A Victim of Its Own Success: Mary Beard Discusses the Collapse of the Roman Republic

By Don FranzenNovember 8, 2016

A Victim of Its Own Success: Mary Beard Discusses the Collapse of the Roman Republic
MARY BEARD IS AMONG the most noted classical scholars, having authored the best-selling The Fires of Vesuvius and Confronting the Classics, which was nominated by the National Book Critics Circle. Her latest book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, which came out in late 2015, takes on the vast subject of the rise and fall of the Roman Republic and its rebirth as an Empire. Professor Beard was recently in Los Angeles for a speaking engagement and spoke with LARB’s legal affairs editor, Don Franzen, about SPQR, the weaknesses that brought down the Roman Republic, and the parallels to the events now rocking the American Republic.


DON FRANZEN: I’m here with historian Mary Beard, author of several books on themes relating to the classical world, most recently SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. Interestingly, it’s a history that stops in 212 AD — it does not go on to 476 AD, which is traditionally thought of as the end of the Roman Empire. Mary, why end it at 212 AD?

MARY BEARD: Well the reasons are positive and negative ones. Positively, I think one of the linking themes of my book right from the very beginning is the idea of Roman citizenship. It’s how Romans incorporated more citizens, how Roman citizenship spread, and how the rights of Roman citizens were defined. In that story, 212 AD is an extremely important moment, because it is the moment when all the free inhabitants of the whole Roman Empire become Roman citizens.

And, that was an edict of the Emperor Caracalla?

It was an edict of the Emperor Caracalla; it probably gave citizenship to 30 million people at a stroke. It’s the biggest grant of citizenship ever in the history of the world, and therefore you see in some ways this story of who was going to be a Roman citizen and with what consequence, at that point, has come to a close. That’s the positive reason. It’s also a little-known date, which is quite surprising, but it is a major, major turning point really. Or end point, in a sense, of the completion of the Roman “citizen project.” So that’s the positive reason. I think some of the other reasons are more negative: in particular, that there really is no satisfactory place to end the story of the Roman Empire. So every choice is a compromise, could have been something else.

Maybe 1453?

Well the Eastern part of the Roman Empire, what we call the Byzantine Empire, goes on to 1453. Now, we call them the Byzantines, but they didn’t call themselves the Byzantines. We call them this after the town of Byzantium as it was originally called, later Constantinople. They called themselves Romans. So, if you’d asked a Byzantine Emperor what he was, he’d say a Roman Emperor. So, 1453 would be one date, but it would be a crazy date for the West. Another common date chosen is Constantine and the conversion to Christianity of the Roman Emperor. But none of these things actually mark a final ending point. They’re all arbitrary. So, I don’t think my 212 is any more arbitrary than any of the other dates. This is a small industry, really. You have all kinds of people who try desperately to determine when the Roman Empire ends, you know —

And 212 AD, in fact, was the culmination of the story you were telling.

It is, and after 212 things are very different. Because in a sense, as I say at the very end, to look on a bit. It is the end of the arc of the story. Every free person is a Roman citizen. So, hunky dory, everything is lovely, or is it? Well, of course, it’s not so simple. What happens? When everyone is a citizen, new forms of discrimination are invented to place barriers between the haves and the have-nots, the privileged and the non-privileged. And, really in some way you could say that 212, looking forward, marks the beginning of a sort of feudal Europe. And that’s a new story, and a story I think is very interesting, but it’s not my story.

I can’t help but reflect on the parallel that we’re facing in the United States on what to do with 11 million undocumented residents. Will we ultimately grant citizenship to them all, like the Emperor Caracalla did in 212? So here’s another point of resonance with the ancient world.

And, that’s obviously a reason, though only one that I chose citizenship as a theme in the book; we’re still battling over who can be citizens, who’s got papers, rights of residents, rights of migration. In Europe, as I’m sure you know, the big controversies are about illegal migrants and I think it’s very helpful to say to people that “illegal migrant” is a term the Romans would not have understood. One thing the Roman Empire had was freedom of movement. Inside, outside. That’s challenged a little when you get to the very late Empire after the period of my book, but I think it’s very helpful just to see a world in which this operated differently.

That’s a very interesting point. I want to comment as an amateur fan of Roman history, that in reading your book I felt perhaps one of your inspirations was Suetonius. Because I felt your book, instead of being strictly chronological, was organized more around topics in the way that Suetonius talked about the lives of the emperors. Instead of saying, “And then Augustus did this, and then Augustus did that,” he would talk about the character of the emperor, and what the emperor liked to eat, and who his friends were. Am I wrong? Was perhaps the example of Suetonius in the back of your mind?

