Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: an interview about her new BBC series
Classics professor Mary Beard returns to our screens this week with a new BBC Two series that examines the extraordinary rise of the Roman empire...
Driven by questions that have intrigued Mary throughout her career, Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit will consider how a mediocre city in central Italy come to dominate such a huge area; what held the empire together and what tore it apart.
We caught up with Mary to find out more about her new four-part series and to ask her about the secret of Rome’s success…
Q: Your new series aims to ask tackle ‘big questions’ about the Roman empire that have always fascinated you– what do you ask?
A: A big question comes right at the beginning of the series – how did the Roman empire actually start? We take it for granted that it had always been there, but when Rome started out it was just a piddling little one-horse town that wasn’t even big and distinguished in its own local terms.
How did this mediocre little place come to rule a bigger European empire than anyone ever had before or since? Everyone is fascinated by the fall of the Roman empire, but in many ways this is an even bigger question. We try to point you in the direction of why Rome was so distinctive and the underlying reasons for it growing so big.
Q: And what are some of those reasons?
A: What ultimately underlies Roman success is its definition of what it means to be a citizen. Rome is so extraordinary because it changes this idea. It brings people that it has conquered into its ‘project’ and has the idea that you grow by incorporating people, rather than by excluding them.
The Romans themselves were very conscious that inclusion rather than exclusion was key. You can see this when they start to elaborate or invent stories, such as the myth of Romulus and Remus [the legendary founders of Rome]. In his quest to found a city and gain citizens, Romulus says that Rome is an asylum and his citizens are going to be asylum seekers. That is an extraordinary message and it shows that the Romans had an awareness of what the secret of their success was.
An alternative foundation myth tells a similar story: after Troy has been wrecked by the Greeks, the Trojan Aeneas sails west to found Rome as a new Troy in Italy – he is himself a refugee.
So Rome was founded by asylum seekers and refugees.
Mary Beard in front of the Ara Pacis, Rome. (BBC/Lion Television Ltd/Caterina Turroni)
Q: You suggest that the empire was far from culturally homogenous – how did Rome deal with this multiculturalism?
A: Basically it didn’t bother too much. There was a very limited amount of things you had to do to qualify as ‘Roman’ – you didn’t have to speak Latin or worship Roman gods. Rome was extending citizenship all over the place, but it was not doing it in terms that we would understand today – you didn’t have to take an exam or pay money or swear allegiance.
All you had to do was pay your taxes, not revolt, and you were encouraged to sign up in a way to the ‘Roman project’ – living in towns, for example, organised on broadly Roman lines, or cashing in on the profits to be made in imperial trade and supply. It was an extraordinarily varied, multicultural empire.
I’m not trying to suggest in any way that the Romans were nice and liberal – partly, Rome didn’t impose things such as religious observances or even the Roman calendar because it didn’t have an administration efficient enough to do it. But it did incorporate many different strands of people who called themselves Romans, while it came down extraordinarily heavily on people who revolted against it.
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Q: How did all these different strands of people impact on Rome’s politics and life in the capital?
A: The Romans brought the elites of the territories they conquered into the Roman hierarchy, which is really extraordinary. Rich men from the provinces became part of the Roman machine surprisingly speedily. In the second century AD Trajan and Hadrian, who came from Spain, became Roman emperors. A hundred years later, Septimius Severus was a Roman emperor from North Africa. The power structure and the politics of Rome were very porous.
Q: Was extending citizenship in this way a key factor in the growth and success of the empire?
A: Yes, it must have been. At least at the beginning, if we go back to the fourth and third centuries BC, it was a really key factor, because it gave Rome a fighting force. Consider – why did people win battles in the ancient world? They didn’t really win because of better equipment or good tactics or because they were more militaristic – everybody was militaristic.
What gave you the key advantage in ancient warfare was the number of people you could deploy. And if you had more citizens you had by definition more fighters, because the responsibility of the citizen was to fight for his city.
The contrast between Rome and most ancient cities is striking. To put it a bit crudely, in the standard model of ancient warfare you went out, bashed up the enemy, took slaves and came back home. What Rome did was make a permanent relationship with the people it conquered, either by alliance or extending citizenship itself. This meant that Rome soon became invincible. It might be defeated in battle (and Rome was defeated more often than we imagine), but there were always reserves that meant that Rome could always bounce back to victory.
Q: You argue that, despite its success, Rome’s imperial expansion was a “messy, improvised” affair – in what way?
A: We wanted to warn people off the view that the Romans were very, very militaristic and at some point sat down and said “OK, we’re going to conquer the world”. I don’t think that ever happened.
Ancient Italy, when the Romans were getting going, was a militaristic world. Power correlated with military victory and you established yourself by force. So if you established a culture that kept winning, it grew. In this militaristic world, the Romans were operating by different rules – saying, “Come and be Roman” and therefore acquiring more citizens. They built an empire simply by winning and winning.
