Books interview with Mary Beard

Mary Beard’s new book, SPQR, echoes the ancient Romans’ own abbreviation for their state. She spoke to Matt Elton about her interpretation of the city’s history – and why it still matters today

Professor Mary Beard, classicist and writer. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the December 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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In context

From its founding – wrapped in myth – in 753 BC, Rome grew from a small settlement into a powerful republic that won a series of wars with its neighbours. Pivotal moments in its later development included the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC, which confirmed Rome as the superpower of the Mediterranean; the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC; and the rise to power of Augustus, who became the first Roman emperor in 27 BC. Many of the issues that preoccupied ancient Rome remain important today, notably law, politics and debates about civil liberties.


What do the founding myths of Rome tell us about the Romans?

As myths – and they are myths – they are important in the ways in which they were invented, massaged, retold and debated in Roman history. They tell us huge amounts about how the Romans thought about themselves and where they came from.

The Romulus and Remus story tells of two babies, royal twins ousted by their great-uncle, found and suckled by a wolf then brought up by an honest shepherd. As men, they returned to found the city of Rome – and then Romulus murdered his brother.

How Romans saw this story tells us a great deal about the way they perceived themselves. Civil war and fratricide were embedded in their history; they were never going to escape civil war because right at the very beginning – the first moment in Roman history – a brother killed a brother.

There’s more to it, though. When Romulus founded his city, he had no citizens. He offered asylum to all, saying: “Anyone can come – even criminals and runaways.” And loads came. So the Romans had this vision of their city – which I think is very topical in 2015 – as being made up of asylum seekers.

That very strong strand of citizenly openness lasted until the point at which my book ends, in AD 212. Rome’s image of citizenship was one not of exclusion but of inclusion. As it conquered the world – a brutal, bloody process – Rome increasingly brought the people it conquered into its body of citizens. It was an incorporating empire.

The Romans were not being liberal or touchy-feely. This was a strongly political strategy: it gave them lots of manpower. But it’s an image that’s very powerful for Romans.

How did the Roman republic come to achieve such military success?

There are a few simple answers to that – and a few that are definitely wrong. The Romans were not more aggressive or militaristic than anyone living around them. The ancient Mediterranean was a place in which the first arbiter was force. Even the occasional treaty was part of the military operation.

It’s convenient for us to think about the Romans as somehow more committed to warfare than the poor people around them, who were busy knitting before suddenly being invaded by these nasty thugs. The Romans were nasty thugs – but so was everyone else. And Romans didn’t employ better tactics than others – whatever ‘tactics’ were in the early republic – nor did they have better hardware.

Instead, I think their success came from their system of citizenship. The traditional way – in this international world of endemic violence – was that one band of blokes bashed up the neighbouring town, demanded 500 cattle and went home again. What Rome did that was fundamentally different was to establish permanent relations with the people it defeated. It didn’t defeat everybody, but when it did it formed alliances and links of citizenship. So as Rome expanded, its relationships with the people around it yielded overwhelming resources and manpower – factors that won wars in the ancient world.

What other misconceptions about Rome should be overturned?

We have this impression that the Greeks were intellectual, cultured theorisers who were probably quite nice, and that the Romans were horribly efficient but probably quite nasty. This is a position that I hope to break down: not, I think, by turning the Romans into nice guys – because that would be difficult – but by saying that we mustn’t judge antiquity by who’s ‘nice’ and who’s ‘nasty’ on our own terms. If we took a trip back then, we’d find them all dreadful.

This whole world was committed to military glory. The Romans did not erupt into a Greek world living at peace with itself, disrupting a milieu of culture and niceness. Neither did Rome sit there, completely uncultured, until it thought: “My goodness me, the Greeks have literature and art. Do you think we could have that, too?”

What’s your take on Augustus?

Partly still puzzlement, I think. The problem is that in one version of history he’s depicted as the founding father of the Roman empire. He changed the face of the city of Rome, establishing a form of relatively benevolent one-man rule: a kind of dictator with a smile. That’s the shining story of Augustus.

