SPQR; A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. W.W. Norton, 2016, paper.


Mary Beard has written a history of Rome in its first millennium, roughly from the legendary Romulus and the period of the kings to 212 CE and the Emperor Caracalla’s granting citizenship to all free men. The Romulus legend became the founding story of this village on the Tiber in Latium in central Italy that became Rome. In addition to describing the evolution of Rome’s political institutions, Beard devotes more attention to those often ignored by historians of Rome: women, slaves, and ex-slaves.


Roman women had greater independence than elsewhere in the ancient world. They did not take their husband’s names or fall entirely under their husband’s legal authority. Women were betrothed in their early teens and often died young in child birth. Woe to the women who failed to produce a male heir.


Slaves were frequently freed but often continued to serve in the households of their former masters. Many were educated and could speak both Latin and Greek, hence valuable assets in a Roman household.


Beard’s histories of the early “kings of Rome” from the sixth century BCE are perhaps the most unfamiliar. They were, she suggests, a succession of strongmen. Their power was usually based on their command of armed private militias. The successions to the “throne” were never well established in the regal period. Looking like it was ‘pasted into the Roman constitution,’ kingship may have been borrowed from the Etruscans, next door.


Perhaps the most remarkable political institution was the Roman Senate that dominated the age of kings as it would the republic. The Senate varied in size, according to Beard, from around 300 to 600, mostly drawn from the patrician class although it included representatives of the plebian class as well.


There was provision in the Roman constitution for what is called a dictator, what Romans knew as a magister populi. A dictator was entrusted with the authority of the Roman state to deal with some threat, usually military, or to accomplish some specific program. The appointment of a dictator was recommended by the Senate and the appointment made by the reigning consuls. His powers were nearly absolute. He was required to resign his office when the situation that had led to his appointment was somehow resolved – or after six months. Julius Caesar was the last dictator; the office was abolished after his assassination.


Beard’s account gives the reader some idea of this evolutionary nature of Roman office where there was no written constitution but only traditions and the various reforms of those ancient offices. The Romans never quite exorcised the use of armed violence from the workings of their political institutions.


Rome’s empire, according to Beard, emerged without any particular plan of action but rather as a result of having to deal with military threats to Rome or to its allies. Moreover, Roman political institutions were never imposed on the various territories absorbed into the Roman state, so long as those provincials did not interfere with the authority of the governors and proconsuls appointed to administer them. There was even provision for the trial of a Roman official charged with extortion or dereliction of duty.


Most of us know a bit about the Roman administrative structure and the frequent ill-will that it earned from New Testament accounts. Christianity was a relatively minor religious sect that thrived amongst the Jewish diaspora. Beard calls the conflict between Rome and these early followers of a Galilean named Jesus “the Christian Troubles.” Jews, on the other hand, were able to prosper within the Empire while keeping to their religion and its practices. Rome was not a “melting pot,” but the regime was broadly tolerant of its religious diversity.


Reading Mary Beard’s history of ancient Rome, one is struck by the frequency of its internal conflicts and civil wars, often but not always led by commanders of legions. Perhaps the most famous civil wars were the ‘slave wars’ and the most famous a revolt that began in 73 BCE, led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator. The slaves were joined by Roman citizens, including many ex-slaves. This particular war was not, Mary Beard insists, an attempt to end slavery in the Republic.


How did one acquire power in the Roman state if one were not a general or an armed slave?  As is often the case it was being in the right place at the right time. But it was also the result of a gradual accumulation of honors and titles, useful associations, and sufficient political instincts to avoid antagonizing men of power on your way up.


Wealth was all important to participation in Roman politics, and the rich are getting richer in both the republican and imperial periods. Still it is also true that despite this importance of wealth, there were opportunities for upward social mobility, in Rome and in important regional capitals such as Alexandria, Ravenna, Pergamum, and Constantinople. Our political life pays homage to Rome, and it resides in civic architecture also inspired by the Roman Empire’s columned halls.


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