But by the time you get to Augustus’s reign, the Romans were starting to reinterpret this idea, claiming that they were always meant to have an empire, that it was a gift from the Gods. But that’s very much a retrospective account. In the series we’ve tried to show that empires can come about in odd ways. The Romans might later have imagined they had a master plan, but in the end you can look as hard as you like for a master plan and you won’t find one.
Mary Beard in Largo Argentina, Rome, where Julius Caesar’s assassination took place. (BBC/Lion Television Ltd/Caterina Turroni)
Q: As you say, the idea that the Romans had a master plan is a popular misunderstanding. What other misconceptions have you come across?
A: In the series we challenge a lot of misconceptions and try to see quite a lot of different sides of the story. It isn’t hooked on battles and all the stuff that can make the Romans seem rather one dimensional, even boring. It’s a programme about the provisional nature of the empire, the improvisation of it. The whole origin of the Roman empire is messy and so is the way it all works – it’s a complicated, multicultural, vast world.
There is always a tendency to see the Roman empire as a standoff – Rome in the middle versus some plucky, doomed rebels like Boudicca on the outside. But it wasn’t just the Roman authorities versus a load of discontents. You have the see it as much more of a patchwork. This series looks at the people in the middle, who mostly made accommodations to Roman imperial rule. We look at the winners as well as losers.
Some people were undoubtedly losing out and some of them were terribly exploited. There was an appalling destruction of people – Caesar was guilty of war crimes in Gaul and even the Romans recognised that. But at the same time, other people were making it big. When the Romans went to Spain, for example, they acquired immense mineral resources – the silver that powered Rome’s currency was found there. It was a bit like the California gold rush; there were people who made fortunes. But then again, we also find the tombstone of a child who died aged four going down the mines. So there was appalling exploitation, but also a sense that the world was changing and some people – not just the Romans – were making money out of it.
Q: How do you gain an insight into the lives and attitudes of the people who lived in Rome’s empire?
A: One of the best ways is to go to the provinces: find people’s tombstones and uncover what they say that person did. For example, we find a man from southern Turkey who made 72 trips to Rome selling textiles, or the poor little child miner. You can start to construct some little bits of biography of the people who were running the empire, supplying it, or providing the infrastructure – not just the toffs. You inevitably get more information on the winners than the losers, though, as the losers didn’t leave much behind.
People’s attitudes are never black and white. Even among the Roman elite there were people who attacked the empire as well as glorified it: those are some of the gems of Roman literature. Among the ordinary provincials there is a variety of views too. In the series we try to construct a world where some people maybe hate the Romans, while others maybe feel Roman, or maybe feel a bit Roman and a bit Spanish.
We’re not defending the Romans by any means, but we try to look at the empire from different perspectives. We imagine not just the rebel but the person exploiting the empire; the person who can get on a road at Rome and go on walking or carting along the same road and get to Spain. That was a revolutionary change: a joined-up version of the world that wasn’t there before.
Deep down I suspect I’d have been a rebel [had I lived at the time], but I’m trying to see it from both sides.
Q: What makes the Roman empire so fascinating and why is this chapter of history still relevant today?
A: I think there are hundreds of reasons. In very practical terms, the Romans are still under our feet in Britain. And not just through Roman excavations – the transport network is still based on Roman transport network. People complain that London is in a very stupid place for a capital, but why is it there? Because the Romans put it there! But there is more to it than that.
We can be a bit intimidated by the Romans and people do tend to say: “Oh I don’t know anything about the Romans”. But you only have to talk to them for a few minutes to show that they actually do. Think Spartacus, think Gladiator, think Life of Brian. The Romans are still in our heads. We’ve constructed them in an interesting, fun, rather larger-than-life way. We use them to talk about excess, too much sex, too little sex, jokes and priggishness.
I definitely don’t want to take the fun out of the Romans but it’s good to examine what underlies it all. How did an empire arrive and how did people make a deal with it? What was it like to live in a world all those years ago with a common currency and freedom of movement?
Two thousand years later we’re still using their terms, their frame of debate. We are the heirs of how the Romans talked about what it means to be citizen and what the limits of civil liberties are. I think there are all kinds of messages for us – really modern political messages that are worth thinking about. When Tacitus looked at the Roman conquest of Britain and said, “they made a desert and they called it peace”, for anyone who has lived through the past 50 years of warfare it doesn’t take long to sit down and ask – where are our deserts that we call peace? The Romans still provide a way of thinking about what we do, what autocracy is, what freedom is. We’re still talking to the Romans, so let’s talk to them better.
Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit begins on Wednesday 27 April at 9pm on BBC Two.