Tuesday, December 15, 2020


I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans—or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. I am not even certain that those generals who claim to follow the tactics of Julius Caesar really do so in more than their own imaginations. And attractive as some Roman approaches to citizenship may sound, as I have tried to explain them, it would be folly to imagine that they could be applied to our situation, centuries later. Besides, ‘the Romans’ were as divided about how they thought the world worked, or should work, as we are. There is no simple Roman model to follow. If only things were that easy.

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn—as much about ourselves as about the past—by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a very varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing.

Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (535). Liveright. [2015] Kindle Edition

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