I suspect it was subconsciously. And I think, you’ve always got a problem when you organize a big history like this. Basically, SPQR is chronological. There is one and only one aspect of the book that is violently anti-chronological. Which is to say, I start with the first chapter, in the middle of the story, in 63 BC.

So you start with Cicero’s crisis of the Republic.

I chose to start at the very moment where we know more than anything else. Here’s a moment, 63 BC, where we have evidence coming out of our earholes. And let’s use this as just a way of sitting ourselves in this community. Rome is having a political crisis that we can understand, that we can explore with the writings of the time. Let’s see what this tells us, what sort of snapshot it gives us, and then let’s go back to see where this all came from. Where did the Romans say it came from? So that’s one thing. I think the other thing about chronology is that Roman history falls into two halves, which is very important. First of all, there is the period from early Rome through the Republic when Rome is changing dramatically. Everything that happens from century to century makes a new kind of city. New politics, new crises, new controversies, and changes to the political order in very important ways. There’s a chronological drive up to the establishment of Empire. Now the problem about the establishment of Empire, for the historian, is at that point nothing happens. Once Augustus has given you the template, nothing changes. Now, that’s not to say that people’s lives weren’t disrupted in all kinds of ways. They fought little bits of wars here, big wars there, victories, defeats, whatever. They’re all kinds of microbits of action. But, if you had gone to sleep in 1 AD and you’d woken up in 201 AD you’d recognize the world as much the same. That could not ever be said for going to sleep in 400 BC and waking up in 150 AD in the new world. So, the first half of the book has a big chronological push, but then in the second you almost, like Suetonius realized, you have to be thematic. For centuries the world went on, in broad terms, the same.

Let’s talk about something you just alluded to, which is the transformation or the maturation of the Roman Republic leading up to its crises in the first century BC. You mentioned a moment ago the crisis of 63 BC where Cicero thought he had saved the Republic. We are in a big election year in the United States and a lot of people are feeling that the American Republic may be in crisis too. Not that we haven’t had crises before, but this is perhaps one of our biggest crises. In your book, you do discuss centuries of transformation in the Roman Republic from its early beginnings, which was essentially rule by an aristocracy, the gradual absorption of the broader citizenry into the government through popular assemblies and the people’s tribunes and all of that. There came a point where really, isn’t this true, Mary, there was some sort of shared power between the patricians and the plebeians, but then that somehow came undone.

I think the rules of the game changed in Rome, but I think that it’s very hard to know exactly what came undone. Certainly the early history of the Republic is about breaking down class divide. It’s about sharing the notion of Republican Liberty with everybody, it’s a series of big questions about what it is to be a Roman citizen, what rights and powers that entails, and how that might differ according to your social and wealth background. That is gradually, through kinds of different compromises, hammered out. Rome was never a society where the poor had as much power as the rich, alright? I don’t know if there has ever been a society in which you could say the poor have as much power as the rich. We’d like to think that classical Athens might have been like that, but I think there are quite good reasons for thinking that underneath, even there, it was the rich that for the most part dominated political initiative. Now, Rome is not interested in turning itself into a democracy. But, it is interested in knowing how free citizens live together and on what terms. That breaks down at the end of the Republic. I don’t, in some ways, think that they go back on the compromise and changes or really radically shift what they hammered out before. They don’t go back on that. But, what happens is that in the last century of the Roman Republic, the consequences of Empire and the consequences of running an Empire with the mechanisms of a relatively small city-state community really impact. Even though there are a million people now in Rome, they are still working with a political system that was devised, in its broad essentials, centuries ago. And that kind of city-state constitution can’t run an empire. It can’t run the whole world. And, the combination of that problem with vast increases of wealth — enormous amount of cash, slaves, all kinds of wealth coming into the city, in what is a highly competitive system — in the end sets powerful leading guys against each other. In a way, they are fighting to become emperor. We tend to see the end of the Republic as a period in which Julius Caesar, the would-be emperor, was locked in conflict with Pompey the Great who was representing senatorial traditions. The fact is, they were both practically emperors, and Pompey lost. Pompey is a guy who, in many ways, presents himself as a traditionalist, but he was breaking through the boundaries of republican office holding just as much as Caesar was. So, Rome is a culture that implodes. It implodes. It is a victim of its own success. It’s a small city-state triumphed around the world, and partly because of that it fissures and fractures. I’m not sure how like the United States that is; I have to say I’m only an observer of American politics. I’m not really sure it’s my business to comment about the elections going on here.

