Have you ever been curious to learn more about the history of the Roman Empire but didn’t know where to begin? It turns out that even history professors have this dilemma.
“Omnium Rerum Principia Parva Sunt” (“The beginnings of all things are small”)
Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University. When she set out to write a history of the Roman Empire she was met with the question: when does the ‘Rome’ of popular history begin? Does it begin with the mythological founding of a village by the river Tiber in the 8th Century B.C? But that is not the ‘Rome’ that we think of: the Rome of disciplined armies marching across Europe and into the Middle East and North Africa, of Roman generals burning great cities to the ground and selling the entire population into slavery, of towering monuments and grand buildings, of gladiators and exotic animals fighting in the Colosseum, or of mad and debauched Emperors.
These and other popular images of Rome are not a single defining version of what Rome was, occurring as they did hundreds of years apart. So, what exactly do we mean when we talk about ‘Rome’? Is ‘Romaness’ based on territory, population, military power, or political systems?
“Deos fortioribus adesse” (“The gods are on the side of the stronger”)
It turns out that his uncertainty is one of the great strengths of SPQR (Senatus PopulisQue Romanus – ‘The Senate and the People of Rome’). In questioning the accuracy and legitimacy of the history of Rome which has been passed down to us, Beard teaches us how to read history. In essence, history is written by the ‘winners’: we must question the accuracy of their version of events and also consider the version of events from the view of the ‘losers’. The truth often lies somewhere in between.
Also, history done well raises many more questions than it initially sets out to answer. Were the Romans a naturally war-mongering people? (Not any more than their Mediterranean rivals). Was the Roman army an unbeatable killing machine? (often, though their occasional defeats were devastating for them). Did they set out to conquer the known world? (Not necessarily, but that’s how things work out sometimes). And what happens then? How exactly do you run an empire comprising millions of former enemies? (A mixture of military strength, canny politics, laws, economic incentives, bribery…and luck). These questions challenge the popular notion of the Roman empire as having somehow burst into existence fully formed and functioning at its peak. We may know the when, but that doesn’t necessarily explain the how and why.
“Si vis pacem, para bellum” (“If you wish for peace, prepare for war”)
Why does Rome continue to fascinate? Is it that we can read direct accounts of daily life in Rome? Is it that so many Roman inventions have come down to us today, from roads to newspapers to concrete to the months of the year? Perhaps, though other ancient civilizations also had their innovations.
No. In essence, the history of the Roman Empire is of exactly that: Empire. Territory. Conquest. That requires big personalities, and the history of Rome is packed with the ‘Big Men’ (and only a couple of women) of history: Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Augustus, Scipio Africanus, Hadrian, Nero. And, just as a superhero is only as good as their enemies: Hannibal, Vercingetorix, Arminius, Cleopatra. There are lots of big battles, daring generals, brave soldiers. And the flip side of these are the devious and scheming politicians, whose behaviour and strategies we can see echoed in present day ‘leaders’.
“Aere Perrinius” (“More lasting than bronze”)
So, whether it’s the culture of ancient Rome, or its architectural and urban innovations, or the minutiae of the Roman army, or the innovative trade and legal frameworks developed in order to run an empire, the history of Rome has something for everyone. Being a professor at Cambridge, Beard knows how to convey knowledge and the 500-plus pages fly along. SPQR will introduce you to the genre of ‘Big History’ and the feeling of omniscience which comes from reading it. In SPQR you hold in your hands a thousand years of history distilled through fifty years of academic study: “Carpe Diem” (“Seize the day”)
Many of the ‘great’ Emperors (and the ‘good’ ones still did lots of bad things) of Rome are worthy of study in their own right, for just as ‘All roads lead to Rome’, so too many roads and diversions lead from the history of Rome. At the very least, Beard has produced excellent documentaries on the history of Rome, and also more specifically on Pompeii, which are freely available on YouTube. In fact, I would encourage you to watch these first, not only to give you an overview of events, but also to appreciate Beard’s wonderfully erudite and approachable presentation. It’s not for nothing that she is a Cambridge professor.