Posts Tagged ‘Mary Beard’

De Roma antiqua

September 17, 2018

I seem to be having a binge on Romans, Roman history and Latin at the moment; I had a week up on Hadrian’s Wall the other month visiting all the sites at the limes, the frontier of the Roman empire, and have just come back from travelling in Provence, where a lot of my focus was on the history of the Roman province and the sites that you can visit there. I’ve also been reading quite a lot about the subject.

At one level it is all quite astonishing: an empire built up over two thousand years ago, which endured for far longer than the British empire or the Soviet empire did, and will surely outlast the hegemony of the United States. The level of organisation and construction was amazing, given the technology of the time; the colonisation of the Sahara and bringing it into cultivation for the grain supply of Rome was an achievement which has never been equalled since those days…

The Roman history I learned at school was all about personalities and conflicts, wars and conquests and conspiracies, with little about the life of the average Roman citizen. That has been changing over recent years, through archaeological excavations and discoveries, and through newer generations of historians taking a radically different approach: Mary Beard’s SPQR was the first book out of this new approach that I read, and it was quite an eye-opener. She was not debunking all of the things I’d learned all those years ago at school, but broadening the perspective and bringing Rome to life in a different way, showing the economic and social aspects of the society. One of the most wonderful things I saw in the museum at Arles on my recent trip was a complete Roman river barge which had been recovered from the Rhone about a dozen or so years ago and meticulously preserved: it was 30 metres long, three metres wide and had a draught of two metres; it could carry tonnes of stone, as was shown in the museum. The merchantmen would have had a cooking fire on board… once you start seeing objects like this, your perspective develops quite quickly. Similarly, I’d never known that Roman traders had traded with China, and India.

When you stand inside the colossal theatre at Orange, or the amphitheatre at Arles, or – perhaps most impressive of all – stare at the Pont du Gard, you realise the scale of achievement that is perhaps only matched by the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, at which time all was in the service of God, whereas the Romans were building an empire and a civilisation for all their citizens. And so much of what was built in the Middle Ages was pillaged from Roman remains, anyway.

In these days when the UK is about to take its most disastrous political step for I can’t think how long, leaving the European Union, I find myself considering the parallels with the Roman empire: when the Romans left Britannia in the early fifth century, things fell apart pretty quickly. But in a way the EU is a similar project, a Europe-wide construction where people travel freely and work wherever they need to, just as people moved from one end of the Roman empire to another, whether officials, managers, or common legionaries. There was a common currency, a common language and civilisation, a sharing and exchange of ideas and products, and within certain limits, freedom: you had to sign up to the Roman ‘project’ as it were, and respect the emperor, but you could live as you liked and worship your own gods…

Yes, I know that there was slavery – I didn’t know, until recently, that slaves could and did own slaves – and that the Roman army was brutal in its suppression of revolts, but all armies are brutal: Rome didn’t have a monopoly. My travels and my reading have given me a lot to think about…

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Mary Beard: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome

January 16, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This wasn’t what I was expecting; in some ways it was less good, but in many ways a lot better.

My memories of learning Roman History are from upwards of forty years ago; it was very serious stuff, highly academic, packed densely with names of important people and dates, quite a few of which I still remember. At the end of a couple of years I had a pretty clear understanding of the last century or so of the republic and the first four emperors. Things have moved on rather since them, and Mary Beard makes this clear in a lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking book.

Obviously she can draw on new material, discoveries and research; equally, she is aware that most people will have very little knowledge of the field, so she is concerned to give an overview that her readers can build on. She writes in a rather livelier style than her predecessors of the nineteen-thirties, eschews names and dates, apart from the key ones, and gives a fuller picture of what it might have been like to live, not just in the tempestuous times I studied all those years ago, but at various other moments in Roman history. She separates fact from myth, and debunks quite a lot of hoary old chestnuts long accepted and believed about Roman times (challenging some aspects of the apparent dreadfulness of Caligula for instance, so I found myself learning quite a lot, and also understanding people and events in rather different ways.

Ancient Rome comes across as even more brutal and violent than I remembered it, and many of the heroes of the time are revealed to have been far less heroic than the past painted them. I was also surprised at just how much source material from the times had survived, in letters and books written by the Romans themselves. Beard draws widely on all this material, as you’d expect, but I do have one criticism to make here. I don’t know whether it was her decision or one by her editor, but I certainly didn’t find the section of general notes and references on each chapter, at the end of the book, terribly helpful, because they weren’t linked to the body of the text with superscript numbers, as they usually are in history books; this meant that whenever I was curious to know the source of a fact or a detail, I had to search about in a section of several pages till I uncovered what I wanted. I do hope this method doesn’t spread: inconvenience in order to avoid little numbers in the text, plus the absence of a proper bibliography…

I saw even more clearly how the institutions of the early republic just weren’t up to managing a huge empire; not were the politicians themselves (no change there then!), and that the problem with emperors was largely the succession. Once you attained power, you often set about vilifying your predecessor, and this means we are unsure about various emperors’ real reputations. Shakespeare played even more fast and loose with his Roman history than I had been aware of, too.

There are messages about governance and empire from those times which are still relevant today: where are the people and the institutions of the necessary calibre to manage an ever more complex world? The Romans failed to find the answers, and we don’t see to have done any better, really. And their empire lasted longer than any of the Western ones has done so far…

In sum, this is a good book if you’re new to Roman history, or want to re-kindle an old interest. I think I shall be going back to some of my old textbooks.

De lingua latina

January 10, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This is a recent treat to myself, and I’ve just started reading it; it’s sent me back about fifty years, thinking about my acquaintance with the classical world…

Raised as a Catholic and trained as an altar-boy before the change to Mass in one’s own language, my acquaintance with Latin began at an early age. True, it was Church Latin, not classical Latin, but I soon met the latter at grammar school, and never looked back; once I’d cracked the grammar, there was a whole new world ahead of me. In those days you met real authors for O Level – Caesar’s Gallic War and Virgil’s Aeneid; I had that under my belt at fourteen and an A Level in Ancient History at fifteen; more authors and more Roman History followed in the sixth form. It was a curiously censored literature, with anything remotely rude excised from schoolboy texts, and no chance of getting anywhere near Catullus and other such racy authors. The history, too, was very sober and old-fashioned – battles, dates and famous men, but it didn’t take me long to realise that the Roman Empire had lasted quite a lot longer than the British or American ones…

Life is shaped by chance decisions: I rejected my original choice of History as an A Level subject in favour of English (!) and I changed my mind about going off to read Latin and French at university in favour of English Literature and French (and look where it got me…)

But I have retained my fascination with Latin and things Roman, along with a copy of Kennedy’s Latin Primer. My knowledge of the language, along with my religious upbringing, has given me very useful keys to understanding a great deal of European art, literature, history and culture, as well as an enormous amount of pleasure and enjoyment: whether one is religious or not, the fact remains that Romans and Christianity have shaped our part of the world into what it is today…

I can still manage to read Church Latin; classical Latin has faded rather, though a recent look at Caesar again (Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres…) showed me that it hadn’t vanished completely without trace. I recall my enjoyment of Horace‘s lyrics, Cicero‘s mastery of the language through oratory, and the weird syntax of Tacitus: magical stuff. And I can still remember the recipe for making bees (Virgil, Georgics IV)!

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