The English classicist and historian, Mary Beard, has become a T.V. star and a bestselling author. SPQR, her new capsule history of the Roman empire, remains hard to find on bookstore and library shelves weeks after its release.
That has a lot to do with Beard’s rising profile — the New Yorker‘s Rebecca Mead named her “the troll hunter” for taking on critics of her frazzled onscreen look. But are we also wrestling with something like an imperial anxiety? Americans, and Brits, still remember that famous final fall, and wondering whether or not we’re doing as the Romans did.
Since Edward Gibbon, people have wondered what drove the demise of the glorious Roman empire, but Beard wants us to ponder the unlikelihood of its rise. Rome began as a humble backwater in the Italian hills, self-mythologized as a haven for outsiders and asylum-seekers, founded by the Trojan exile Aeneas or maybe by the murderous twin, Romulus, raised by a she-wolf.
It wasn’t at all obvious that Rome would become the hub of the ancient universe. It’s a place where a raucous democracy sprang up, then withered. Massive inequality of wealth is written all over the ruins of the city. Its histories are full of stabbings, corrupt bargains, usurpations, and rapes. And yet, in Beard’s long view, Rome’s essential openness — to the enslaved, to the poor, to the conquered outsider — gave it the military, economic and social strength required both for world takeover and for the pax Romana to follow.
Mary Beard’s short course is in our heads. With Chris Hedges, the political critic with an interest in antiquity, and Kathleen Coleman, one of the vivid minds in the Harvard classics department, we’re wondering where we stand now in the endless parade of fragile empires, and what kind of lessons we can draw from a far-off history that still feels close at hand.