But please do.

I think you can see, or people try to see, similarities. And I think, for example, they try to present Trump as if he were, in some senses, Julius Caesar, in some senses, a demagogue. They try to find parallels. Journalists are always going to get up and say, “Which Roman Emperor is Trump most like?”

I’d say like Marius and Sulla put together.

What you have is a bag of parallels and you pick one out, and you can always run with it some way. That can be useful. The important thing about historical parallels, or comparisons, is not that they are exact, but they help you see things you didn’t see before. If you start to say, “In what sense is Trump like X,” that tells you a bit about Trump. But it doesn’t really mean that we should say, “Ha Ha, so Trump is Sulla.” I think there are comparisons with Rome that help you look and think fresh, about the people, or about modern government. I don’t think Rome has got any direct lesson, I’m happy to say, for the United States. And we shouldn’t be too certain what kind of crisis we’re in, or even if we’re in a crisis. Crises are very difficult to analyze at the time. A crisis is always a retrospective analytical tool. Everyone thinks they live through crises. I’ve said that the Roman Empire was all the same between Augustus up to Caracalla. It was basically the same. Historically that’s true. But there must have been people who thought they were living in turbulent times. There must have been moments where all seemed to be going to the bad. I think when we look at shifts that are currently happening in Western Democracy, and not only in the States, it’ll take a few years before we know if they were major shifts, and of course that’s the virtue of history. If we knew how to analyze what we were going through, at the time we were going through it, we wouldn’t need historians.

Well, perish the thought that we don’t need historians.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

I’m intrigued by a comment you made a moment ago, that it was the advent of the Empire that put so much pressure on the Roman Republic, and it calls to mind something that Patrick Henry said debating against the American Constitution in Virginia. He argued that Virginia should not ratify the Constitution, and his argument was, and I’m paraphrasing, “Liberty, not empire, should be the object of your government.” So his fear was that empire would eventually undo democracy.

I think what’s very interesting for me, and I say as an observer of the States and not as a participant, is the way that much more than in the United Kingdom, the very self-consciousness of the Founding Fathers and the early politicians about Roman history means that there has been a long tradition of debate here, not necessarily following the Romans, but very productively using Roman examples and terms. I notice that even now very much with Americans in Cambridge. They come to Cambridge as students and they are much more attuned to some of the basic buzzwords of Roman political debate than my own homegrown students.

I wanted to explore with you for a little bit how the structure of the American Constitution in many ways parallels the mature Roman Republic. Of course there was always a Senate. The Romans always had a Senate, which was composed of the aristocracy, the patrician class. But, SPQR does stand for, in English, Senate and the People of Rome. Right? Both the Senate and the People, and eventually the People got to have their own legislative body which was —

Pretty soon. That’s the nature of the Republic, that the People have a legislative body, or better are the legislative body.

Which was called the Roman Assembly, or the People’s Assembly?

Right, right. The details of the Roman constitution and how it votes and elects people is a minefield. But, essentially what happens is that the political rights in the early Republic are in some way restricted to the rich patrician class. That is broken down by the middle of the Republic, by say 300 BC. After that, there is some difference between patricians and plebeians in political and religious rights, but very little. There are some priesthoods you could only do if you were a patrician. You’ve got in practice a mixed, patrician-plebian political body, even if there are some formally different assemblies and rights.

So just as in the States we have a Senate and a House of Representatives, the Romans had a Senate and a Popular Assembly. So they had an analogous legislative balance.

I’m not sure about that. As much as I admire those people who devised the American Constitution, I think they cherry-picked from the Roman Republic. They took some of its basic principles — the idea of liberty. If they were aiming to replicate Roman constitutional arrangements, they didn’t do it very well. Thank heavens.

They tried to improve upon it!

Yes, they improved it. So in my terms they were using it, doing what I think everyone should do with Roman history actually: use it, go beyond it, debate it, represent it. Use it as a dialogue about how to do politics. And that’s what the Founding Fathers were doing. But this is to say, me speaking very much from the outside.

We have, more or less, about a 400-year arc from the founding of the Republic until the late Republic when it finally came undone. So that’s a good run actually, when you think about it. We haven’t made it that far in the States yet. But they did come to some points of really serious crisis in the first century BC, and I’d like to talk about that because some of the things I understand were going on then. I feel there are some, again, analogies to our experience in the United States right now. I think the Roman Republic got to the point where they were suffering from gridlock in their legislative bodies. They couldn’t get reforms through that we really needed to get through. Land reforms in particular. The famous Gracchi Brothers tried to get changes through and I think they both got beaten to death by mobs.

