Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2015.
Maryana Vestic, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Mary Beard about her book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2015 NBCC Awards.
Maryana Vestic: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a tremendous piece of historical writing and, yet, you successfully focused in on the giant cast of characters at particular points in Roman history: Cicero, Augustus (Octavian), Pliny (the Elder and the Younger). How did you go about transforming this mammoth world of often conflicting information into one very clearly wrought story line that feels very focused and intimate to the reader?
Mary Beard: That was the big challenge. So I am glad you think it has worked. I reckon I had to give readers an idea of the big sweep, while also letting them enjoy the detail we have of some moments and characters in Roman history. In some ways the selection almost makes itself. If you want to get close to any individual in the Roman world, it has to be Cicero first (the only really plausible ‘biographical figure’ to come down to us from the whole period), and Pliny comes a close second.
I tried to use detail even when it was in many ways not ‘historical’ in the strictest sense. So, for example, a lot of the rich information we have on individual emperors is black propaganda. But all the same it can tell us huge amounts abut the prejudices of the Roman world, of Roman ideas of corruption and misrule. On other occasions I made it a priority to squeeze the interest out of such rich, but apparently rather dull, documents as the anti-corruption legislation of Gaius Gracchus. Reading between the lines of this you can glimpse rather vividly Roman attempts to grapple with the problems of ruing an empire and policing those appointed as provincial governors.
MV: It is obvious to note the immense level of research you did in order to write this book. Did you enter into the preliminary research with the book’s historical and thematic structure already set in your mind, or did the research open you up to areas which you felt the need to explore further, such as the Cicero/Catiline clash, the 14 Emperors following Augustus, or the identity of Rome outside of Rome that took place later on?
MB: I had a vague idea of structure before I started and had always planned to start with Cicero and Catiline because it is the single best documented incident in the whole of Roman history (and I didn’t want to start the book with too many “don’t know"s). What I found harder, actually, was the internal articulation of some of the individual chapters. Chapter 4 was a real struggle. The Early/Middle Republic is an absolutely crucial period in Roman history (it’s when Rome become Rome as we know it), but it lacks an awful lot of the things that bring history alive: characters and artifacts, to name just two!
MV: What truly impressed me most about the book was the way in which you unwound the intricate political timeline of Rome’s first millennium with clear and understandable language, while also weaving in the greater themes that existed in Roman life during these centuries, from the aristocracy right on down to the slums—family, adultery, social code, gaming, bars/recreation to name a few. How did you go about creating these inlets into your greater structure? How did you decide which aspect of storytelling (historical/political vs. personal/colloquial) would affect the other and vice versa?
MB: I think it was a matter of always saying to myself, “Hey this is a history of real people, and not all of them rich and famous,” and always being on the look out for giving them a spotlight where I could. There are very different opportunities for that across Roman history. In the very earliest period it was hard to do much more than point to a dead cat or a little girl buried with her choice possessions. From Cicero’s Letters, however, 500 years later, we really can see inside a wealthy Roman home, and later still–particularly from some loquacious epitaphs–we get some glimpses of much more ordinary men and women. In general, I was very keen to stress that even those Romans at the very top of the political tree had other things on their minds apart from politics (like their daughter’s marriage, their disobedient staff, their rental properties, their stomach upsets….).
MV: From rigging elections to placating the masses to the privatized armies of Octavian, the Roman world was very much like our own. Did you consciously think about the obvious connections from the ancient political world of Rome to our modern Western system of politics, politicians, and our questionable use of territory and war? Or, did you try to ignore the obvious and let the connections play out naturally?
MB: I think that I wanted all the time to point up similarities without making the ancient world seem too familiar. I also wanted to suggest that one of the reasons that we find some of the Roman arguments so recognizable, is that we have directly or indirectly inherited them. It isn’t by chance that the arguments about civil liberties and homeland security in the Catilinarian controversy look like some of our own arguments. Part of the reason is that for centuries we have looked back to that controversy to frame our own debates on those topics (it was no coincidence that Ben Jonson’s play on Catiline was written just after the English “Gunpowder Plot”).
MV: At the start of Chapter 8 (“The Home Front”) in the section entitled "Public and private," you connect this very phrase with your presentation of ancient Rome through the following quote: “We have found just a few cameo appearances: the frightened comedian on the stage at Asculum, the loud-mouthed servant who unwisely abused the supporters of Gaius Gracchus, the eunuch priest who worried about his friend in the civil war, even the poor cat trapped in the fire that destroyed the hut at Fidenae.” Throughout the book, you utilize a parallel of what are traditionally thought of as ancillary characters and events, which you repeatedly bring to the forefront of this grand history. What did that constant storyline running alongside the “primary” history do for you as a writer of the subject and as a reader/researcher of the history? How did it expand your understanding of what SPQR really meant?
MB: I think I have touched on this already a little. I was very concerned to tell the political story of Rome but not to pretend that it was the only one. One of the reasons for choosing the title SPQR was to get the ‘populus Romanus’ in, the ‘Roman people” as well as the “senate’. It is easy enough to talk about ‘the people’ as some homogeneous mass. These stories helped to individuate a little.
A professor of classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard is the author of the best-selling The Fires of Vesuvius and the National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated Confronting the Classics. A popular blogger and television personality, Beard gave the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. She lives in England.
Maryana Lucia Vestic is a writer of memoir, nonfiction, prose and journalism with a background in film, television and theater. Her work has appeared in print, web and scripted television and, after 15 years in the film and TV industry, she is currently studying Nonfiction in the MFA Creative Writing program at The New School and looks forward to writing memoir, personal essays, and historical/biographical subjects.