Mary Beard

Very much inspired by my reading of the history of the Byzantine Empire, I realized that I also don’t know much about the history of Rome aside from the bits that you pick up by cultural osmosis, growing up here in the West. Bookstores are great for things like this, where you don’t know what specifically you want to read, but you do know the general topic—just wander over to that section and browse, and see what catches your eye! Which is how I arrived at this book.

I mostly enjoyed the read. I filled five or six pages of a memo book with quotes as I was reading, things that stood out to me, which I somewhat did with the thought in mind of pulling some of them for writing this review, but now that I’m doing the writing, I don’t think I’m actually going to follow through on the idea. Suffice it to say, it was well-written, and generally an enjoyable read. Easier to read than Norwich’s work was, at least, aided in part by being a single volume instead of three, and thus feeling like more of a general overview than the curriculum notes for a four-year course of study.

The reason that I don’t want to go for my notebook, though, is that I have one main thought that I’ve kept circling around for the entire second half of the book: the study of history is not neutral. By studying, and teaching, and writing about history, we impose our own views upon it; we, as humans, are not able to view any objective truth. We are subjective creatures. And this thought kept circling around and around in my mind from the moment the word “friend” was used.

Friendship is a fine thing! Lots of people have friends, it’s one of those fundamental human experiences that historians should keep an eye out for. It is not, however, the only thing, and sometimes calling someone a ‘friend’ is a disservice. In this case, when the source material you are citing is a man referring to another man as his “same-gender partner”, discarding that in favor of “friend” is wrong. We have a word for that: erasure.

There is a reason that a through line in anti-LGBTQ sentiment is “these things didn’t used to exist,” and that reason isn’t that said things actually didn’t used to exist; it is that historians over the last couple of centuries have gone to great lengths to pretend they didn’t, to bury or destroy any evidence that they did. And yes, there is an argument to be made that we shouldn’t try to paint historical figures with our modern terminology—but then, that argument only seems to come up when we’re talking about whether or not a historical figure can be called queer.

Historians are, historically, extremely eager to find any possible heterosexual explanation for things, even when doing so requires extensive leaps in logic. Some of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written for men? Well, you see, back then cultural morays about how much affection men could platonically show other men were different. Alexander the Great was so distraught at the death of the man he loved that he demanded he be deified, and that when he himself died, he be buried in the same tomb? They were just the best of friends. President Buchanan was so visibly in a relationship with Senator King that their nicknames in DC were “Uncle Fancy and Aunt Nancy”? Say, is that is why my history classes sorta just didn’t talk about President Buchanan at all? Nevermind, don’t worry, there’s a perfectly straight explanation for this — it’s just gals being pals.

Once that thought was in my mind, it was hard to let go of it and not read this book in a queer-history light, and boy, does it ever not hold up well to that sort of inspection. The only clear mentions of homosexuality at all are a passing remark about a Senatorial insult being someone ‘enjoying nubile slave boys to an uncouth amount,’ and some mention of Hadrian—which is itself rather unavoidable when talking about Hadrian.1

So, here’s my summary: this is a good overview of Roman history, but it is, like all studies of history, flawed. It got me to break my usual “no writing in books” rule, and correct the word “friend” to “boyfriend” out of something akin to spite; but it also gave me pages of interesting quotes about Rome and the Empire, and taught me a great deal that I didn’t know. Plusses and minuses. It’s worth a read.2

  1. Although, having said that it’s unavoidable, I immediately noticed that the Wikipedia info-box on Hadrian lists three different burial sites for him, but somehow doesn’t have room for the name of the man he loved so much that he had thousands of statues carved in his image all across the Roman Empire, so, modern historians haven’t improved.
  2. This is a Bookshop affiliate link – if you buy it from here, I get a little bit of commission. It won’t hurt my feelings if you buy it elsewhere; honestly, I’d rather you check it out from your local library, or go to a local book store. I use Bookshop affiliate links instead of Amazon because they distribute a significant chunk of their profits to small, local book stores.

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