October 8th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Reaper mows down first child in the Low Countries

CANBERRA OBSERVED Coalition still gridlocked despite foreign success

EDITORIAL Trump v Clinton: choice between bad and worse

GENERATION RENT The economics behind political unrest

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Kevin Andrews: defend marriage on principles

WA DRUG POLICY Forum told intervention works with cannabis, ice

OPINION "Deconstruction" fosters contempt of its object

POPULATION POLITICS Philanthropy as a weapon of mass destruction

SUPERANNUATION Take away the number you first thought of ...

HISTORY Germany and its long history of immigration

CINEMA The online madding crowd: Nerve

BOOK REVIEW Tale of forestry dynasty not quite pulp quality

BOOK REVIEW Roman refresher


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Roman refresher

News Weekly, October 8, 2016

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

by Mary Beard

Profile Books, 2016
Paperback: 608 pages
Price: AUD$24.99


Reviewed by Bill James


You can tell that this is not a typical old-fashioned tome of ancient history, because the front cover has a sticker affixed to it containing a photograph of the author and the caption “AS SEEN ON TV”.

What’s more, the subheading, A History Of Ancient Rome, would have been extraneous in the past, because even moderately educated readers would have known that SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus – the Senate and the People of Rome.

For many of us, ancient Rome is a conglomeration of disparate elements milling around in our heads. It mixes images such as togas, aqueducts, chariots, decadent feasts and orgies, Pax Romana (the Roman Peace),Vestal virgins, the Praetorian Guard, the rape of the Sabine women, Christians martyred in the Colosseum, Caesar crossing the Rubicon and assassinated in the Senate, legionaries and centurions, plebeians and patricians.

It moves on to characters such as Brutus, Cato, Marius, Sulla, Pompey, the Gracchi, Mark Antony, Boadicea, Cleopatra and Hannibal.

And it includes literary and legendary elements such as the Asterix comics, the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, Virgil’s Aeneas founding Rome after fleeing Troy, the geese saving the Capitol, Nero playing his lyre while Rome burns, epic films from Ben Hur and Spartacus to Gladiator, and Macaulay’s Horatio holding the bridge.


Then there are the expressions: O tempora, o mores (O the times, O the customs!); Quo usque tandem? (How much longer?); Civis Romanus sum (I am a Roman citizen); panem et circenses (bread and circuses); Delenda est Carthago (Carthage must be destroyed); Veni, vidi, vici (I came. I saw, I conquered); Alea iacta est (the die is cast); and Et tu, Brute? (You too, Brutus?)

Beard comes to our assistance in two ways.

First, she provides us with a frame­work on which to place characters, objects and events in chronological order. For example, hardly any of the great buildings which we associate with ancient Rome, the ruins of which tourists swarm over today, existed before the reign of the first emperor, Caesar Augustus, who did not come to the throne until 31 BC.

Traditionally, Roman history is seen as ending in 410 AD, when it was sacked by the Goths, or in 476 AD, when the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposed.

Beard’s account, however, ends in 202 AD when, as she puts it, “the emperor Caracalla took the step of making every single free inhabitant of the Roman Empire a full Roman citizen, eroding the difference between conqueror and conquered and completing a process of expanding the rights and privileges of Roman citizenship that had started almost a thousand years earlier”.

This millennium to which she refers dates from 753 BC, when according to legend Romulus founded his city, and when according to history, the settlement on the Tiber was emerging from the status of mere large village or small town.

Second, while Beard is no arid iconoclast, and has a passionate interest in Rome (AS SEEN ON TV), she uses modern scholarship to interrogate vigorously many of the commonly held assumptions about its history.

She points out, for example, that Queen Boadicea was originally a collaborator; that Caesar never said Et tu, Brute?; that most Romans, for most of the time, did not wear togas; that the early Romans were no more austere or moral than their descendants and no more aggressive or militaristic than the surrounding cultures; that Cleopatra could not have suicided by means of an asp; that Spartacus was not an anti-slavery freedom fighter; that Caesar did not see crossing the Rubicon as a point of no return; that Caligula never made his horse a consul; that Hadrian’s Wall was not a defensive structure to keep out barbarians; that Cincinnatus did not symbolise the common man; that the lives of Roman slaves were not all nasty, brutish and short; that the idea of one-man rule by an emperor was a radical innovation, the success and longevity of which is still not understood; and that there is no evidence that any Christian ever perished in the Colosseum (OK, I added that last one).

