Don’t ask me why, but of late I’ve developed this rabid curiosity about that distant historical time known as “antiquity.” If it’s medieval, it’s for me. Maybe it’s a byproduct of moving on in years and feeling faintly antiquated myself.
A local online community newspaper referred to sixtysomethings in a recent story as “elderly men.” Predictably, judging by the head shot of the reporter, it was written by someone who is youngerly.
Meanwhile, back in antiquity, among books I’m burying my head in this millennium is one that microscopically examines the world as it was some three millennia ago: “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome” (Liveright Publishing, 2015). The book’s author is Mary Beard, a classics professor at the University of Cambridge in London whose celebrity as a cultural icon in that country has no equal in ours.
She says she was researching and writing it for nigh on 50 years, and the prodigious scholarship of its 600 pages—tracing Rome’s evolution over the course of a millennium, from 753 BCE to 212 CE—attest to the life’s work of a fastidious historian.
SPQR is a Latin acronym for “The Senate and People of Rome” (Senatus PopulusQue Romanus).
Coursing through the tome is Ms. Beard’s constant comparison of Rome’s earliest recorded history, as chronicled by its own literary figures in the first and second centuries BCE, with the revisionist history that she has unearthed 20 centuries hence.
That contrast between a first draft of history and a much later, more considered draft, serves to remind us there really is no official history of any place, event, peoples, or era.
A related lesson gleaned for any culture, including America’s—at a mere 240 years old still in its infancy by Old World standards—is that even the familiar “facts” that we learn by rote in our histories are handed down to us by subjective arbiters, which is to say journalists, historians and other scribes.
That means if certain pieces of any history are necessarily salted with mythic granules, it might be said that objectivity in reporting history is the biggest myth of all.
The central example of this in “SPQR” are the various tales purportedly explaining the birth of Rome. The most fabled concerns twins named Romulus and Remus, whose mother’s milk as infants were said to be provided by a wolf. The conceit is that Romulus founded the place that became his namesake. The author summarily debunks this fanciful saga as nothing more than an elaborate ruse invented to enrich and entertain the citizenry with a mystical legacy. It’s as if to conjure Rome’s origins as a gift from the gods, while its true origins are infinitely more mundane.
Mary Beard ends her book in 212 C.E., notable for the emperor at the time, Caracalla, making “every free inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen.” Not only Roman senators, but even emperors, could be of various foreign origin. One was from Africa, another from Spain.
Mary Beard writes of “Roman political culture’s extraordinary openness to incorporate outsiders, which set it apart from every other ancient Western society that we know.” Remarkably, inhabitants of lands conquered by the Romans—which became provinces of Rome—“were gradually given full Roman citizenship, and the legal rights and protections that went with it.”
A similar spirit of humanism informed the treatment of Roman slaves, who could buy their freedom, or be freed in other ways, and were endowed with the full benefits of citizenship.
Rome’s method of census-taking, a practice that it invented, was tied to military duty and voting in elections.
The wealthiest citizens were given the most elaborate and protective military gear, such as heavy bronze armor. At the other end of the class spectrum, those with few assets were outfitted with slings and stones (think David vs. Goliath). Perhaps most counter-intuitive to modern norms, the poorest were exempt altogether from military service.
All of today’s political prattle about “rigged systems,” notably where the presidential primaries were concerned, is nothing new. In olden times, however, the imbalance in power among voters, rather than considered rogue, was institutionalized as standard practice. “The richest citizens were far fewer in number than the poor,” writes Mary Beard, but “...the individual rich voter had far greater voting power than his poorer fellow citizens… Power was vested in the wealthy, both communally and individually.”
The message therein echoes through the millennia to today’s allegations voiced by certain candidates and their supporters that some state presidential primaries are not level playing fields in how ballots are cast.
If there’s a moral to the story, it is somewhat self-evident, and writ large in the immortal aphorism of 19th-20th century Spanish philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Remembering the past is not enough, though. Redressing the past is the path to reform.
Media and marketing specialist Bruce Apar is Chief Content Officer of Pinpoint Marketing & Design, a Google Partner Agency. As “Bruce the Blog,” Apar is a weekly columnist for Halston Media newspapers and PennySaver, and a contributing writer for Westchester Magazine. Follow him as Bruce the Blog and Hudson Valley WXYZ on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.