What Have the Romans Done for Us?

What? Caligula didn’t really put his horse Incitatus into the Senate, order his legionaires to gather seashells for his combat with Neptune, God of the Sea, or sleep with his sister and later kill her? Nero didn’t fiddle whilst Rome burned, or attempt to drown his mother in a collapsible boat? And kicking his pregnant wife to death may have been domestic violence carried too far.

What? Julius Caesar didn’t cry “Et tu Brute?” to the leader of his assassins? Augustus’ second wife Livia was not the arch-poisoner portrayed by Robert Graves in “I Claudius”?. Tiberius wasn’t won’t to swim with naked little boys nibbling at his naughty bits? Claudius wasn’t a gentle old duffer who wouldn’t hurt a fly?

In her highly readable, popular history of Royal, Republican and Imperial Rome, acclaimed British historian Mary Beard consigns these and other popular Roman apocrypha to the Urban Legend file. Which may cause a certain degree of distress for those of who like their history garnished with a few saucy anecdotes (click on Roman Holiday in the menu above this post).

She attributes these highly entertaining stories to prurient scandal-mongering, sensationalism, and the vicarious pleasure of folks with dirty minds, and, significantly, to political spin and perception-management on the part of the kings, tyrants and emperors, and of heirs and successors responsible for creating, embellishing, and sustaining the public record. At one point, she states matter-of-factly that those who were assassinated were portrayed post-mortem as tyrants, sadists or perverts – or in a case of “the worse the better” “all of the above”! No wonder Roman emperors portrayed in “sword and sandal” movies from ‘The Robe’ and ‘Barrabas’ to ‘Gladiator’, are, like Lord Byron, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.

Caligula may or may not have been the bad lad we know so well, via Bob Guccione and John Hurt. Beard insists on calling him by his proper name, Gaius, rather than his childhood nickname, the horrorshow-sounding Caligula. The amiable, bookish Claudius was as ruthless and as brutal an autocrat as any of his predecessors and successors, dispatching scores of recalcitrant or lecherous senators to Hades (incidentally, it was Domitian who liked hurting flies). So too was Marcus Aurelius, the “philosopher king”, author of wise sayings and aphorisms, and beloved of adolescent philosophers.

Nero might not have been any worse or better than the others. Indeed, Beard argues, the fact that several Nero pretenders popped up, lyre and all, in various places after his death, demonstrates that he mightn’t have been all that unpopular, particularly in the provinces. Indeed, Beard suggests, Rome’s subjects in far-flung provinces would have had very little knowledge of or interest in the political shenanigans and sexual peccadillos of their rulers. Their only acquaintance with their emperor would have been with statues and the royal visage on the change in their pockets.

With Rome’s tabloid icons falling like flies (Domitian liked to torture them, by the way), thank Zeus Mary kept her revisionist hands of my all-time favourite classical baddie, King Herod the Great.

SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome – challenges assumptions and preconceptions about the history of Rome, about the expansion of its empire, and about its citizens. For example, the accepted belief that the Romans were more rapacious and war-like, and much better organized than their neighbours – in early days, those who lived near the city state, neighbouring lands in Italy, and after a very short time, kingdoms, states, and chiefdoms as far apart as Caledonia in the west and Armenia in the east.

Rome’s neighbours and rivals were indeed just as aggressive, territorial, and acquisitive as the early kings who expanded their territories throughout Italy, the republican consuls and imperial generals who pushed the frontiers into Western Europe, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. Rome’s rivals, peers and enemies included formidable leaders and war lords with names like early contemporaries like Alexander and Artaxerxes. Enemies like Hannibal Barca, Spartacus, Vercingetorix, Armenius, and Boudica.

But SPQR isn’t all just about personalities and geopolitics. Beard delves into the dynamics of power in the state itself. How Rome, the city state and later, the empire were actually run. How powerful and influential individuals collaborated and collided in their quest for wealth and influence. And how rewarding and also how tenuous and dangerous life at the top could be. Whilst Beard would question Robert Graves’ portrayal of the Augustine emperors, she would not quibble with his take on the tension, uncertainty and risk endured by ambitious Romans who gambled for high stakes rather than going with the flow and keeping their heads down.