But in his early career he was the nastiest young terrorist you could imagine. As a teenager he raised his own army, formed a murderous triumvirate and slaughtered hundreds of Roman citizens. He is talked about as being a warlord, really. He quarrelled with his erstwhile allies and eventually won the day, before coming back home and immediately reinventing himself.

But a problem he never solved, and which dogged the empire ever after, was succession. It’s pretty clear that Augustus intended his one-man rule to be hereditary in some form, but he and his wife had no male children. So this would-be hereditary empire started with no line or system of succession. Today, we accept that primogeniture is a sensible system because it leaves no doubt about who the heir should be, even though sometimes it gives you an idiot. Romans would find that puzzling, because they didn’t ever have an automatic system, and would say that was because they wanted to avoid idiots. But the cost of avoiding idiots is that you have no system, so succession was always fought.

Of Augustus’s successors, do any stand out as particular favourites?

I think that’s impossible to answer. We have been seduced into assessing the Roman empire as a series of individual rulers and marking them down as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, seeing character, morality and sexual mores as crucial. And what we tend to debate is whether the good ones were as good, and the bad ones as bad, as they’re cracked up to be.

But this debate is fundamentally flawed. Actually, the empire went on in much the same way, being ruled from the centre more or less efficiently, no matter who the emperor was. The basic logic is that it appears to have mattered not a jot who was on the throne. You cannot understand the Roman empire if you approach it through a history of its individual characters. We love the stories, and don’t want to get rid of them from our version of the history, but those stories now reveal more about us than about the Romans.

Given the gulf between rich and poor, why weren’t there more uprisings?

What puzzles me most about Rome is that the emperor’s properties covered hectares, while poor people were squashed in like sardines. How could one man monopolise space when other people had none?

There are two answers, I think. One is that a high premium was placed on ensuring that the urban populace was at least fed. Some Roman satirists tended, a bit like some modern politicians, to be very dismissive about benefits. The writer Juvenal famously said, essentially: “Bread and circuses – how awful! Pap for the populace!” Turn it on its head, though, and we see that many Roman citizens were fed. So rather than Rome being a city of benefit scroungers, it was actually probably the first city in history in which the state took some responsibility for ensuring that the people were not starving.

The other point is that there was endemic urban unrest, as a consequence of deprivation and vast disparities of wealth, but that gets written out of history. You can see it most clearly in relation to slavery. People often say how odd it is that there were so few slave revolts in the whole of Roman history. That’s true, but slave discontent was shown principally not through mass organised revolt but by individual slaves scarpering, or through domestic warfare: pilfering, or spitting in the master’s soup.

We want to see mass revolution – the working classes standing up for themselves! – but though there was mass urban discontent, it was low-level rather than communal. The Roman poor did not have a class consciousness.

Why is the story of Rome important and influential in the 21st century?

Roman culture and politics still underlie an awful lot of what we do, how we talk, how our world is organised. I don’t want to suggest we’re simply heirs of Rome; there are all kinds of other influences – and thank heavens, because otherwise it’d be ghastly.

Nevertheless, some of the key issues that we still debate hark back more directly to ancient Rome than to ancient Greece, particularly – and very topically – ideas of civil liberties and the rights of the citizen versus the right of the state. We debate intensely how far it is legitimate to override a citizen’s rights in the interest of homeland security, and those issues go directly back to the Roman period. Is it right to kill British citizens with British drones in Syria? Many of the ways we have learned to discuss such things are inherited directly from the Romans.

If you could travel back to this period, what questions would you ask?

I’d ask about the small, day-to-day stuff – and the things that have been overlooked, because the study of Roman history was for
a long time very blokeish. I always wonder where people left their clothes when they went to the baths, for instance, or what women did for sanitary protection. I want to go down to the little details of things that we now take for granted in the 21st century.

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Mary Beard studied at Newnham College, University of Cambridge, and has been professor of classics at Cambridge since 2004. Her previous books include Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008) and Confronting the Classics (2013), both published by Profile Books. She has also presented a range of hugely popular BBC television and radio programmes exploring the ancient world.