Review: SPQR

The Romans too wondered where they came from. To them, a city as mighty as theirs could not possibly have been of an obscure origin. So it was Aeneas, who fled the destruction of Troy, that Romulus could trace his lineage back to. To the Romans reading Aeneid, they must’ve been pleased at the thought that after ten centuries of the destruction of Troy by the Greeks, it was them, the descendants of the Trojan hero, that came to dominate the whole world.

The reality, however, couldn’t have been more different. Rome most definitely had no relation to the mythical Troy. It definitely was not a sophisticated city in its origin. The vivid, heroic tales of the early Romans were largely inventions of the later Romans, projecting their world and ideals into their past. The history of Rome was as much history of Rome the city as the history of a people trying to understand what defined them and what separated them from the others. This was one of the two impressions Mary Beard’s SPQR left me with.

The other was that the story painted by the elites was only one side of the coin. This may be obvious, but the books written by the Romans (elite Romans, for others didn’t leave much written records) themselves painted their world in quite a black and white fashion. The decline of morals and liberty, the increase of vices and the popularity of gladiatorial combat, the turmoils and crises surrounding each imperial succession were common themes. An emperor overweening, the Senate oppressed, its people distracted by bread and circuses, such was Rome in the books of Tacitus, and countless other Roman historians and moralists.

But the people of Rome most definitely saw their life in a very different light. When Cicero bemoaned at the loss of liberty, he had much to express his contempt against the uneducated and corrupted mass. It was the Roman people, he said, that foolishly entrusted all powers into the hands of Pompey. It was this corrupted mass that raised Caesar above all. He lamented at the Senate’s loss of power and authority. He predicted the upcoming anarchy and the subjection of Rome under the whims of a tyrant. But never did he reflect beyond the surface on the nature of the rise of the dynasts.

The Roman people were foolish to pin their hopes on the empty promises of the demagogues. What other choice did they have? Was it to Cato, whose principles were lifted from that of Plato’s Republic, yet wasted no time in supporting the continuing oppression of the mass? Was it to Cicero himself, a champion of the Republic, a champion more so in the art of exploiting the sorry rubes who were his tenants? Was it to the body of the Senate, composed of such illuminating figures as Cato and Cicero, and others of an inferior quality still, of which its own corruption and disdain towards the populace was beyond any saving?

When Caesar lavishly distributed bread and cash to the mass, he had not the people in mind, but only their support which was to raise him to the height of power. Cicero was quite right in spotting that. But little did he consider that for the ne’er-do-wells, choosing the Senate would only mean a continuation of their oppression without the relief provided by a generous tyrant. Put simply, liberty was not worth starving for. So the people chose the tyrant and his successors, and Cicero paid with his life defending the empty principles of a corrupt oligarchy.

The Danger of the Concentration of Power

Some thoughts from what I read recently.

Quintus Catalus (Consul of 78 BC) once said, in front of a popular gathering in 67 BC, “I admit that Gnaeus Pompeius rightfully deserves all the honors you have bestowed or intend to bestow upon him. However, with all the powers rested in one man, what would you do if that man is no longer to serve you?”

His warning was not heeded. Unprecedented power was granted to Pompey, and soon popular favor was bestowed instead upon Caesar. It was not long before the Republic came to a disastrous halt.

Some one hundred and fifty years had since passed, when the historian Cornelius Tacitus (Consul of 97 AD) wrote, “When all the powers had rested with Caesar Octavianus, when he had become Augustus, peace was finally restored to the Roman world. But it was not for long. Imperial succession became a source of gravest danger and one man’s life weighed heavier than the whole of the Empire”.

Stability at the cost of liberty was destined not to last for long.