Ancient Rome is important, Mary Beard tells us at the start of “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” (Liveright, $35), her smart and exuberant survey of the first millennium of Roman history. “Rome still helps us to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
Don’t be put off if you heard something like this in a high school or college history class: this isn’t a grim march of names and dates. Beard, a celebrated Cambridge don, makes the Romans seem fresh, strange and up to date, almost our near contemporaries, not ghosts who haunt crumbling ruins. Her Romans speak with a resonant shout, not a muffled whisper.
In a little more than 500 pages, Beard covers Rome’s mythical founding by brothers Romulus and Remus (c. 753 BCE); the growth and expansion of its republic as it turned into a mighty empire; the fractious political debates, ones that resonate in our time, over how states should rule; and the rise of its legendary emperors.
Beard has a wonderful feel for all aspects of Roman society — its literature, its language and its daily life. She pays equal attention to the careers of leading citizens — such as wily orator Cicero, a favorite of Beard’s — and to common men and women (and slaves). If some facts of Roman history are hard to verify, at nearly every turn Beard steps back to ask, “How can we know this?”
She’s quite confident we can know a great deal about the Romans, pointing to the bounty of written testimony and physical evidence — speeches, inscriptions, coins, ruins, paintings, tombs, jewelry and much else. Recent archaeological finds have yielded much new data about Roman life.
Beard’s title refers to a defining Latin catchphrase: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, “the Senate and People of Rome.” The origins of Rome’s republic date to around 590 BCE, and Beard expertly cuts through the mythmaking — the Romans were forever revising their history — to describe the jostling between consuls, who controlled the military; the senate, which tended to law and security, and the plebeians, ordinary citizens (i.e., men; women and slaves were excluded) over the meanings of libertas, or freedom.
As Beard reminds us, it is pointless to measure ancient Rome against a democratic metric: “Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy,” she writes. “All, or most, Romans would have counted themselves as upholders of libertas, just as today most of us uphold ‘democracy.’” They continued to debate the terms of freedom in a series of bloody civil wars, even as the republic conquered more and more territory far from the center of power. The 40-plus-year reign of Augustus consolidated the transformation of the republic into a full blown empire that stretched some 2 million square miles, from Spain into the Middle East.
Beard offers popular history at its best — inviting, eager, always pushing the reader to ponder a larger point or a new perspective. Tom Holland’s “Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar” (Doubleday, $30) is also aimed at a wide audience, but if Beard manages to balance serious thinking with a light touch, Holland pulls out all the stops. This is Roman history as a garish B-movie.
Though his bibliography lists numerous academic sources, he opts for a heavy-breathing narrative that sometimes crosses into pornography. Starting with Julius Caesar’s murder in 44 BCE, Holland conjures the world of the five emperors — Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero — who have, in large part, dominated our image of Roman history. In 27 BCE, Augustus inaugurated a reign whose complex nature historians still debate — was he a pitiless tyrant or an enlightened autocrat?
“Like the model of a father, he had chided, guided and loved the Roman people. License had been tamed. Effeminacy and adultery had been reigned in,” Holland writes of this central figure. (Beard’s pages on Augustan rule are must reading: “He was one of the most radical innovators Rome ever saw.”) If Augustus was a stern father, his successors were more like crazy (if not depraved) uncles. Holland revels in the bed-hopping, incest and decadence that followed with the eccentric Tiberius and the infamous Caligula. By the end of “Dynasty,” you might need a strong drink. My choice? Stay sober and stick with Beard.