Mary Beard , SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York, Liveright, 2015), 512 pp., $35.00.
THE INITIALS SPQR, the title of Mary Beard’s lively, engrossing and chatty new history of Rome, were part of the everyday language of our republican forebears, at least those engaged in the pamphlet wars around the new federal constitution. Senatus Populusque Romanus , “Senate and People of Rome,” suggested a balance between the wisdom of elders (the root sense of “senate”) and the rights of the people. The pamphleteers signed with Roman names, such as Cato and Caesar, the great opponents in Rome’s Civil War. That war spawned the dictatorship of Caesar which, after his assassination, made way for the principate of Augustus, who sought to restore the forms of the republic while retaining real power for himself and his heirs. For fledgling Americans, this was not antiquarian history. The failure of the Roman republic, as senators prostrated themselves before contemptuous emperors, and elections, hotly contested a few generations earlier, faded into insignificance, fed into cautionary lessons for Federalists and anti-Federalists alike. The Latin motto on the dollar bill, Novus ordo saeclorum , harked back to Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, in which the poet, turning his back on the naysayers who saw decline everywhere, predicted arrival of a new era of peace and plenty. The devastation and bloodletting of civil war had given rise to millenarian expectations that found at least a rhetorical home in the new “empire of liberty.”
In ancient Rome, the revolutionary generation had found a usable past, rhetorically bypassing the British motherland against which it had rebelled. From the historians Sallust, Livy and Tacitus came the story of an empire won by civic spirit and disinterested virtue. Rome’s decline was variously dated; there was agreement that the bounty of imperial conquest had seduced the conquerors into paroxysms of greed and extravagance. Luxuria had sapped the moral fiber of hitherto sturdy, patriotic Roman youth. That neglected the obvious fact that precisely in the years of supposed decline, Roman arms conquered more territory around the Mediterranean than ever before. Still, the moralists continued to scold and call for a return to—what else?—traditional values. That is reflected in the pseudonym of Publius adopted by Madison, Hamilton and Jay for the Federalist Papers. They could be confident that readers would catch the allusion to a legendary founder of the Roman republic, Publius Publicola, whose very name signaled a zeal to place public interests ahead of private gain.
The Roman experience seemed to teach that a failure to curb the power of self-interest would bring about destructive factionalism. Yet to rely on the virtue espoused by a Cato would be an exercise in futility. Madison, as we know, sought to solve the problem in the tenth Federalist (his first contribution) by the Machiavellian expedient of inhibiting the effects of self-interested partisanship—tolerating a multiplicity of factions in a territorially extended republic.
BEARD TOO is attuned to the institutions and practices that account for the startling expansion of Rome to become the sole superpower of the Mediterranean world. Her approach is analytic; she waves aside the stories of battles and clashing personalities that are the stuff of conventional narratives. Hannibal’s tactics at Cannae are elementary, too simple to discuss; Actium, where Augustus, or his admiral Agrippa, vanquished Antony and Cleopatra to become sole ruler of the Roman world, was, we are informed, a “tawdry” affair. Its tawdriness is too obvious to merit discussion. What accounts for Roman military success, for the almost fanatical perseverance that enabled Rome to ride out initial catastrophic defeats, was its concept of citizenship. The realist historian Arthur Eckstein, in his study of anarchic international relations in the Hellenistic world , had identified this as a, if not the, key to Roman success. Beard appears to agree. What the Romans and nobody else did, she says, was to divorce citizenship from geographical location and heredity. Where the Athenians restricted citizenship to the offspring of citizens, and soon lost their empire, Rome granted the privileges and demanded the duties of citizenship from the populations it conquered. A nice example of the attraction of such inclusiveness is provided by the so-called Social War, in which Italians denied citizenship fought Rome in order to gain it. A critic might object that Romans had first to conquer a city or nation before using citizenship as an inducement to gain its loyalty, and that such loyalty explains better how the Romans managed to overcome invaders such as Pyrrhus and Hannibal than why and how they came aggressively to ingest the entire Mediterranean littoral. Here more conventional narratives of the intense competitiveness of the Roman elite, to be expressed in military exploits, would come into play. Again, it’s difficult to ignore an ethos, evident in the Hannibalic War, that doggedly refuses to concede to an enemy. Call it Catonian virtue if you like.