I guess this will be my only blog title in Latin, a conceit from an early education that included this ancient language. It means ‘The Senate and People of Rome’, often abbreviated to SPQR, which is the title of classicist Mary Beard’s book.
Rigorous but readable, Mary tells the tale of 1000 years of ancient Rome. I enjoyed it, probably more so, and with greater insight, than I did reading the abbreviated version of Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire many years ago.
She begins in the middle, around 63 BCE, with the story of Cicero putting down the conspiracy by Cataline and other members of the Roman Senate itself, a story that is well understood because Cicero himself was a writer, many of whose works have survived, and history is written by the winners. The true story we do not know!
Mary then takes us back to the beginnings of Rome and the legend of Romulus and Remus, the foundation story of Rome. As Rome began to expand and co-opt nearby communities there eventually emerged what is characterised as a time of absolute kings, which ended around 490 BCE when Tarquin was defeated, a Republic was declared, and kingship got a bad name. Pairs of consuls were elected and ruled on an annual basis, overseen by the Senate – or rather such a system eventually emerged. Rome expanded, co-opting subject peoples into the system, particularly the army.
While Cicero was still alive, ever expanding overseas adventures led to the emergence of two major figures, Pompey in the East and Julius Caesar in the West. After years of accomodation, in 49 BCE Caesar ‘crossed the Rubicon’ and engaged in civil war with Pompey. Pompey was eventually defeated and Caesar became dictator, or Emperor. Not for long, he was assassinated on the Ides of March in 44 BCE. Amazingly this led to many years of stability as Augustus Caesar dominated the scene for many years, dying in old age (possibly).
Problems of succession then dominated for the next 14 Emperors. In 212 ACE Caracalla extended citizenship to all inhabitants of the Empire, and a different game began, with ever-increasing turnover of Emperors. This is where Mary Beard leaves the subject, to be taken up by someone else!
Mary cautions against trying to draw lessons for today from these historic events. But what is clear from Rome’s history is the danger of any state becoming identified with one man (it’s always a man!). Then there is the inevitable problem of succession, competitors, warring factions, and wars. This is what democratic systems avoid, by providing for the people to elect a new leader from time to time. So beware any leader or faction which seeks to extend his/its leadership beyond the specified time, who wants to rule for life or be a one-party state, in fact any dictator, populist or otherwise, and any party that seeks to rule forever. I won’t name names.