Monday, March 01, 2021

Plague Books: Rome on the Range

 SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, Livewright Publishing, A division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015

Provenance: This has been my doorstop book for several years now. Bought it at Half-Price up in Redmond on a whim because the author had been publicly quoted somewhere as expert on the subject (she is). I started it, stopped it, started it again, let it occupy my shelf of abandoned books, read it along with ANOTHER book on Rome, finished the other book, abandoned this book again, actually WENT to Italy, picked up this book again, and finished it a year after that. So it has been a long journey. So I have thoughts.

Review: Hey, let's summarize a thousand years of history in a single volume. Yeah, that will be easy! We're talking about the history of Rome from about 753 BC to 212 AD, a point where citizenship is extended to all free inhabitants of the Empire.

What is SPQR? It stands for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus - the Senate and People of Rome. Which is interesting because one of the things about Rome's expansion is that it continued to expand the definition of "People of Rome" throughout its history. As it conquered and absorbed its neighbors, it incorporated them within their political systems. Historically, this was not always the way. The Vikings in Ireland and Russia ruled but didn't have a significant cultural impact on the ruled. The European Powers in America or the ancient Greek colonies in the Med were very much about moving large amounts of their own population in. The Romans swallowed other nations and peoples whole, and eventually elevated them to powers within their own spheres. Not quite equality - the folk in charge were an oligarchy, but even that oligarchy expanded over time. And the people who were already citizens were often against further enfranchisement. But it is an interesting version of colonialism.

Rome's Republic in part fell apart, in part, because of their own success. The Roman plan of absorbing other peoples into their nation "Hey, you're now Roman! And your gods? They're just different versions of our gods! Expansion brought in huge groups, who then had to be mostly managed, both at home and abroad. The advancing legions had to be paid, often with retirement land in the new territories (which was not always appreciated by the original inhabitants). And keeping the mobs happy in Rome? Yeah, that put grain-producing Egypt as the equivalent of Middle-Eastern oil in the geopolitical consideration.  

The distance of time gives us difficulty with original sources when talking about the Roman Republic. Beard opens with Cicero, once a staple in "Western Education", about halfway through the Roman Millennium (63 BCE). Why is Cicero still important to us moderns? Because he was a first-person account (though obviously biased) of the life and times towards the end of the Republic. And we have a lot of his words because he published his speeches, so that copies of the copies of his words have survived down to this day. Other than writers like him, we are pretty much confined to stone as information source - carvings, inscriptions, and the occasional graffiti. Sort of like trying to sort out the American Civil War only through gravestones - doable, but you know it is not the full story.

Even by Cicero's time, Rome has a bunch of conflicting origin stories. The mythical approach stars Romulus and Remus, a Cain and Abel story with a wolf-mother. But there is also Aeneas,who tied the Roman people to the Trojans at a time when they loomed large over the Greeks. There is a semi-historical record of the "Twelve Kings", the bad-old-times before the Republic took hold. And there's the archaeological record, who indicates that the area was originally dominated by the Etruscans,a once-successful and now-mostly-forgotten predecessor nation.

The Romans had an empire before they had a emperor. They did most of their expansion before they hit Julius Caesar and his lot. What Beard makes clear is that while the Romans professed a hatred of monarchs, its Republic was a rough affair, with powerful individuals commanding mobs (and later armies) to influence governance. One particular incident in 133 BCE involved a mob led by a faction of the Roman Priests which attacked a group delivering the votes for the tribunes and killed reformer Tiberius Gracchus with a table leg (not that we moderns would do anything that barbaric). 

The fall of the Republic was a relatively slow, bumpy process. Powerful oligarchs sought more individual power. Power came to reside within different factions of the army, which were then turned against each other. Attempts to consolidate power in the hands of a few trinities collapsed, and out of the continual conflict, a single strong figure emerged who would bring stability. Julius never claimed to be emperor, but quietly sucked up positions of power such that his successor Augustus moved in easily.

But even during the emperors our history is slanted. "Good" emperors were often simply followed by those with personal connections that wanted to declare their predecessors good, while "Bad" emperors were followed by rulers wanting to put some distance between themselves and previous administrations. But when looking at the health of the Empire as a whole, things ran on fairly well regardless of who was in charge. Until it didn't.

Large, engaging, accessible, and readable, SPQR sent me down some passageways and thought processes that I had not considered previously, some obvious and some more refined. SPQR is a great overview of a Rome that neither was built or was destroyed in a day, but rather evolved from one state to another, often as a result of its own growing power, until at last the ability to hold that power crumbled.

More later,