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.
A CURIOUS feature of Beard’s otherwise accomplished writing—her knowledge is encyclopedic—is her almost total effacement of Cato, at points that would seem to cry out for his inclusion. One such point is the conspiracy of Catiline in 63 BC, the year of Cicero’s consulship. Cicero uncovered the plot, had the plotters seized and brought them before the senate to have their fate decided. Here Cato enters with a decisive intervention whose consequences would bring Cicero to the lowest point of his career. Why drop Cato from the story? That she finds him repugnant is clear. Many people have. Wearing his Stoic rectitude on the sleeve of his toga, giving day-long speeches, he got on people’s nerves. True to his principles, he committed suicide rather than accept clemency from Caesar and live under his rule. Before cutting his veins, he read Plato’s Phaedo on the immortality of the soul, though Socrates in the dialogue expressly forbids suicide. When Beard does mention him in order to comment on his disfiguring himself, he is catalogued as one of a “motley group of those who, for various reasons, did not like what Caesar was up to or the powers he seemed to be seeking.” But what makes this group, which must include Brutus and Cassius, motley? Does Beard truly believe that Caesar only “seemed” to be seeking the powers he ended up wielding, and that these republicans simply did not “like” what he was doing? For Cicero, at least, Caesar was making himself into a deified king.
Cato’s opposition to Caesar in the civil war that the dictator in waiting admitted, or boasted, that he launched in order to defend his dignitas, rank and reputation, against encroachment by Pompey and assorted senatorial diehards, capped a career of principled struggle against the misgovernment and corruption endemic in the late republic. Cicero quipped that he acted as though he were living in Plato’s ideal city rather than in the scummy one of Romulus. His intransigence may have triggered the formation of the so-called First Triumvirate, the alliance between Caesar, Pompey and Crassus that a keen observer, Pollio, thought ushered in the era of civil wars. Granted, Cato’s moralism is off-putting, but it remains a crucial piece of evidence for Rome’s violent transition from republic to empire. Moreover, for once at least Cato came out on top in the senate debate on the Catilinarians.
IN FACT, Beard begins her history with reflections on the Catilinarian conspiracy, only turning to the origins of Rome in the following chapter. The episode is well documented, she points out, in contrast to the veil of ignorance settling on Rome’s early days, about which the Romans themselves could only concoct edifying and sometimes unedifying legends, such as the rape of the Sabine women. “Catiline,” moreover, is the stuff of melodrama: a charismatic, unscrupulous swaggerer who, like so many others, looted the province he governed, using the pelf in electoral contests; unable to win elections to Rome’s highest office, the consulate, he turned to rebellion. Sallust and Cicero make much of his magnetic attraction for bankrupt youths who had misspent their patrimonies; hopelessly in debt, they were easily convinced that the Roman equivalent of “the Man” was to blame for their plight. Catiline held out revenge and easy pickings. Rumors of incest and murders he was said to have committed made him all the more fearsome and alluring.
There were good reasons for disaffection. Italy was in the grip of an economic crisis; Beard usefully describes the evidence for a credit crunch in 63 BC, and Cicero himself in an oration to the people acknowledges the economic squeeze that led many into Catiline’s camp. Catiline may have believed that only a violent uprising could break the back of the senatorial aristocracy responsible for the crisis that had twice denied him the consulate and placed Cicero in office. Cicero, with close ties to the Knights (the wealthy property owners who held the debt) and the publicans (the tax farmers) could be depended on to squelch any movement to cancel debts and relieve the little people. Catiline could never have patched together a halfway effective army composed solely of wayward youths reveling in the capital’s fleshpots. He was able to recruit veterans of Sulla’s armies who had mismanaged or otherwise not made a go of the farms that the dictator had allotted them as payment for their service.