A History of Ancient Rome

By Mary Beard

Liveright. 535 pp. $35

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Reviewed by

Michael D. Schaffer

Mary Beard begins her fine history of ancient Rome in medias res, in the middle of things, more than six centuries after the appearance of the little town on the Tiber that would grow into a world power.

Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University, has her reasons for coming in halfway through the show. As the real origins of Rome are lost in the mists of myth (forget that she-wolf nursing Romulus and Remus), Beard decides to enter the story at a pivotal point in Rome's history, with very real, very colorful characters, and - best of all for any historian - a rich supply of sources.

That pivotal point is the speeches of Marcus Tullius Cicero against Catiline, a disgruntled, bankrupt noble trying to start a revolution. The year is 63 B.C.E. Rome, grown into a city of about a million, is facing the threat of upheaval.

It was, in the words of Beard's Chapter One title, "Cicero's Finest Hour." Beard sees the face-off between Catiline and Cicero as a seminal moment for Western civilization - "a template for our own political struggles and arguments. Cicero's eloquence, even if only half understood, still informs the language of modern politics."

After all these centuries, ancient Rome is still with us. The acronym SPQR (for Rome's motto, Senatus Populusque Romanus, "The Senate and People of Rome"), emblazoned on the standards behind which the legions marched, still appears on modern Rome's coat of arms. Rome is even boffo box office: think Gladiator.

Although we know a lot about ancient Rome and are learning more all the time, thanks to archaeological discoveries, there's a lot we don't know, which has left plenty of room for myth-building over the centuries. The further back in time, the more the myths, so that the story of Rome's early centuries is based largely on legend. We can't simply dismiss it, though. Those legends were created by Romans of later eras, who projected their own "priorities and anxieties into the distant past." If you want to know the Romans of Cicero's day, you need to know how they viewed their own early history.

Beard is a myth-buster - an effective one. She deflates the notion that the Romans were by nature more warlike than their neighbors and finds they had no master plan of conquest. What Rome did have was a genius for turning defeated foes into Romans and creating alliances. The result was "self-sustaining" military success that created the empire almost as a byproduct. Emperors occupy a lot of space in SPQR. You could hardly write about Rome and leave out Augustus or Caligula or Nero, or almost-emperor Julius Caesar. Beard's true protagonist, however, is the empire itself. The great irony of ancient Rome is that "the empire created the emperors - not the other way around."

Michael D. Schaffer is a former book review editor of The Inquirer.