracy. It was led by the disaffected aristocrat Catiline, whom Cicero accused of plotting to assassinate all the elected magistrates of Rome, set fire to the city’s buildings, and cancel all debts indiscriminately. Beard writes with her customary energy, charm and intensity, resurrecting the titanic personalities who struggled to control Rome while its Republican constitution was hurled into its agonising final death throes. She uses contemporary terms like ‘homeland security’ to make the unfamiliar accessible. Her ambivalence towards Cicero—brilliant, prolific, brave, eloquent, but vain and obnoxiously self-pitying—is palpable. By the end of the chapter we are primed to take the story forward to the next phase in the demise of the Republic—the assassination of Julius Caesar and the climactic conflict between Mark Antony and Octavian, soon to become Augustus. But Beard chooses instead to disorient us completely.
In chapter II she abruptly transfers us back many centuries to the very beginnings of Rome, or rather its mythical origins in the stories of Romulus and Remus and of the rape of the Sabine women. All except the final two chapters then take a broad historical sweep, structured in a conventional chronological order stretching from archaeological finds dating to as early as 1000 BCE all the way to 212 CE. But the reader inexperienced in the Romans will undoubtedly be confused by the way she begins her transhistorical account.
The sense of chronological disorientation is, I think, a deliberate policy. The version of the early history of Rome which has come down to us was mostly filtered by later Roman writers, both Cicero and authors working under Augustus—Livy, Propertius, Virgil and Ovid. Beard is laudably keen that we see the early history as not only gappy and inconsistent but artfully manipulated to suit the political agendas of these later writers. But the effect is one of confusion, instigated in her very first sentence, ‘Our history of ancient Rome begins in the middle of the first century BCE’. By ‘Our history of Rome’ she intends to mean ‘My history of Rome’, but any Roman history novices will assume her meaning is that ‘The history of Rome’ commences at that date.
Beginners will then spend the next five chapters struggling to assimilate the successive waves of data about the preceding centuries—the kings of Rome, the consolidation of the Republican regime, the widening of Rome’s horizons in the fourth and third centuries BCE, the expansion of the empire, the violent upheavals of the ‘new politics’ at the time of the Gracchi in the late second century down to the tumultuous and terrifying slave revolt led by Spartacus in 73 BCE. ‘We’ do not rejoin Cicero until nearly half-way through Beard’s narrative, in chapter seven, where he is now taking on Verres, the governor of Sicily accused of corruption. But that confrontation preceded Cicero’s denunciations of Catiline, with which ‘we’ had begun ‘our’ history. As a Classics graduate I know some Roman history, but must admit to intermittent bewilderment. I would actually recommend any new recruit to the legions of Roman history enthusiasts to begin on p. 78 with Beard’s enthralling account of the archaeological evidence for early habitations in the Roman area. These include the remains of a two-year-old girl, found in a coffin beneath the forum in a dress decorated with beads; in the 1980s archaeologists unearthed the sort of house she might have lived in north of the city, a small timber edifice with a primitive portico. It contained the remains of the earliest known domestic cat in Italy.
Beard is always at her best breathing life into the material remnants left by the ancient inhabitants of the Roman world, as in her prizewinning 2008 book Pompeii: the Life of a Roman Town. One of her hallmarks is an exceptional ability to remain up-to-date with all the most recent archaeological discoveries, and communicate their contents and significance in a lively and user-friendly manner. The public has been waiting eagerly for SPQR since her engaging BBC documentary series Meet the Romans, broadcast in 2012. The greatest virtue of SPQR is her ability to choose individual objects or texts and tease out from them insights into Roman life and experience—these range from the enigmatic ‘black stone’ found in the forum inscribed with words including ‘KING’, to the Mausoleum of Augustus; they include a relief sculpture depicting a poultry shop, complete with suspended chicken and caged rabbits, and an exquisite figurine of a dancer imported from India. The book contains 26 glossy images and more than a hundred others embedded in the text, every one adding an exciting dimension to her colourful chronicle.
