Thursday, May 12, 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

In her book SPQR: The History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard sets out a daunting task. She’s trying to cover 700+ years in a little over 600 pages, which doesn’t leave much room for exploring details or taking a breath as she races through some of the foundational pieces of Western Civilization - the founding of Rome, the wars with Carthage, the end of the Republic, the five good Emperors - at a breakneck pace. The books ends right where Edward Gibbon starts The History of the Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire, with the imperial decision to extend citizenship to everyone in the Empire in 212.

The good news is that Beard is an engaging writer with a clear mastery of the subject matter. After a lifetime studying the history of Rome, she’s comfortable summarizing vast periods of history without missing any of the essentials necessary to follow along. What makes SPQR interesting is that Beard has a skeptic’s eye for much of the conventional narrative surrounding Rome. How much do we really know about its founding? How much can we really discern about the intentions of its most famous characters? How much can we ever really know about a society that existed thousands of years ago?

The discussion surrounding something with the importance of the history of Rome is an ever-changing process, partly because archaeologists are constantly uncovering new information and partly because the way we view the present impacts how we discuss the past. What makes getting answers particularly challenging is that the Romans themselves didn’t always have them either. By the end of the Republic, the actual founding of the city near the year 700 BC was so shrouded in myth that no one could give a better answer than the tales of Romulus and Remus and Virgil’s Aeneid.

Most histories of Rome contain stories of the twins who were suckled by a wolf, the raping of the Sabines and the reign of the first seven Kings, who purportedly ruled for around 150 or so years near the very beginning of the city’s history. For Beard, none of it seems all that plausible. In her telling, those types of stories are placeholders, meant to represent greater and underlying truths about the city’s history, whether it’s how it intermingled with its neighbors or how it learned to fear monarchical rule.

I like to look at history like a microscope. The more you focus on any one particular series of events, the more you lose focus on the wider historical context surrounding it and vice versa. When you are looking at a 700+ year view of history, more than twice as long as the history of the US, you have to take a very broad view. Even the greatest historical characters lose some of their personality and dynamism from that perspective. You can’t really tell the story of Scipio Africanus or Julius Caesar or Nero when you are giving them 10-15 pages as part of the broader story of Rome. They all had parts to play, but in the end they were all just parts.

Caesar is the perfect example. He’s the man who conquered Gaul, who crossed the Rubicon and who ended the Republic before being famously assassinated on the steps of the Senate. While he’s obviously a fascinating character, he’s also a transitional figure who took advantage of the decline of parliamentary norms and the increasing inability of the Senate to govern the vast series of lands that it had accumulated for itself. Whether or not Pompey defeated Caesar, then, didn’t really matter. If Caesar had been defeated, Pompey (a rather tyrannical figure in his own right) would have been King. It had to happen - it was only a matter of who was going to fill that role.

No matter how great a tactician Hannibal was, the famed Carthaginian general couldn’t change the underlying demographics of the Punic Wars or Rome’s more stable political structure. In other words, Rome was always going to rule the Mediterranean. From there, once it gained that power, it was always going to lose its Republic. It’s a fatalistic view of history - we are all pawns in stories that we can’t fully comprehend, doomed as a society (or at the very least foretold) to play out the roles handed down to us by forces greater than ourselves.

Maybe it’s 20/20 hindsight or maybe it isn’t. Either way, it certainly is a different way of viewing history than the one we were taught growing up. Americans tend to view history as the story of Great Men, whether it’s Washington winning the Revolution, Lincoln winning the Civil War or Churchill winning WW2. We are constantly told that the upcoming election is the most important election ever because we are determining who will be President. This man or woman will have their finger on the nuclear button and their leadership will determine whether or not the US will rise or fall.

From a broader perspective, though, it’s hard to look at Rome and not wonder what lessons it has in store for America. Like Rome, America was founded by a small group of upstarts and then gradually grew to conquer an entire continent. Like Rome, a distrust of monarchy was an essential part of America’s DNA. Like Rome, America takes great pride in its democracy and the values that it stands for. Like Rome, America has grown into a colossus that stands astride the world. As the comedian Eddie Griffin put it, when did we go from the United States of America to the United Empire of Earth?

History can have a funny way of repeating itself. One of the central themes of Beard’s book is the topic of identity and immigration and how far to extend the promise (and the privileges) of citizenship in the most powerful nation the world has ever known. Are Americans, like Romans, global citizens? Is there even such a thing as American (or Roman) nationality? Or is it more an idea and a series of beliefs about the world that everyone can aspire to? What would happen to Rome if everyone in Italy became a citizen? If everyone in Greece? What would happen to America if the same thing happened in Mexico? Central and South America? What is lost and what is gained in the process? It’s the same question now as it ever was.

If it didn’t matter to history whether or not Caesar or Pompey won the Roman civil war, how could it possibly matter whether or not Trump or Hillary win the Presidency? When someone writes the history of the US in the year 4000, what will get mentioned and what will have been forgotten? Our society is constantly worrying about the judgment of history when the reality is that the judgment of history changes all the time. I won’t be around to read the History of the Ancient United States, but my guess is that it will end up hitting a lot of the same themes as SPQR. Some things never really change because there’s only so much any of us (no matter who we are) can do to change them.