Mary Beard says Europe's migrant crisis looks different from the perspective of the Roman EmpireHistorians in the News
tags: mary beard
The classicist Mary Beard may be the only writer who could get away with the pithy first line of her new book: “Ancient Rome is important.” Coming from a less preeminent figure, it might seem utterly, boringly obvious. But coming from her, it serves as an assertive reminder: Pay attention to this chunk of history; its questions and problems are still playing out today.
Beard’s new book is SPQR, that is, “Senatus Populusque Romanus,” or “The Senate and People of Rome,” an abbreviation that still emblazons trash cans and manhole covers in the city today. The volume ranges from Rome’s earliest days to Emperor Caracalla’s decision in 212 C.E. to extend citizenship to all the free inhabitants of its borders, some 30 million people. Throughout the centuries that she examines, Beard is careful to always explain where the version of the story that we’re familiar with is not true to history (for instance, Julius Caesar never said “Et tu, Brute?”) and where we simply don’t know enough about events to paint a full picture of their details. But what she does share is a compelling vision of a society that is very like our own and, in other ways, completely unrecognizable. TIME caught up with to Beard to discuss how reading about Rome can help change our thinking on contemporary issues.
TIME: You’ve said that writing this book came out of being in your late middle age. What do you mean by that?
Beard: It’s like when people ask you how long did it take to write: the answer is either 18 months or 40 years, because it’s part of what you’ve been thinking about. What you see in a book like this is the experience of teaching undergraduates. People say, “But undergraduates aren’t typical readers, they’re specialists, they’re not like the general reader.” Well, actually, they’re not so very different. You get to know through the hard way what kind of thing works with an undergraduate, where suddenly they [go], “Ah, so that’swhat it is.”
You write that there aren’t actual lessons we can learn from Rome, but certainly there are resonances. What resonances do you see in the large-scale granting of citizenship and the massive migration of slaves across Rome?
It’s a particularly edgy moment to be looking at mass movements of people. The Romans would not have understood the concept of an illegal migrant. That would have been baffling to them. They would have been horrified that some of the worst bits of what’s going on in the crisis over migration is happening in what was the Roman empire. Most of it is happening in what was the Roman empire. And actually the migrants are coming from parts of the Roman empire to other bits of what was the Roman empire. As I was slightly hinting, why Rome would have found that slightly odd—and they could be as xenophobic as anybody, the fact that Romans extend [citizenship] doesn’t mean that they were all kind of lovey, touchy-feely. That is what they did, but they could also say, “Well, I don’t like all those bloody Syrians in town.”
But the underpinning of Rome in its foundation myths [is] as a place of asylum: Aeneas is a war refugee, Romulus has no citizens, so he says, “Come on, everybody! Runaways, criminals, ex-slaves, you just come here, this is an asylum!” If you live in a culture with that as its founding mythology, then I suspect you think differently. This is where you kind of can’t learn from it, just thinking about Rome in those terms, thinking, “They have defined this entirely differently from us,” makes you look at your own assumptions differently. It doesn’t mean that you say, “Oh, I know, let’s do it like the Romans did then.” Because that’s not the point. There is a very journalistic desire to—and I work a bit in journalism too—but to have a column of 10 things the Romans can teach us about the current crisis, and I say, I don’t think they can teach us anything about the current crisis—but they can teach us to think harder about it. But that doesn’t make such good journalistic copy. ...
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