I have just finished Mary Beard’s SPQR. I have just started Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation. The connection? Susan Sontag’s essay deals momentarily with the relation, if any, between form and content. She seems wary of the concept of form, seeing it often subservient to content. Perhaps the confusion is mine, since it may be the argument, rather than form, that stands out. More on this later.
SPQR is, put simply, an overview of the origins and the rise of Rome, from fabled Trojan settlement to Empire. It charts the growth of the state, from a probably mythical wattle and daub hut to an empire built of marble, from its assumed foundation in the middle of the eighth century BCE, as far as Caracalla’s offer of Roman citizenship in 212 CE. This is roughly, as the author labels it, Rome’s first millennium.
Remembering my first paragraph, it’s the form that Mary Beard imposes upon her work that makes the book’s argument. A less inventive mind would have started at the city’s foundation and progressed chronologically. Mary Beard profitably avoids this approach by beginning with the confrontation between Scipio and Catiline in the first century BCE, conveniently just over half-way through the author’s chosen era.
Catiline had led a revolt, not the first, or last, or most bloody, or most successful, against the established authority of the republic. The kings were already long gone, and the emperors has yet to assume their status. But the confrontation between the brilliant but rather condescending Scipio and the brash, brutal aristocratic chancer that was Catiline provides a starting point for an author who wants to stress what she defines as the essential cultural and political characteristics that can frame the reader’s understanding of this vast imperial achievement. For Mary Beard, this trial before the Senate symbolizes a couple of basic ideas that she uses as a cement to bind the various courses of the city’s history. These are the continual struggle for power alongside the surprising, for the uninitiated, but consistent, tendency for the Roman state to accommodate new ideas, new values, new religions and new citizens from those peoples it conquered.
The struggle for power was perpetual and ruthless. There were no rules apart from the winner took all, and then suffered the continual neurosis of how to hold on to it. Starting with the perhaps mythical fratricide that founded the city when Romulus killed Remus, ruling families or elites internally turned on themselves and one another to secure a hold on power. This is nothing special. Any visitor to Istanbul will vividly recall the rows of miniature coffins that were displayed when newly enthroned sultans disposed of their siblings to reduce potential competition. But Rome was, at least in extent, rather different, since it morphed from local warlords, perhaps, through kings, to republican presidents, in all but name, and then finally to emperors. Each manifestation of power brought its own kinds of struggle, but eventually struggles they all were, and usually involved eliminating the competition. The names and roles may have changed, but the methodology did not. You killed your way into power and killed to maintain it. There were, of course, exceptions.
The second characteristic that Mary Beard uses to create the form and thereby the content of this history is the Roman propensity for assimilation. This began with the rape of the Sabine women. Myth, perhaps, cites a shortage of breeding-age females amongst the early settlers, so what better way to obviate the problem than embark on the cattle raid? The logic, if that be the word, is quite simple. I do not have cows. My neighbour has cows, so I will steal them. It’s the same with women, it seems, and the booty seems to share the same status as the booty from a cattle raid.
But what ensues is change. There is inevitably a clash of culture that leads to accommodation and assimilation, resulting in complications of culture via marriage, albeit a marriage in chains. This process, argues the author, became a characteristic of Rome, in that kingdoms and peoples subjugated by force were culturally assimilated by Rome, and not necessarily destroyed by it. Indeed, some aspects of the defeated culture, such as their religions, were transported back to the centre, where they gained pragmatic adherents eager to try anything that might offer a competitive leg up. And it is this constant ability to change via assimilation that forms the second strand that gives form to this wonderful work.
But why finish with Caracalla, when the Roman empire endured for more than another century after his demise? Mary Beard is clear about this. It was Caracalla’s granting of Roman citizenship to all free men in the empire that change things. Until then the differences in status between men and women, between citizens and classes, between free men and slaves, between military and civilian that had set the boundaries on Roman life, boundaries that were admittedly fluid by virtue of people’s ability to be on either side and to change their relative status, gender apart. Mary Beard thus makes the case for the later years of the empire representing a different historical reality and thus warranting a different treatment. This change became even more apparent when the state adopted Christianity, which would brook no alternative and led to the conscious exclusion of further assimilation.
Mary Beard does offer the reader much detail. But her insistence on setting events in their wider political and cultural context really does clarify a bigger picture which then starts to reveal inter-related detail. By the end of SPQR, we fell we have been there.
In conclusion, Mary Beard warns against importing perceived values or solutions across the centuries in the belief that they might have relevance to contemporary society. Not only do we not really understand the values of this ancient age, nor do we really have sufficient material to be certain about anything. Rome did exist and is therefore worthy of study, but its example is relevant only to the furtherance of that specific study.
Form and content thus come together to create, in Mary Beard’s hands, a stunning, brilliant book that provides context, observation and profound insight into Roman history. It’s a book that only could have been written by someone who has both brilliant communication skills and perhaps unsurpassed in knowledge of her subject. This book is not recommended reading: it is nothing less than essential.