Professor Mary Beard’s 2015 publication of SPQR makes good use of recent archaeology to illuminate life in the Roman empire.
But it is not a history of Rome that I recommend for novices, because she begins in medias res with Cicero and then hops back and forth. I’d say it’s a commentary on conventional histories of Rome, rather than a chronological history. E.g., she mentions Gaius Marius on p. 256, but doesn’t outline his career until p. 266. A reader unfamiliar with Marius’s career would be puzzled on p. 256 and not fully informed even after p. 266. I liked SPQR, but, as I read it, I had to occasionally check back with my copies of Cary’s History of Rome, Rostovtzeff’s Rome, Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero and Syme’s The Roman Revolution. Cary has all the detail, chronologically. Rostovtzeff gives a more concise history. Scullard and Syme provide insight into the politics.
Beard’s focus is on culture and politics.
Unfortunately, as a result, her treatment of the Roman military is cursory. Although she mentions Marius’s policy of abolishing the property requirement for enrollment in the legions (an event with political consequences, the sort of thing to which she is attuned), she ignores Marius’s reforms of Roman army tactical formations, e.g. making the cohort, rather than the maniple, the primary tactical formation. That was a huge innovation that was, in my opinion, responsible for much of the success of Roman arms in the succeeding 7 centuries. The Roman Army was the most disciplined machine for dominating battlefields in the ancient world. Josephus, who fought Roman imperial legions in the Jewish War, later wrote, “their drills were bloodless battles and their battles bloody drills.” Without the deadly efficiency of the Roman legions, Professor Beard would not have a job today as a classicist, because there would have been no empire. The Roman Army is a huge topic. She should have done a bit more on it.
Professor Beard, unfortunately, sometimes lets her leftist politics skew her historical views. She published an op-ed a while ago in which she praised what she claimed was the Roman imperial policy of open borders. She was using it as an example to defend the disastrous open-borders policy of the EU. In her book, she refuses to believe that Hadrian’s Wall was a military defense against invaders, even though it had mile-post garrisons, a mobile reserve behind it, and works of contravallation, to supplement the line of circumvallation. She posits that the Wall may have been erected for channeling the collecting of customs or, even more improbably, for some statement of imperial power.
I think she wanted to “demolsh” Hadrian’s Wall as an example of border control, because she has been an advocate of the European Community’s policy of “free movement of peoples.” Some say that walls get tunneled under and climbed over. Yes, but that depends on the vigor of patrolling the wall and on the consequences of illegal crossings. In Israel, the West Bank Barrier has practically eliminated terrorist infiltration. America’s feeble efforts on its Mexican border have been ineffective. Even when we apprehend illegals, we have a “catch and release” policy. As in trout streams with similar regulations, this means there is no deterrent to returning. The Romans, in contrast, had a “catch and crucify” policy, although enslavement of captives was an option. The rate of recidivism was close to zero. We wouldn’t have to be that harsh, but “catch and release” is an incentive to the released to try again.
Discussing the process of “Romanization,” Professor Beard acknowledges that throughout the empire subject peoples, in newly urbanized areas, adopted Roman conventions. This happened across the empire, although it is more striking in the west, where cities didn’t exist before the Romans arrived, than in the east, where the Greek polis was the model of civilization. But even in the east, Roman influence on urban life was profound. Roman engineers created not just roads (“it goes without saying, roads”), but aqueducts for clean, freely available water, public baths (how did we ever do without hot baths?), sanitary sewers (remember how this place stank?) and, of course, basic law and order. In Britannia, the Romans did all that and also provided education to the children of British nobles. They learned to read and write! In Latin, of course. The empire created a massive boom in commerce and consequent prosperity across the Mediterranean world that had never been seen before. Subject peoples embraced this superior culture and, with some exceptions, their elites were eager to become Roman citizens.
Professor Beard, however, attributes the impulse in the provinces towards Romanization to these factors: “on the one hand, the power of Rome made Roman culture an aspirational goal; on the other, Rome’s traditional openness meant that those who wished to ‘do it the Roman way’ were welcome to do so.” Neither reason seems persuasive. She ignores the attractiveness of the amenities that Roman urban life provided. Rome brought a superior culture that was inherently more attractive than painting yourself blue and running naked through the chilly hills and dales of Britain. People liked clean water and hot baths!
Setting aside her lefty politics influencing her judgment, she makes a big mistake. She says that “Macrinus [217-218] was the first Roman emperor who was not by birth a senator.” But nobody was ever “by birth a senator.” Even if your father, grandfather and great-grand-father were senators, you weren’t a senator by virtue of your birth. Even sons born into “senatorial” families (i.e., families that had senators in their genealogy) had to rise through the cursus honorum to enter the Senate. That meant you had to be elected to one of the four offices that automatically put you into the Senate after your term (consul, praetor, aedile or quaestor). In the Empire, the Emperor could bypass the electoral process by exercising “adlectio,” i.e., appointing you to an office that qualified you for the Senate, even though you wouldn’t necessarily serve your term in that office. But nobody was born a senator. But perhaps this is another instance of her left-wing, class-based outlook skewing her judgment.
Nevertheless, Professor Beard is an engaging writer, who enlivens Roman history and provokes discussion. Taking it with a grain of salt, I recommend SPQR.