Mary Beard

This article is a preview from the Winter 2015 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.

Mary Beard is Britain’s most loved popular classicist. She has studied Roman history for nearly 50 years. She is currently Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Her new book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (Profile), argues that after 2,000 years, Ancient Rome still helps define the way we live our lives today.

How did ancient Rome – an ordinary little town – come to control such a huge empire?
Well, most of the things people often imagine about Rome’s expansion aren’t really true. The Romans don’t sit down and have a grand plan to conquer the world or have particularly better tactics or equipment than their neighbours. But they have strength of manpower, and boots on the ground. The reason they have that is because they have an incorporating attitude to citizenship. When they conquer people, they bring them into the Roman project, so that they have an overwhelming number of troops. That is crucial, because it means their empire is built upon making people citizens.

What was the function of religion?
It was about ensuring the success of the state. The Gods were, in a sense, larger-than-life systems. The Gods existed as part of the Roman world, they controlled Roman success, and the success of Rome leaned heavily on the success of the Gods. They were very much “big” citizens of Rome.

How did Christianity change Roman civilisation?
It was hugely influential. It’s much more complicated than it seems, because after the period of persecution, Christianity became the absolute founding rock of a continuing Roman Empire, particularly in the East. But the cultural and religious revolution that Christianity brought about was something that marks the beginning of modernity in a way.

Was the change for better or worse?
I don’t make that judgement. There is plenty about St Paul that I don’t fancy!

The ancient world was violent, but Romans had some values the Christian world lacked.
It’s very hard to make moral comparisons between the two. For example, the crusades doesn’t resemble what we would think of as Christian values. The other thing is that early Christianity was very different from the religion we imagine today. They didn’t have the straightforward doctrine, and they were all fighting each other about what Jesus actually said. There were big power struggles in the Christian church, just as there had been in the Roman Empire, in the imperial administration. On the other hand, there are certain elements of basic Christian doctrine that one feels might represent an improvement on Roman imperial values, including the idea that poverty was not to be derided.

The Roman Empire saw mass human migration. Are there parallels with today’s refugee crisis?
Yes. People tend to think of ancient communities as very different from ours, that people were not mobile and they grew up where they were born. But it’s important for us to remember that mass movements of people are not a new phenomenon. If you go back 2,000 years, people are moving around the Mediterranean from one place to another. Granted, some of that mass movement was slavery. And it was not all free movement. But other bits of it were free. The Roman world is one in which people move around.

You write in the book about fears about outsiders flooding into the city.
Well, there may have been a mass movement of people, and a vast incorporation of new citizens, but that doesn’t mean that the Romans were liberal in our terms. They were also well capable of being nasty to foreigners. Those two things can go together. You can have mass movement of people, and you can have an idea of the incorporation of citizens. But that doesn’t always mean that people are gentle and nice, and that it’s all a big cultural melting pot. People can be xenophobic to foreigners, and of course if you get called a barbarian, things aren’t so great.

What do we know about Roman sexuality?
Rome was a very phallic culture, really, built on male power. Women were not treated nearly as badly as they were in Greece. But neither were they treated as formal political agents. You can see the nature of it very clearly if you go to a place like Pompeii, where there are phalluses everywhere. I don’t think it’s do with sex, literally. It’s more about a world that is seen through the eyes of genitalia and men. There are places where women have control, but the normative values of Rome are male values.

What was the main difference between the first thousand years of the Roman Empire and the second?
The previous thousand years had been a major project, even if it was not necessarily a conscious one. It led to greater incorporation of the people into the empire, granting them full Roman citizenship. And when that is achieved, two things then happen. Firstly, Romans start to invent different forms of discrimination to mark the privileged from the unprivileged. Everyone has become a citizen, but not all are quite as equal as others. Also, there becomes a much clearer distinction between the inside and the outside of the Roman Empire. In the inside, they are citizens, and on the outside, they are not. That puts much greater stress on the borders of the Empire that hadn’t been there before. That eventually becomes a huge problem in Rome about migration, and people who want to come into the empire.

Did “the fall of the Roman Empire” exist?
There is no such thing as the fall of the Roman Empire. At least in the East, where the Roman Empire lasts until the 15th century. What is going on is there are issues around governing a vast empire in one central location.
Also, at this point in the third century, there is much greater tension around issues like succession, who becomes emperor and so forth. Because crucially, many emperors are made by the army and the frontiers. And in a sense, that is also decentralising the Empire and changing it for ever.