Douglas Jackson, author of novels set in Ancient Rome, apparently replied with an emphatic ‘Yes!’ to the email asking if he would like to be the chair of this event and it’s easy to see why. Mary Beard is one of those rare academics that are very good at speaking to the public and she does so regularly and colourfully. Her new book SPQR is a history of the Roman Empire, on a monumental scale (and weight judging by the size) and with real academic vigour. One reviewer described it as a book where even those who know a great deal of Roman history will find themselves learning more and even questioning what they thought they knew beforehand.
When asked why the title of SPQR (which stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus) was selected Beard explains that these are possibly the most famous set of initials in history. The phrase means ‘the Senate and People of Rome’ and is still used within Rome today, often seen stamped onto infrastructure like bins and manhole covers. It is how Rome referred, and refers, to itself. It also links into the aim she had for the book, which was to write a history of the Roman Empire that put the people back into the story. She obviously didn’t want to write out the Senate and the politically important but she also wanted to emphasise the importance of the general population. She’s taught Roman history for 40 years and feels like she now has something to say. She then joked that she also felt that she had to do it now because if she started a book on such a large scale after 60 she might never finish.
Beard then explains that studying the history of Rome is like walking a tightrope. On the one hand you have the utterly familiar parade of day to day life and family squabbles but on the other you have the totally foreign ideas of slavery and people, quite literally, throwing away unwanted children. She wanted to try and capture how to deal with studying a people who were very like us but also horrifyingly different. There are even elements of some periods that shocked later Roman historians. 150 years before Julius Caesar there were pairs of Gauls and Greeks buried alive in a sacrificial ritual. This obviously seems horrifying to us but later on there were Romans writing about how it was shocking and a very ‘unroman’ ritual’.
She also warns that it’s often all too easy to slip into moralising about the Romans. We view slavery as barbaric and as an area where we can feel superior even though we are all aware of, and hesitant to confront, modern examples of slavery. Additionally we look at the Roman slave trade through the lens of the transatlantic trade and all the baggage that comes with it. Multiple Roman industries were dependant on slave labour and some of it was dangerous gruelling work, like mining, but these were not typical slaves and there was no typical slave. Miners would have had very poor life expectancy but if you were a secretary or a doctor (professions dominated by slavery) then you would have a much better life than many of the free poor. We have documented evidence of deep relationships and slaves growing rich. Some masters and mistresses freed their slaves and then married them and yet there was also the contrasting element of slaves essentially being viewed as human machines. Domestic slaves were freed in vast numbers but it was in a way similar to how we treat household machines now. If you want a new fridge, you go and buy the one best suited to you and then when it gets old and creaky, you get rid of it and buy a new one. Beard points out that some slaves must have been terrified of being freed because their support and security would disappear, and there was no state support for the destitute, you either found a way to feed yourself or you died.
SPQR begins, not with the origin myths of Rome, but 600 years into the Empire with Cicero reaching the peak of his career and finding a terrorist plot. He executes those he thinks responsible without a trial and sparks discussion of the clash between security and the rights of individuals, a clash that has been repeated down the centuries and is particularly relevant today. She uses this moment as a springboard into the roman world and then looks at the origin myths from his point of view. She then ends the book in 212 AD when the Emperor Caracalla extended roman citizenship to all free occupants of the Empire, dramatically expanding the number of citizens by about 30 million. This marks the close of a particular period of roman history and sparks discussions of the worth of citizenship and a scramble for new hierarchies to differentiate and exclude.
The expansion of roman citizenship is a vital point because ‘civis romanus sum’ (I am a roman citizen) had long been an important political slogan. It has in fact echoed through history and JFK quoted the phrase in his ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech. Rome had never claimed to be a democracy, despite democratic elements, but it was concerned with rights and freedom. Civis romanus sum was a phrase used to boast and to invoke a sense of belonging, even though it’s most famous utterance was tragic in that a roman citizen was screaming it while being wrongly crucified by a corrupt governor in Sicily. Despite this event and the fact that the associated rights are hard to pin down the phrase held a powerful ideological resonance. And they didn’t have to pay or take an exam full of ridiculous questions to get it.
Jackson asks if discoveries have changed our views and Beard’s answering ‘yes’ is emphatic. The tablets from Vindolanda rewrote how we viewed army operations along Hadrian’s Wall. One of Beard’s particular favourites was the discovery of a cesspit in Herculaneum, which meant that they no longer had to guess at what was being eaten, they could know. She laughs that it’s like looking at a dinner party from the other end.
We are also asking different questions. When she was an undergraduate women were not mentioned once and the rape of the Sabines was only briefly mentioned. Now there is a concerted effort to find the voices of women and an understanding of the issues involved in the rape of the Sabines. These were issues the Romans worried about as well. Over the centuries you can find Romans debating the nature of rape and marriage and consent, as well as the issue of consent when you are completely ignorant of the concept. These were not questions that anyone would have thought of when she first began her study, but they’re being asked now.
An audience member asks what inspired her to study Classics and Beard jokes that initially it was simply because she was good at Latin. However it was the physical remains that really fascinated her. She grew up near a large roman site and was entranced by the idea that the romans were just below the surface, that you could scrape off the soil of today and find them underneath. Archaeology has developed a lot and added an array of scientific techniques to its résumé but she is still excited by the simple idea of digging a little bit of Rome out of the soil. It’s also easy to see the material remains and the influence they continue to exert. She jokes that looking around Edinburgh she thought it should be called the Rome of the North rather than Athens. However she does believe that roman literature has had a stronger influence than we might initially imagine. The Aeneid was and still is a hugely influential work and she thinks that there has probably been someone somewhere reading it every day since Virgil died. Echoes of its influence can be seen in almost every major point of western literature since Dante and Dido remains a figure in public consciousness. Her favourite piece of literature is not the Aeneid but Tacitus’ History of Rome. She laughs that it’s probably the most nasty, cynical, and powerful analysis of one man power there has ever been.
The audience seemed to be half star struck students (some stroking the covers of their shiny new copies of SPQR) and throughout the evening Beard held the attention of everyone with ease. There are very few academics who can inspire an atmosphere similar to a concert but this is something she does well.