Having rattled and routed Mark Antony and his bewitching Egyptian at the battle of Actium in 31 BC, Octavian was on his way home to Rome when he was confronted by some punter. The man produced a talking raven, which obligingly squawked, ‘Greetings, Caesar, our victorious commander!’ Octavian was delighted at this evidence of loyalty, and rewarded the bird-trainer accordingly. However, it later emerged that the man had had another raven in reserve, which he had taught to croak, ‘Greetings, Antony, our victorious commander!’ He hadn’t been taking any chances.
Nor, in a sense, does Mary Beard in her ambidextrous history of Ancient Rome, whose title proclaims her bifurcated programme. SPQR stands for Senatus Populusque Romanus; that’s to say, ‘the senate and people of Rome’. (The letters are embossed on drain covers in the streets of Rome today.) She has chosen it partly for its snappiness, and partly because her aim is precisely to give as much space to the populus as to the senatus, challenging the priorities of historiographical has-beens such as Edward Gibbon, more interested in grandees than groundlings.
This two-facetedness pervades the pages of SPQR. It’s even embedded in the author’s name, and her twin professional roles of senatorial Cambridge professor (Beard) and popular television presenter (Mary). Am I calling her Janus-faced? I am, but in a positive sense. It’s true that I found the first third of her book hard going, but that’s largely because she was calling into question stories about which I knew practically nothing. Once it reached the more familiar territory of the centuries flanking the birth of Christ, this iconoclasm came to seem invigorating, and, in the end, kind of revolutionary.
Julius Caesar, it turns out, definitely wasn’t born by Caesarian section. Cleopatra probably wasn’t killed by an asp.