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À mon chevet: 'SPQR'

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
Two things are clear and undermine a couple of misleading modern myths about Roman power and 'character'. First, the Romans were not by nature more belligerent than their neighbors and contemporaries, any more than they were naturally better at building roads and bridges. It is true that Roman culture placed an extraordinarily -- for us, uncomfortably -- high value on success in fighting. Prowess, bravery, and deadly violence in battle were repeatedly celebrated, from the successful general parading through the streets and the cheering crowds in his triumphal procession to the rank-and-file soldiers showing off their battle scars in the middle of political debates in the hope of adding weight to their arguments. In the middle of the fourth century BCE the base of the main platform for speakers in the Forum was decorated with the bronze rams of enemy warships captured from the city of Antium during the Latin War, as if to symbolize the military foundation of Roman political power. The Latin word for 'rams', rostra, became the name of the plaform and gave modern English its word 'rostrum'. [...]

Second, the Romans did not plan to conquer and control Italy. No Roman cabal in the fourth century BCE sat down with a map, plotting a land grab in the territorial way that we associate with imperialist nation-states in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For a start, simple as it sounds, they had no maps. What this implies for how they, or any other 'pre-cartographic' people, conceived the world around them, or just over their horizons, is one of history's great mysteries. I have tended to write of the spread of Roman power through the peninsula of Italy, but no one knows how many -- or, realistically, how few -- Romans at this date thought of their homeland as part of a peninsula in the way we picture it. A rudimentary version of the idea is perhaps implied by references in literature of the second century BCE to the Adriatic as the Upper Sea and the Tyrrhenian as the Lower Sea, but notably this is on a different orientation from ours, east-west rather than north-south.

-- Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, pp. 162-63
Mary Beard teaches classics at Cambridge University, and she writes an entertaining blog, so it is no surprise that this book, highly recommended in many best-of-the-year lists, has been an engaging read. For anyone with an interest in some facet of ancient Rome -- the area I teach regularly is its art and architecture -- will find here a concise but detailed account of the city's history, separating fact from fiction, historical truth from received notion. Prof. Beard opens up ways of looking into that ancient world, as in this passage about how the Romans, without maps, even conceived of the Italian peninsula.

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