Friday, 22 July 2016

SPQR by Mary Beard: What the Romans thought?

Who will read this book? Every author has an ideal reader. For an ancient history book, there are likely to be four: undergraduate history/classics students; postgraduate students; fellow academics; and the intelligent lay reader. In the case of teledon Mary Beard, we might add the loved one who buys a spouse or whoever a book saying ‘you love all that Roman stuff, so I saw this and thought of you’.

It’s hard therefore to work out who Professor Beard’s ideal readers are. They know Latin well enough to understand complex matters of vocabulary, derivation and syntax, yet they need to be told that the Punic Wars are named for the Latin word for Carthaginian (punicus) without being told why (the word refers to the Phoenicians, who founded Carthage). They can follow complex arguments about Cicero’s speeches against Catilina, yet they need to be told that a Roman colony ‘had no connection at all’ with a modern colony, which is itself untrue. In any case, the millennial student reader has never lived in a world with colonies.

Professor Mary Beard in earlier days

 Anyone wanting to read a history of Rome will be disappointed, since Mary Beard is non-linear. She opens with a chapter about Cicero; this is not surprising since her PhD thesis was about Cicero. Then we skip back to Romulus and a variety of things about him. But wait, does Romulus even belong in a history book? If ever there was a real man, by whatever name, who can be termed Romulus, his existence is so heavily mythologised that he must be regarded as a mythical foundation figure, just as Theseus is claimed as the founder of Athens. Then there’s a wider discussion about the supposed kings of Rome. These are again myth and can only be discussed as such. Yet there seems to be an enduring idea that Rome’s ‘true’ past can be recovered by de-mythologising it all, as if you could recover from a bar brawl by setting the chairs straight.

The book ends with the enfranchisement of all free adult male residents by Caracalla in AD212. Therefore the empire is covered for 241 years and not covered for 264 years up to AD476, the supposed date of the ‘end’ of the empire (even though that empire survived for a further thousand years). There is a good reason to call for such a book to be written, and for Dame Averil Cameron to write it, since it seems that Professor Beard is not expert on the later empire.

This book has no footnotes, making it hard to work out some of the coy allusions. For example, on p.22, there is a reference to an unnamed Greek writer living in Rome in the mid second century BC. If I go to the further reading given for this chapter, I turn to p.540, where my personal suspicion that this is about Polybius is shown to be right. But why not say it in the body of the text? With later chapters it gets worse, because the running head on a particular page gives the chapter title, but not its number; the further reading is given by chapter number, with no title, so the reader who mid-chapter needs to find out something has to find the chapter number by returning to its first page, then go to the further reading and work out which book might contain a path to discover the point queried. There is a timeline, but given at the back of the book and not referenced within the body of the book. There are maps and illustrations, but one of the maps, a plan of the Forum Romanum, contains a label of the ‘Arch of Septimus (sic) Severus’; as this is the paperback edition, surely such an error could have been corrected?

If this book is aimed at undergraduate students, it is not one they can dip into, as it is very closely argued throughout and the index is very limited. Postgraduate students and academics would want much more detail in the form of proper references. The vast array of Professor Beard’s reading put forward as ‘further reading’ would appear to be that available to a senior university professor in, say, Cambridge and not easily available to the average punter.

Professor Clifford Ando of the University of Chicago comments in his review of this book that ‘the simple fact of the matter is that, the more one studies Roman narratives of early Rome, the more they appear calques on Greek histories’ (The New Rambler Review, 29 February 2016). I believe this to be true. The Romans were always rather chippy about Greece, hence Horace’s satirical comment about rustic Latium being taken prisoner by captive Greece or Juvenal’s equally barbed comment about Romans being unable to eat their dinners except at exquisitely made furniture. To act the Greek, for rich Romans, was to have won first prize in the game of life.

Professor Clifford Ando, University of Chicago

 Ando also comments that ‘In light of these reflections, Beard's History seems to me in some respects an oddity. Chronologically, it extends from the foundation period to the universalization of Roman citizenship by Caracalla. But a surprising portion of the narrative—a full third—treats periods about which the Romans confessed themselves nearly wholly ignorant’(idem). This too is true. Professor Beard jumps forward and back in time to illustrate her narrative. This is something I tell my own undergraduates not to do, but rather to contextualise their sources. Of course, Mary Beard does not uncouple her words from their contexts as students tend to do.

But this book is termed a history and the general understanding is that a history will start at one point and go on to another point and then end. Anyone seeking that narrative thrust will not find it here. I do have one unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question: did anyone really read Cicero’s speeches, Livy’s histories and so on? If so, why are they nearly all fragmentary or lost? Certainly very few ever saw the tomb inscription of Scipio Barbartus, sealed in the late republic. I also doubt that the works of writers read by a handful of intellectuals out of the hundred million population of the early empire adequately represent the thought world of many people, although some of those people would have been disproportionately powerful, appearing as pundits in their own societies.

Reading the disjunctures between chapters, I did wonder how this book came to be written. Its lack of references suggests that these were originally thought of as conference papers and only later reconfigured into a book. Professor Beard has a common theme, that historical narratives reflected then-current ideological differences rather than hard facts. By this token, we can equally call the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle a history on a par with Tacitus, because both contain scraps of truth, lies, misunderstandings, wishful thinking and plagiarism, fried up into a bubble-and-squeak of history. It takes a Mary Beard to add flavour, which she does, always interesting, always diverting. But if you want to know Rome beyond the monumental, outside the city with the gods and monsters, this may not be the book for you.

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