By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Mary Beard
Narration by: Phyllida Nash
Possibly because of fewer years of existence and America’s prominent position in modern times, there is a compulsive interest in the history of the Roman Empire. After having listened to Robert Harris’s novel, “Dictator”, Mary Beard’s “SPQR” offers some perspective on Cicero and the long history of the Roman Empire.
In the beginning of the Empire, the Senate plays a significant role in Roman governance. As pointed out in Harris’s novel, with the ascendance of Julius Caesar, the Senate’s role is diminished. “SPQR” contextualizes Harris’s novel in noting that even with the Senate’s power diminished, the new leader of Rome, Octavius (the adopted son of Caesar who becomes known later by the title Augustus), significantly improves the lives of the Roman people. Beard caveats that observation with stories of arbitrary exercise of power and the continued existence of slavery. She also notes the supportive propaganda created by great writers and poets like Virgil and Ovid during Augustus’s reign.
However, it seems indisputable that Emperor Augustus improved the lot of the Roman people by eliminating taxation and establishing a pension system for soldiers who served their country for twenty or more years. Of course, Augustus’s elimination of taxes is possible because of Roman expansion and plunder. Additionally, Beard notes Augustus’s offer of military pensions are a way of reducing armed rebellion from generals that lead their own armies. In any case, the people of Rome benefited financially and physically from changes made by an Emperor who some Romans choose to deify.
Beard notes that what is known about ancient Rome is limited because of the dearth of documentation. She begins her book with Cicero because of the many letters he writes of the times in which he lived. Beard’s other primary sources are Livy, and Plutarch; the first of which would have been influenced by Augustus’s concurrent existence and ego-centrism and the second, a Greek, who lived long after Caesar and Augustus were dead.
Beard offers a much wider perspective of the Roman Empire than Harris does in “Dictator” but each author’s book is a good companion to the other. Beard explains how leadership succession is a continuous problem for the Empire. Succeeding emperors often murder their predecessors to become Emperor. The wide dispersal of the empire diminishes control of singular emperors. Some Emperors manufacture lineages that do not exist. The point is–there is no electoral process for succession and Roman soldiers are not numerous enough to cover the entire empire.
As the Roman Empire expands, fringes of the empire are attacked by outlying tribes with muted responses from the Empire because of distance or lack of manpower. Outlying areas become more independent in the defense of their own properties. Rome expands the definition of citizenship in an attempt to co-opt wavering Peoples who were not born Romans. Being identified as a Roman citizen offered some benefits, but many people thought it was a way of filling the coffers of Rome with inheritance taxes.
Beard argues that military tactics of leaders like Caesar are overdrawn and those modern military leaders that say they follow Caesar’s tactics are being disingenuous. Beard infers the exigencies of current warfare, and a leaders ability to use modern weapons of war, are of more importance.
“SPQR” offers perspective on the Roman Empire. Beard unquestionably believes we learn from history but one comes away from her perspective to conclude current events, public education, and modern social belief are better determinants of the future than the history of the past.