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Thursday, November 19, 2015

ROMA ANTICA

Speranza




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CreditSonny Figueroa/The New York Times























Mary Beard is well known in England, so much so that when the magazine The Oldie — that country’s vastly more sophisticated version of our AARP magazine — named her its 2013 pinup of the year, no one had to ask: Who?


Ms. Beard is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, the author of a shelf of books, a stalwart on BBC television and radio, and the author of a witty and combative blog, “A Don’s Life,” written for the website of The Times Literary Supplement.
The publication of her new book, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome,” feels like a potential crossover moment. Ms. Beard was profiled in The New Yorker last year (expertly, by Rebecca Mead), yet her renown has not fully made the leap over the Atlantic Ocean.
“SPQR” — the title derives from an acronym of the Latin phrase Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, meaning “the senate and people of Rome” — is a sprawling but humane volume that examines nearly 1,000 years in the early history of that teeming city and empire.
Ms. Beard takes up Rome’s foundational myth of Romulus and Remus (those abandoned twins, said to have been suckled by a lactating wolf) and moves us through A.D. 212, when Emperor Caracalla made the revolutionary declaration that all free inhabitants of the vast Roman empire, wherever they lived, were now Roman citizens.
In between, she considers the lives and meanings of figures like Julius Caesar, Hannibal, Spartacus, Nero, Cleopatra, Augustus and Caligula (it is typical of her to remind us that “Caligula” is a childhood nickname that roughly means “Bootikins”), while attending to the writers who chronicled the age: men like Cicero, Livy, Horace, Virgil and Pliny the Younger.
By necessity this book is, more often than not, a history of great men. Early on, at least, Roman peasants left few historical traces. Wood and straw do not survive the way marble does.

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Mary Beard, whose latest book could lead to a bigger following in the United States.Credit

Women were subordinate to their husbands and left behind little writing. “The autobiography of the emperor Nero’s mother, Agrippina,” Ms. Beard writes of the missing book, “must count as one of the saddest losses of classical literature.” When solid information about everyday life in Rome begins to emerge in the historical record, however, Ms. Beard pays rapt attention.
She is a debunker and a complicator. Do not come to this book for grand vistas, magisterial certainty or pinpoint war strategy. She refers to the Battle of Actium in 31 B.C., for example, as “a rather low-key, slightly tawdry affair” and then adds, in a very Beardian aside, “Perhaps more decisive military engagements are low-key and tawdry than we tend to imagine.”
About Edward Gibbon, whose multivolume “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” began to be published in 1776, Ms. Beard comments that he “lived in an age when historians made judgments” without hesitation. She will not be of that sort.
It’s a weakness of “SPQR” that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do. She is so subtle, hedging every bet, that the ceiling fans sometimes cease to circulate the air.
You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In “SPQR” she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power) while maintaining an intimate tone.
“In some ways, to explore ancient Rome from the 21st century is rather like walking on a tightrope, a very careful balancing act,” she writes. “If you look down on one side, everything seems reassuringly familiar: there are conversations going on that we almost join, about the nature of freedom or the problems of sex; there are buildings and monuments we recognize and family life lived out in ways we understand, with all their troublesome adolescents; and there are jokes that we ‘get.’”
“On the other side, it seems completely alien territory. That means not just the slavery, the filth (there was hardly any such thing as refuse collection in ancient Rome), the human slaughter in the arena and the death from illnesses whose cure we now take for granted; but also the newborn babies thrown away on rubbish heaps, the child brides and the flamboyant eunuch priests.”
Ms. Beard’s prose is never mandarin, yet she treats her readers like peers. She pulls us into the faculty lounge and remarks about debates that can make or end academic careers. She prints a drawing of Pliny the Younger’s immense villa, for example, and remarks, “It has been a favorite scholarly pastime for centuries to take Pliny’s own description of the place and to try to re-create an image or plan of it.”
She is consistently but not deformingly alert to irony, to satire, to humor in its high and low forms. Sometimes she merely has to supply the details. She notes that one Roman contraception technique involved “wearing the worms found in the head of a particular species of hairy spider.” She enjoys cataloging ancient put-downs. “You baldy” is among the few that can be printed here.
Just as often the humor is a byproduct of her myth-busting stride across the territory. About Caligula, for example, she writes: “The idea of some modern scholars that his dinner parties came close to orgies, with his sisters ‘underneath’ him and his wife ‘on top,’ rests simply on a mistranslation of the words of Suetonius, who is referring to the place settings — ‘above’ and ‘below’ — at a Roman dining table.” Yes, this is how rumors start.
You come to Ms. Beard’s books to meet her as much as her subjects. They are idiosyncratic and offbeat, which is to say, pleasingly hers.

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