Most, indeed, did choose to keep their heads down, and endeavour to live a quite normal life. A life which, for those at the top of the social and economic ladder, could be very comfortable indeed. For those further down the socio-economic staircase, all was not so pleasant and delightful. Rather, for both free man and slave it was a life of toil and hardship literally from the cradle to the grave. Child Labour, long hours, unsafe working conditions, seven days a week. No weekend rest, no retirement benefits, no insurance cover. Ordinary people worked as soon as they could hold a pick or shovel, until injury, age or infirmity rendered them unproductive and expendable. But there was time for leisure, and contrary to modern preconceptions, it was not always bread and circuses. As in our own day and age, folk were more likely to have sought solace in the bottle and good fortune in the dice.

Using the limited archeological sources available – whilst the lives of important Romans are well examined, those of ordinary people are rare indeed – Beard illuminates her narrative with snapshots of the everyday lives of regula Antonys and Antonias. Although bits and pieces have been unearthed in settlements from North Africa to the Balkans, Pompeii and Herculaneum are a particularly rich source, as are the forts along Hadrian’s Walls, on the northern edge of empire. The wonderful Vindolanda tablets have preserved a picture of the oh-so-normal lives of transplanted souls so far away from home. See my earlier post, Roman Wall Blues.

The vignettes of Pompeii and Vindolanda illustrate one of Beard’s leitmotifs – the fact that Rome and Romans were much, much more than the city founded by the wolf-raised twins Romulus and Remus. Roman-ness and Romanization were as much a state of mind as a temporal, political imperium. People of all races, tribes, nations, and faiths from Spain to Syria, from Caerleon to Carthage, adopted Roman ways, institutions, commodities, food and beverages, artifacts, and even Latin names, to a greater or lesser degree depending on their proximity to Roman camps and towns, to Roman trade routes, and ultimately, to Roman authority. And many acquired Roman citizenship. And they entered Rome’s service, as soldiers, scholars, public servants, and politicians. By the end of the second century, some fifty percent of the senators were provincials.

Other histories of Rome have ended with the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 337 CE signaling the end of pagan antiquity, or with the sack of Rome by the Visigoths 410. Beard closes instead with the “culminating moment,” in 212 when the emperor Caracalla declared every free inhabitant of the empire a full Roman citizen – almost thirty million provincials became Roman overnight in one of the the biggest grants of citizenship in the history of the world. Beard comes to no definitive conclusion as to why the underwhelming Caracalla made this move, but it’s effect was momentous insofar as it eroded the distinction between the Romans and the people they had conquered, colonized, and ruled – the culmination of a process that had been going on for almost a millennium.

The final pages describe how in form, function, and faith, the Rome that departed the Third Century was not the one that Augustus built and Caracalla bequeathed to the many, short lived emperors who followed him in rapid succession during a time of political and social instability, rebellion and civil war, barbarian invasion and plague – until Constantine established his capital in the east and built the Roman world anew. And this new Rome, the Byzantine Empire, with its capital Constantinople, was to endure until it fell to the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. The Holy Roman Empire, in Central Europe, was brought down by Napoleon in 1806, but as Voltaire observed, it was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire”. Take that!

Unexpectedly, Beard does not conclude her thought-provoking, and entertaining survey of Rome’s first millennium with a catalogue of the many ways we have benefitted or suffered from our Roman heritage. We do not have much to learn directly from the Romans, she writes, but we have much to learn about ourselves and the past by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. “We do the Romans a disservice if heroize them, as much as we if we demonize them. But we do ourselves a disservice if we fail to take them seriously – and if we close our long conversation with them”.

On that note, concluding an invigorating walk down what Welsh poet RS Thomas called ‘the long road of history”, I will leave the last word to Monty Python.


This post is my own take-out of an entertaining and educational ride through Roman history. Every published review approaches it from different angle according to the perspectives and passions of the writer. And I have done likewise.

Some Further Reading:






And some pieces from my ‘Roman’ period:

3 thoughts on “What Have the Romans Done for Us?

  1. […] The new year commenced with a reprise of our memorable journey to Hadrians Wall, and of the Victorian lawyer who helped preserve it for posterity, the saga of the viking Harald Hardraga and also, my subjective overview of world history. In a more lighthearted vein, I indulged in an unscholarly discussion of how film and fiction have portrayed or distorted history, and in a review of Mary Beard’s superlative history of Rome, I asked the immortal question “what have the Romans done for us?” […]

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