On Beard, Gibbon, Mommsen, and Roman history writing.


I’m reading SPQR, a Roman history by classicist Mary Beard, and I love it. I come into it after reading The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1789), by Edward Gibbon, and The History of Rome (1854-56), by Theodor Mommsen. I knew they were likely out of date as pure history, and I'm enjoying Beard's more rigorous historical account.

I still recommend Gibbon and Mommsen, though, and I wanted to explain why. Both Gibbon and Mommsen are great storytellers and very revealing of the mindset of their respective times and countries — Gibbon at the onset of the British Empire, Mommsen at the onset of the Prussian Empire. Both looked to Rome for a model, but drew very different lessons.

Gibbon, living in a country with a history of internal religious conflict, admired the iron rule of great pagan emperors like Marcus Aurelius, and sought the continued separation of church and state and strong rulers chosen by merit. Aurelius and his four predecessors were all chosen by merit and adopted by the previous emperor.

Mommsen, on the other hand, living in a “Germany” with a long history of division into small states, was more interested in the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of Julius Caesar. Mommsen did not mourn the Republic, admiring the strong ruler who could create an empire out of bloody factional chaos. Yet both Gibbon and Mommsen interpreted history for their own purposes, with an agenda that rendered their tales suspect.

Beard does a great job of separating legend from fact. She also tries to look at the life of ordinary people, including many slaves, although that’s not easy when there were no biographies written about them. She points out that for ordinary people during the 200+ years the empire was at its height, it did not seem to matter much who was emperor.

It does not seem clear to her that the bad emperors were as bad as advertised (usually to justify their assassination), or the great emperors as great as advertised (lauded by their chosen successors), or that any emperors were even as important as advertised (by Roman historians who often had their own agendas). Beard has the modern skepticism of the Great Man Theory of History previously accepted without question by ancient Roman historians and many 18th and 19th century historians. I'm just getting to the part where Beard looks at how the empire *really* ran, almost regardless of who was emperor — a study of the Roman bureaucracy.

Source: reddit post


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