Beard takes us through the period of the monarchy, which according to legend lasted from 753 to 509 BC, and shows that despite the scepticism of earlier historians about their existence, kings might well have reigned during this period. Then come the centuries of the Republic, which for Roman traditionalists was the city’s Golden Age.

Such was their veneration for this institution, that even after its breakdown in epidemic civil war and the appointment of “dictators” during the first century BC, leading to the advent of the first emperor, Augustus (31 BC–14 AD), and his successors, who to our eyes enjoyed all the power and prestige of royalty, the Romans never countenanced the use of the title rex (king).

To the end they maintained the fiction that Rome was still “really” a republic.

We tend to attribute the foundations of democracy to the Greeks, partly on etymological grounds: demos = people.

However, despite the ban on Roman women’s and slaves’ participation in politics, Roman notions of liberty, and the right of all citizens to vote and to hold office (such as consul and tribune) regardless of class, probably had more influence than did the Greeks on the emergence of Western liberal democracy.

And Roman women still enjoyed more freedom than in most contemporary and later societies, to the extent of owning property in their own right, while Roman slaves could even become citizens after being freed.

Even Roman imperialism, ruthless, brutal, corrupt and exploitative though it often was, at its best contained the seeds of ideals which inspired the later British Empire, such as peace, justice, efficiency and service.

And like the British Empire, it could in some ways be described as having been acquired “in a fit of absence of mind”, in that the Romans never started out with a master plan to help themselves to the Mediterranean’s surrounds.

One feature of the Roman Empire’s expansion was its religious pluralism and toleration. Most people think that Roman citizens could pursue any religion, provided that they paid outward observance to the worship of the emperor, but Beard analyses and qualifies this commonly held belief.

She insists that “the living emperor was treated very like a god”, but that “it was usually the numen, or the ‘power’ of the living emperor that received sacrifice, not the emperor himself”, because it was “always transgressive to ignore the difference between the gods and the living emperor, however godlike he might be”.

The problem with Christianity was not only its exclusivity, but that “it had no ancestral home … Romans expected deities to be from somewhere”, whereas the “Christian god was rootless, claimed to be universal and sought more adherents”.

Beard concludes: “The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

The principle of incorporation applied not only to religion, because not only foreign cults and gods and goddesses were welcomed. Over time, with various unpleasantnesses along the way, and despite pockets of ineradicable intransigence and examples of outright obliteration (such as Carthage), whole peoples and regions, starting with their immediate neighbours in the Italian peninsula, came to feel that they were fellow-citizens of the Empire rather than exploited victims of foreign Roman subjugation.

Even the Roman Army, originally a homogeneous people’s militia, ended up as a multi-ethnic melting pot which saw Syrian soldiers, from one end of the empire, serving in Britain, at the other end.

By the end of the period covered by this book (c.200 AD) this empire contained about 50 million people, with about 1 million living in Rome itself, and while generalisations about everyday life for such a large and diverse population are difficult, Beard provides much interesting information for at least Rome and its immediate environs.

The state regulated neither marriage nor divorce; marriages were arranged, and singleness, except for religious reasons, was almost unknown.

Maternal and child mortality were high, and though sickly babies were sometimes exposed on rubbish dumps (from where they were sometimes retrieved as potential slaves), affection of parents for children was common, as was affection between spouses.

In Rome itself, between the wealthy few and the homeless poor there existed the masses housed in high-density rented accommodation known as insulae (literally, islands), which were huge multistorey apartment blocks.

Their lack of cooking and washing facilities necessitated a minimum of privacy and a high degree of public life.

Beard’s story ends two centuries after Augustus’ establishment of emperorship, with more two centuries of emperors set to run.

She does not spend a great deal of space on “Rome’s legacy”, or “What we can learn from Rome”. She has, however, written a scholarly, yet lively, informative and accessible history of a subject about which we all feel guilty for knowing so little.

Both those who believe that if we fail to learn from history’s lessons we are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and those who believe that the only lesson of history is that history teaches no lessons, will enjoy it.

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