SPQR

A History of Ancient Rome

[Amazon Link]

I can't remember why or when I put this on my to-read pile, probably a glowing review from some trusted source. The history of Ancient Rome—gee, that sure sounds like something in which I should be interested!

That optimism about my intellectual curiosity turned out to be slightly misplaced. Regrettable. I blame myself, not the author, Mary Beard, who has spent her entire professional scholarly career on this subject. Her book covers Rome from its mythical Romulus/Remus origins (long held to be April 21, 753 BC, around 10:15am local time) up to 380 AD, when Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire. That's about a thousand years, a lot of time to cover, and a lot of people to talk about.

And the book is interesting in a lot of places (just not all places). Random things I picked out:

  • Although Beard does not make a big deal about this, the Romans were apparently the first to figure out and solve the huge logistical problem of maintaining a million people in a relatively small area: moving food and water in, supplying shelter and services to the populace, dealing with (very imperfectly) sanitation and disease. You're left wondering: Why them, why there, why then?

  • But reading Deirdre McCloskey will get you to notice stuff you probably wouldn't have otherwise. Even though the Empire depended on goods flowing more-or-less efficiently from one place to another, there are little clues that the guys who actually made things work (unlike the emperors, senators, poets, playwrights, etc.) were held in contempt. Exhibit One is the character of Trimalchio in Petronius's Satyricon, an "arrogant former slave, who has become quite wealthy by tactics that most would find distasteful." I.e., commerce.

    (I should also point out, as Beard does, that one of Fitzgerald's working titles for The Great Gatsby was Trimalchio in West Egg.)

  • The Roman Empire doesn't seem to have been planned. In the beginning, Rome was just a burg, just like hundreds of others in Italy. Almost by accident, it conquered and dominated its neighbors, and … well, things just seem to have snowballed. Once the imperial game gets started, it proceeds under its own logic: conquering territory and people provides booty and military personnel, which in turn self-justifies moving on to the next rival. Et cetera. (If I may be excused a bit of Latin.)

  • Lots of slavery, of course. Although freeing slaves was relatively common, and once freed, you were a Roman citizen, automatically.

  • It seems the most common method of succession from one Roman ruler to another was assassination, usually by knife. Julius Caesar was not the exception here.

  • Moreover, casual atrocity seems to have been the norm. Repeated tales of slaughtering innocents, women and children included. 'Twas normal behavior back then.

One unfortunate thing about the book: I strongly suspect Prof Beard taught this stuff at her school, and this book is, more or less, her expanded lecture notes. Downside: she expects you have already done a certain amount of assigned reading. So if you haven't picked up the basics from elsewhere, the book can sometimes feel like you've been dropped into a calculus class without taking algebra first.