SPQR by Mary Beard

513c6yrnmzl-_sx323_bo1204203200_I was a bit cautious in picking this up – Mary Beard is great on TV, interviews and in the other books I’ve read; but a 500 page general history of Rome … I’m no academic, but I’ve read a bit.  Would I be beyond this?  Thankfully no!  The familiar narrative comes up, but the greater part of the book (in both senses) has Beard questioning our knowledge and interpretation of Rome.

The narrative sections are fine: it’s not quite the storytelling flow of Tom Holland, but that’s not Beard’s style.  She is chatty and opinionated, but constantly keen to present other sides of the story, other “ways of seeing” to use a phrase that came up in her recent series Civilizations.

The story begins with the founding of Rome and ends with Caracalla, just before the crisis of the third century – possibly beyond the high point, but before the decline really hits.  Is the book about the unstoppable rise of Rome and the associated imperial conquests?  Not exactly.  Mary Beard would see their conquests as brutal, but of their time.  She would see its rise as impressive, but not inevitable.

In the end, she doesn’t look for lessons in Rome: what they did right (and they did plenty) or what they did wrong (and they did plenty of that too).  She just looks for a humanity, a real human experience that connects their world to ours; and as far as can be done, she succeeds in bringing it to life.

Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Explaining jokes is a sure way to remove any comedy from them.  Luckily this book is quite a serious take on Roman attitudes to humour.  Beard discusses what the Romans found funny and why, how we can identify humour in ancient sources, and what this tells us about their culture.

She admits that attempts to construct a general theory of laughter are always flawed, so there is no attempt to make one here, but there is a review of previous explanations from the time of the Romans onwards.  The humour has the same range that we might find nowadays, from the practical jokes of cruel emperors, witty one-upmanship between rivals, to reference humour and puns in the theatre.  They find bald people and monkeys hilarious, and there’s endless jokes about absent minded academics and regions of the empire.

The humour can sometimes be hard to identify, if we know there’s a joke we may find ourselves searching in vain for puns, when the comedy may be based on elements of social or political culture that simply haven’t passed down to us.  Or, of course, the joke may just be a poor one.  It’s almost impossible to tell the delivery of the jokes. Finally, casual jokes on topics like slavery or crucifixion in particular stand out as somewhat (but not entirely) alien.

Some jokes, however, don’t go out of fashion. The joke below has been recycled from the time of Augustus to Sigmund Freud and Iris Murdoch.

There came to Rome a man who looked very like the emperor.  Augustus ordered the man to be brought to him, and asked “Tell me, young man, was your mother ever at Rome?”  “No,” he said.  He then added “But my father was, often”.

Roman humour, as with so much of the culture, has been developed over the centuries into our own modern day socieities, so it’s so surprise if some of it still seems like one we’ve heard before.  This book provides some food for thought on how we can relate to ancient societies, and is probably as much of interest to fans of anthropology or psychology as fans of classical history.