SPQR, by Mary Beard

Second paragraph of third chapter (on the earliest remaining scrap of written Latin):

The text is in many respects extremely frustrating. It is incomplete, the top third of the pillar not surviving. It is close to incomprehensible. The Latin is difficult enough anyway, but the missing section makes it almost impossible to grasp the meaning fully. Even though we can be certain that it does not mark the tomb of Romulus – or of anyone else – most interpretations amount to little more than brave attempts to string together into some vague sense the few individual words that are recognisable on the stone. One notable modern theory is that it was a warning not to let yoked animals drop excrement near the shrine – which would, apparently, have been a bad omen. It is also very hard to know how old it is. The only way to date the text is by comparing its language and script to the handful of other surviving examples of early Latin, for the most part equally uncertainly dated. Suggestions have ranged over 300 years, from around 700 to around 400 BCE. The current, fragile consensus is that it was inscribed in the second half of the sixth century BCE.

I knew of Mary Beard when I was a student at Cambridge – I think I may have bumped into her at Fisher House a couple of times – and of course I’ve followed her more recent writings now that she has become all famous. One of my frustrations with Gibbon is that he starts around 100 AD without much explanation of what came before – yet for most students of classics (including me back in my Latin O-Level days) the meaty stuff comes a good century before then, with Cicero, Virgil, Ovid and all those guys. Mary Beard has looked instead at the history of Rome up to 212 AD when Caracalla granted all adults full citizenship, and it’s a much more varied story. She starts with the Catiline conspiracy in 63 BC, then loops back to the mythical foundation of the city and the various conflicting accounts thereof, and then slowly progresses forward through the centuries. There is lots of fascinating circumstantial detail; I loved this account of an early diplomatic/lobbying mission:

Representatives from the East repeatedly came to Rome in the hope of winning moral support or military intervention. That is a running theme in the historical accounts of the period: there are plenty of envoys reported, for example, in the run-up to Aemilius Paullus’ campaign against Perseus, trying to persuade the Romans to do something about the ambitions of Macedon. But the most vivid picture of how this ‘courting’ worked in practice comes from Teos, a town on the western coast of modern Turkey. It is a mid-second-century BCE inscription recording the attempts made to draw the Romans into a minor dispute, about which nothing else is known, over some land rights between the city of Abdera in northern Greece and a local king, Kotys.

The text is a ‘thank-you letter’ carved on stone, addressed to the town of Teos by the people of Abdera. For the Teans had apparently agreed to send two men to Rome, almost lobbyists in a modern sense, to drum up Roman support for Abdera’s case against the king. The Abderans describe exactly how this pair operated, right down to their regular house calls on key members of the senate. The delegates apparently worked so hard that ‘they wore themselves out physically and mentally, and they met the leading Romans and won them over by paying obeisance to them every day’; and when some of the people they visited appeared to be on Kotys’ side (for he had also sent envoys to Rome), ‘they won their friendship by laying out the facts and paying daily calls at their atria’, that is at the main central hall of their Roman houses.

The silence of our text on the outcome of these approaches hints that things did not go the Abderans’ way. But the snapshot here of rival representatives not merely beating a path to the senate but pressing their case daily on individual senators gives an idea of just how actively and persistently Roman assistance could be sought.

Lots of interesting material about how Rome moved from Republic to Empire, how life was for people at all levels, and a great deal about how our perception of the Romans has changed over the most recent period. A fascinating long read.

This hit two of my lists simultaneously, top non-fiction and top book by a woman. Next on those lists are The Parrot's Theorem by Denis Guedj and To Lie With Lions by Dorothy Dunnett.