I think you can call it gridlock if you like, and I know exactly what you’re referring to. And that is one way of understanding what was going on. But, I don’t think it’s the sole explanation. If you look at it with a long view, what you see as gridlock may be the presenting symptom, but it is caused by fundamental and irreconcilable differences about how the state should be run. It’s caused, for example, by questions like: Who should benefit from the profits of empire? And how do you fairly adjudicate and spread, divide those profits? What is Rome’s relationship with the people who live in the places they have conquered? What responsibility do they have to them? Now, I think what’s happening really is they are dealing with very big questions. A case in point is Tiberius Gracchus, who gets into terrible trouble once he has been elected tribune of the people, twice. The tradition was you only held that position once. Tiberius was flouting tradition. Some of the old guard would say that was a revolutionary move. Rome didn’t have a written constitution, but the rules are there. And one general rule was that you didn’t repeat offices back to back, only possibly with a few years’ gap. But Tiberius is elected twice in a row, and you can see exactly what the conservative position against that is. The answer from Tiberius Gracchus is, “The popular assembly elected me. It is up to the popular assembly to elect whoever it wants. And if they want me twice, they have me twice.”

So it’s power to the people?

Yes, and it’s very easy to take sides in Roman history, but it’s important to see what the arguments look like on either side. On the one hand, you’ve got those who would have said that Roman society was run by people who did not hold office for a long time, and that was terribly important to the constitution because Romans divided and shared power. On the other hand, you’ve got those who would insist that the people had a right to elect whomever they wanted. Now, you can say that gridlock is the result. But, it isn’t some kind of absence of mind, or bloody-mindedness causing it. It’s real differences of strongly held, and reasonable ideological positions.

They were accumulating tremendous wealth, but you’re saying a big problem was how to divide up that wealth. Who would benefit from it?

That’s one of the problems. When Tiberius Gracchus wants to use profits coming to Rome from the bequest of King Attalus, who’d “given” his kingdom to Rome to distribute land to the landless peasantry — is that an entirely appropriate use of the people’s money for the benefit of the people? Or is it a hijack of the State’s money for an entirely sectional interest? Both of those positions are possible to hold. And, I think the more I’ve looked at the Roman Republic the more I’ve been struck by how there are real ideological and political arguments going on. It used to be said quite often, “Look all that’s happening is power broking at the top. They’re all in it for themselves. They occasionally use the People if the People turn out to be convenient to their own cause. They’ll misuse religious lore in order to stop the other guy passing his legislation. But, it’s all a game which has no ideology, only about gaining power.” But I have increasingly thought that line does not fit the evidence. These conflicts are something. They’re not just about whether I’m going to win, or the next guy, they’re about the State should be run.

I think, if I may suggest, we are having some of the same conflicts right now. Issues of equity, distribution of wealth, are at the core of what a lot of candidates in the United States are debating at this moment.

That’s right. I think you can get some people who look across at American politics from my side of the Atlantic and they say what I used to say about Rome. Look, it’s a load of rich guys fighting it out for who’s gonna be president; all we know is you’ve got to be a billionaire and Republicans, Democrats, what’s the difference? This is just power broking talk. Now, actually, my hunch is you don’t get these clashes just over the whim of two extremely wealthy individuals. When you have these clashes, it is about equity, how we divide the resources, about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots. Thank heavens it is. Because it would be really awful if we were, we or the Romans, having these bitter arguments just about some guy’s career. They’re actually having arguments about what is important, like we are.

As events unfolded things took a bad turn in the late Republic. Demagogues arose —

You have to be careful about the term “demagogue” because it is only a term of abuse. The bottom line is that a “demagogue” is someone speaking powerfully in support of views you don’t hold.

Let’s just say that authoritarian figures arose.

We tend to write off people as demagogues; in fact, the word “demagogue” is very much a way of writing off people. And I find it easy, we all find it easy, to say, “Oh look at that awful demagoguery.” Well, it might be in some ways, but actually you’ve got to engage with the argument. You’ve got to show them why they’re wrong. Because demagogues are always arguing something.

