Tuesday, May 10, 2016

History for pleasure and mind expansion

Many people (most?) read fiction when they want a little escapism. I read sweeping histories of times and places about which I know little as a break from the US and modern European tomes I take more seriously. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Cambridge University classics scholar Mary Beard filled that bill perfectly.

The initials SPQR were ancient Romans' own abbreviation for the "Senate and People of Rome" -- their label for the obscure town that became an empire. Rather than writing a chronological story, Beard weaves together contemporary sources in which Romans recorded what sort of polity they thought they were building, from the time when Rome was an unprepossessing village with a founding myth of about heroes raised by a wolf through 212 CE when an emperor declared all free residents of a domain encompassing the whole Mediterranean world and beyond were to be "citizens" of Rome.

Beard is not a reverent writer. For example, the emperor Caligula, insofar as his name comes down to us, is remembered as a cruel sadist and an extravagant pervert. This author reveals that the name "Caligula" was a childish nickname, akin to "Bootikins." More careful subjects (reigned 37-41 CE) would have addressed him as Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus.

She has a wonderful gift for helping us understand how events may have looked to contemporaries. She refers to the expansion of Roman rule from one small city to encompass the entire Italian peninsula (fourth century BCE) as "Rome's Great Leap Forward." And then she qualifies:

... the Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way that we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other "pre-cartographic" people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history's great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsula of Italy, but no one knows how many -- or, realistically, how few -- Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it. A rudimentary version of the idea is perhaps implied by references in literature of the second century BCE to the Adriatic as the Upper Sea and the Tyrrhenian as the Lower Sea, but notably this is on a different orientation from ours, east-west, rather than north-south.

Go ahead, accept this opportunity to let your mind be blown.

The book is full of such tidbits. Who knew that in ancient Roman cities, built much as Mediterranean cities still are in something like "apartment blocks" on narrow streets, the well-off would have lived at the bottom and the poor in the upper stories. Why? Because the great urban danger was fire. Smoke rises; the poor lived over comfortable people's kitchens and had little chance of getting out if a conflagration occurred -- which it often did.

SPQR is fun history and good for mind expanding.

Mary Beard writes a blog named A Don's Life which is as idiosyncratic and charming as her historical writing. Brits know Beard as a fixture on the BBC and as a cheerfully undaunted older woman participating in multiple media.

1 comment:

Hattie said...

Thanks for leading me to Mary Beard. I've read about the attacks on her but know little about her beyond that, so this is fascinating.

Related Posts with Thumbnails