The leading dramatis personae are evoked in stunning pen-portraits. Some challenge received judgements and ask us to assess anew figures we thought we already understood well. She is impressed by Pompey, who ‘has a good claim to be called the first Roman emperor’. She is sceptical about Brutus’s real commitment to Republican ideals. She sensibly refrains from trying to penetrate the assiduously crafted public image of Augustus to the ‘real’ man and husband behind the propaganda, although she admires some of his achievements. There are finely tuned cameos in the tenth chapter’s whistle-stop tour of the fourteen emperors who ruled between the death of Augustus in 14 CE and the assassination in 192 of Commodus (the son of Marcus Aurelius who plays the villain in Ridley Scott’s movie Gladiator). Although there are mercifully few signs of the arch and provocative controversialism for its own sake which used to be her sole irritating characteristic, Beard rightly challenges the tradition of dividing the rulers of the Imperium Romanum into heroes and felons. The tradition, extending back to the ancient annalist Tacitus and biographer Suetonius, was inherited uncritically by Edward Gibbon in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789). Beard pleads, instead, for a less judgemental and more nuanced appraisal of the way that the sensational ancient accounts of the emperors reveal the anxieties and socio-political values of the imperial era. She also emphasises that for many inhabitants of the empire, especially those living in the more farflung territories, the personality of the incumbent of the imperial throne made little difference. This is a wonderful, lucid and thoughtful section of the book and should henceforward be required reading for anyone setting out to study Roman emperors.
There is an attempt at a thematic rather than historically linear approach in one central chapter, ‘The Home Front’, where the discussion of family life and women is compromised by being focussed, yet again, on Cicero, or rather Cicero’s relationships with his wives and daughter. But the two other thematic chapters—the last in the book—are outstanding. Here she abandons the chronological structure altogether and looks at the rich/poor divide and the experience of people living under the Romans but outside Rome. The luxurious lifestyle of the wealthy, not just in Rome but across the empire, was astounding: some owned not one but dozens of sumptuous villas, with central heating and lavish murals, swimming pools and shady grottoes, all serviced by armies of slaves. Some rich people paraded their wealth by indulging in ostentatious feasting and pastimes; others made a point of subsidising public amenities—libraries, theatres, gladiator shows—in order to ward off the dangers posed by the inevitable envy and disgruntlement of the poor. Beard points out, however, that much of the physical unpleasantness of life in ancient urban centres was suffered by rich and poor alike: traffic jams, uncollected refuse, disease, parasites, gangrene-infected water. She has a pitch-perfect ear for class snobbery and the insults poured on the allegedly vulgar newly rich by the educated or aristocratic. She writes movingly about the gravestones of ordinary Romans, artisans and semi-skilled labourers, proudly informing posterity about their expertise and achievements as bakers, butchers, midwives and fabric dyers. She evokes well the squalid cafes and taverns where the poorer urban classes played dice and caroused. Yet she makes us face the reality that the majority of the empire’s 50 million inhabitants would have lived on small peasant farms, struggling to extract much more than a subsistence livelihood from their crops and livestock. There were few changes in agricultural technology or fundamental lifestyle from the Iron Age to medieval times. The letter of Pliny the Younger are a rich source of evidence for the relationship between Roman governors and such ‘ordinary’ people of the provinces, in his case in Bithynia and Pontus; Beard leads us from these into a revealing discussion of the problems Roman governors faced in policing their boundaries of empire (including Hadrian’s Wall) and how they largely tolerated local religious practices and cultural diversity, although Christianity became an exception.
The turbulent showdown between the Illyrian Emperor Diocletian and the martyrdom-hungry Christians in the early fourth century is one of the many fascinating episodes in the history of the Romans which Beard must exclude from her account by deciding to end it in 212 CE. Her logic is impeccable: this was when the Emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a Roman citizen, thus causing 30 million individuals to ‘become legally Roman overnight’. Beard stresses the significance of the erasure of the millennium-long boundary between the rulers and the ruled—the completion of what she calls the Romans’ ‘citizenship project’, from which we can still learn even though it subsequently failed and had always been fundamentally blemished by slavery. Besides the history of Rome as it continued in the third and fourth centuries CE, the element I most miss in this volume is an attempt to get inside the minds of the remarkable ancient Italians in terms of their philosophy and ethics. Beard writes well on priesthoods and public religion, but is little interested in philosophy. Despite her fixation on Cicero, who wrote philosophical treatises, she offers less on the complex thought-world and extraordinary psychological strengths—self-control, resilience, acceptance of uncompromising discipline, fearlessness in the face of death, moral fortitude, high ideas and principles—which many members of this tough and soldierly people drew from their Stoic, Neoplatonic and Epicurean convictions. She is good on Virgil’s Aeneid as a political poem, but has little to say about the earliest surviving Roman epic, Lucretius’ inspirational Epicurean On the Nature of Things. I finished SPQR hoping that we will one day be treated to a Beard book on the inward contours of the Roman psyche.