Point taken, you’re right. But it seems through the rise of Sulla, who became dictator for how many years? Ten years? With him, the Republic took a big shift to, let’s call it the “right wing.” It took a big conservative shift, and I think Sulla was trying to shore things up to create a stable Republic. However, not that long after his death, the whole thing unravels and then we have Caesar, dictator for life, and then after that Emperor Augustus. I know this is a topic for a book by itself, but what do you think happened here? Was there was a sort of counterrevolution, and attempt to restore a conservative order that then just unravels?

I think you have to be quite careful — though it’s very tempting and I do it myself — about using words like “conservative,” “right wing,” or “left wing” in relation to Rome. I think you’re absolutely right about Sulla. In some ways, he was a butcher, a really nasty character; in some ways, he was trying to save the Republic from implosion. He was trying to stop it by, in a sense, a fictitious return to the traditions of Rome. The conservative mantra is always about return. We have it in England, “Give me my country back.”

Or in America.

BOTH: “Make America great again.”

They’re always fictitious, but they’re also very powerful. So Sulla, in some ways, is reinventing a notion of a traditional constitution. But you’ve got a political process that is sinking under its own weight. In Rome, it’s literally sinking. If everybody there turned out to vote, how long would it take? Well over a day to get these people up to vote. So you have cumbersome machinery given the number of people, and in the ideological clashes, there is basically a clash between not right wing and left wing, but between the supporters of popular authority and supporters of senatorial elite authority. Which paradoxically, ends up with Julius Caesar, who is a popular dictator. Caesar is the origin of Roman autocracy but he comes to power on the back, and with the support of the huge populace.

I just finished the biography of Augustus by Adrian Goldsworthy and there was a quote from the later Roman historian Cassius Dio, from the third century AD, that struck me. So I just thought I would read it to you and ask if it calls to mind any thoughts of your own. Dio writes,

Monarchy […] has a most unpleasant sound, but it is a most practical form of government to live under. For it is easier to find a single excellent man than many of them […] for it does not belong to the majority of men to acquire virtue […] Indeed, if ever there has been a prosperous democracy, it has in any case been at its best for only a brief period.

Kind of a grim assessment of democracy.

Well, it is a quote from Dio, but it comes from a very particular moment in his History, at the beginning of the book that tells of the assassination of Julius Caesar. People extract very winning phrases from ancient authors, yet they aren’t quite what they seem when you look at the context. But for me, I don’t see that as quite as grim an assessment as it may seem at first sight. Because it’s an example of a huge, standing debate in Greco-Roman political discourse, which goes back to Herodotus, and asks, “What kind of political organization is the best?” And you’ve got three basic sorts of constitution. You’ve got one-man rule, monarchy, and in its bad form, autocracy. You’ve got aristocratic rule and its bad form, oligarchy. And you’ve got popular rule, democracy, which in its bad form is ochlocracy, the government of the mob. Greco-Roman writing is full of stuff like that. They are constantly trying to weigh up how these forms of constitution relate to each other, which you would choose, whether some are sustainable and others unsustainable, is there a developmental scheme between monarchy, aristocracy, democracy. And those kinds of reflections by people like Dio speak in all kinds of ways to us or against us, and they are part of the powerfully interesting and very formative ways in which the ancients formed the basic building bricks for how we talk about politics. They remind us how we still draw the same distinctions as they do, and have the same anxieties. There is no right constitution, right? There isn’t one. And we are brought up, naturally, with the knee-jerk reaction to say democracy. But then which sort of democracy? A lot counts as democracy. Is it a democracy when the only people who can hold political power are very rich? Or is it really an aristocracy? Now we know that there are no right answers.

Right answers or not this has been a fantastic conversation. At the end of your book, you say perhaps we don’t simply learn from the Romans but that we should engage with the Romans. And it has been a pleasure to engage in this conversation with you.


Don Franzen is an entertainment lawyer based in Beverly Hills. He is also an adjunct professor at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music teaching on the law and the music industry and the legal affairs editor for LARB.

LARB Contributor

Don Franzen is a lawyer in Beverly Hills specializing in entertainment and business law. He has lectured on entertainment law at the Eastman School of Music, Santa Monica College’s Academy of Entertainment and Technology, the Berklee School of Music in Valencia, Spain, and lectures at UCLA’s Herb Albert School of Music, where he teaches two courses on the law and the music industry. He has published articles on legal issues in newspapers, magazines, and law journals. He serves on the board of the Los Angeles Opera and counts among his clients leading performers in opera, orchestral music, film, and the recording industries. He is the legal affairs editor for Los Angeles Review of Books.


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