In 63 BCE, the politician and lawyer Cicero gave four speeches against the senator Catiline whom he accused of being the instigator of a conspiracy to overthrow the government. Historically and probably unfairly, Cicero came out of this as a famous and brilliant orator who saved the republic while Catiline ended up dead and branded a traitor and a villain. This particular episode in the history of Rome, covered in the first chapter, sets the tone of the book and illustrates the problems that often arise in our interpretation and knowledge of events that occurred so long ago: If there even still exists a written account, it was often created by people with an agenda or their own particular conception of what happened, and hence can only be evaluated with caution. And if such accounts are lost or only partially preserved, they can only inspire guesswork and conjecture.
The book poses many questions in this vein, for instance, what is myth and what is the truth concerning the founding and early years of Rome? Especially in regard to this archaic era, there are only few definite answers to be found. Or, how important was it who triumphed in certain conflicts? Did it really make a difference that Caesar defeated Pompey and not the other way around? Wouldn’t Pompey have also become a dictator if he had won because due to the seemingly endless civil war the republic had broken down so much that there could be no other outcome than a dictatorship? What would have happened if Mark Antony had defeated Octavian? Would it have even mattered who sat on the throne of the empire during the first two centuries of its existence because it was just that stable of an institution? Was there really such a big difference, say between the reign of the ‘good’ Marcus Aurelius and the ‘evil’ Nero except their personal conduct, and even much of that could be fabrication?
This is really not a history book in the sense that it chronologically and systematically tells the important events of the first 1,000 years of Rome’s existence because it does that only in the broadest sense. The history is just the groundwork on which the true intention of the book is resting, and that is on one hand, the challenging of many popular myths and misconceptions, and on the other hand, a conversation about topics that are eternally relevant, like liberty and identity. In those 1,000 years, Rome went from a kingdom to a republic to a dictatorship to an empire, so questions of governance play an important role. There are chapters on the lives of women, slaves, the poor, and the average, although there is little known about them in comparison to the rich and powerful. Because of all this, I don’t think that this book is enjoyable for readers that do not have at least some knowledge of Roman history, as many important events are mentioned only in passing or chronologically out of sequence, in order to make a point in the greater narrative.
Otherwise, it is written in an accessible style and and littered with witty and pointed remarks. Beard’s enthusiasm for the subject is infectious, and I highly appreciated her unique approach to the topic because it is thought-provoking and well-reasoned even if I did not necessarily agree with all of her conclusions. The book is a welcome reminder that much of our knowledge of those ancient times is based on assumptions, and that having an open mind for different arguments is imperative. As Livy comments in his history of Rome: “I do honestly believe that no country has ever been greater or purer than ours or richer in good citizens and noble deeds…”, we can read in one of Tacitus’s works: “They plunder, they slaughter, and they steal: this they falsely name Empire, and where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.” It is, after all, a matter of perspective.