SPQR by Mary Beard

I know, I know, it’s been about six months since I posted to this blog at all, and a year since I posted a book review. Well, I’ve finally read something that makes me feel like I have something to say again, so here I am. Don’t think you can get rid of me that easily. I just finished SPQR by Mary Beard, and by “just” I mean about 15 minutes before I sat down to write this post. To get the initial question out of the way: “SPQR” stands for “Senatus Populusque Romanus”, or “The Senate and the People of Rome”.

The book is a history of roughly the first millennium of Roman history, beginning with the traditionally-told (and almost certainly imagined) founding of Rome in 753 BCE up until 212 CE, when the Emperor Caracalla granted full Roman citizenship to everyone living within the Roman Empire, which at that time spanned from Scotland to Syria. When I first started the book, I really didn’t understand why the author chose that point to conclude on. It’s still over 200 years before what we’d typically call the “fall” of the Roman Empire; Caracalla isn’t one of the most commonly known Emperors like Caesar, Nero, or Constantine, etc. As I read on, I began to better understand her thesis, and the conclusion in fact turned out to be a rather poignant moment, a kind of poetic symmetry.

The core thesis of SPQR revolves around what it meant to be Roman, what it would entail to call oneself “Roman” in different places and times, how the idea of Roman identity shifted over a thousand years. Through this lens, going from the founding of Rome (itself a largely fabricated story that was invented later to create a coherent idea of Roman-ness) to the moment that citizenship was granted to all, effectively rewriting that idea of Roman-ness overnight, makes a lot of sense. As I said, it provides a kind of symmetry – the year 212 also marks Caracalla’s murder of his own brother, Geta, just as Romulus (allegedly, legendarily, yes I intend to keep adding that caveat) murdered his brother Remus centuries before. The story of Rome and of Roman identity, in this sense, begins and ends with fratricide. It’s not a particularly flattering picture, nor should it be.

Particularly in the first half of the book, though the thread continues in the second half, Beard underscores the fact that most momentous political events in Ancient Rome were preceded by some kind of horrendous rape or murder; it actually gets kind of hard to read at points. I get that the ancient world is – in some ways – more brutal than our own modern world; I get that in different ways, our world is in fact much more horrifying than that of the first millennium CE.

In any discussion of the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, it is almost impossible to avoid allegory with modern America (at least, it is when you live in modern America). There were points when I flat out cringed, or had to set the book down and walk away due to how blunt the parallels could be. God knows I grew up hearing about how modern America was just another Rome – collapsing under the weight of its own decadence, paralyzed by neverending war, lead by a continuous line of autocrats and kings by any other name, it goes on and on.

Of course… the more I think about it and the more I learn about history, the more this is 1) an obvious oversimplification, and 2) an easy out for people who aren’t satisfied with the current state of the world and don’t really want to invite any kind of debate over it. I don’t think it’s so much that modern America is a new Roman Empire; I think it’s probably quite a bit more that people have just… always been fundamentally the same (yes, this is a freshman-level observation of the kind that history major frat bros think is deep. Sue me).

Beard includes excerpts of letters from Cicero and Pliny (the Younger), living nearly 200 years apart temporally. These letters are such a treasure from a historical, archaeological, and anthropological point of view. They give insights on the wheelings and dealings of Republic and Empire; how much and how little changed in the intervening centuries. But they also give insights to their personal lives – Cicero’s divorce and ensuing repayment of his ex-wife’s dowry is a feature, as well as his grief over the premature death of his daughter. Pliny traveled 2,000 miles to his gubernatorial post with his third wife, a woman some 25 or 30 years younger than him. Some things never change.

One of the most overwhelming thoughts I have at the end of this book is about how people have reacted, historically and currently, to times of significant change and upheaval. Beard at one point remarks, “In the nearly 180 years between 14 and 192 CE – apart from the single brief interlude of civil war after the death of Nero – there were just fourteen emperors. In the hundred years between 193 and 293 CE there were more than seventy (the list is elastic depending on how many unmemorable co-emperors, usurpers or ‘pretenders’ you decide to include).” I think on events like “the year of four emperors”, “the year of five emperors”, and “the year of six emperors”. I think about the invasion of the Visigoths in 410, and the invasion of the Gauls 800 years prior, the last time that Rome had fallen to an enemy invader. I think about Caracalla turning a thousand years of the presumed standards of citizenship on their head.

Of course, we don’t have a record of what the common people thought of such events. Only great philosophers, emperors, “men of note” have had their thoughts survive the intervening years. But from what little we have, and what we know of unchanging human nature… people must have thought the world was ending. There are always times when people think the world is ending. It’s easy to look back on the long-distant fears of people hundreds of years ago and think that they’re absurd; it’s just as easy to assume that the people of the next thousand years will look similarly at our “the end is nigh”. Now is one of those times, as the idea of “modern” America changes, as the era of “America the Superpower” is likely ending.

By and large, the world has not ended. “A” world has ended, many times over, as new worlds are created. Institutions that are assumed to last forever will end. Gods that are worshipped one year are forgotten the next. Dominant cultures die out. Wars start and end. The physical face of the world changes; volcanoes erupt and wipe out the sun. A life in one century may be unrecognizable to a life in the next. But when we think of all the times “the world has ended” before… it hasn’t. People are still there. Lives are still lived. People die, people are born. This is a terribly morbid thing that gives me a great deal of hope. The world as we know it will end. But a new world will be born as well.

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