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Empires Rise, Empires Fall

Hey, Lin-Manuel Miranda, I have a new musical idea for you.

Having tapped a historical work as the source material for “Hamilton”, here is another book you might want to try: SPQR, Mary Beard’s sweeping history of Rome’s first millennium. If you can create a brilliant and successful musical drama using modern music and sensibility to tell the story of the founding fathers, why not bring the same talent to ancient Rome? The stories that you tell focus on outsiders making their way in a system through skill, effort, tenacity, and cooperation. You may not be surprised to learn that these aspects were all present in the heyday of the Roman empire.

In SPQR (the title refers to the Latin phrase "the Senate and people of Rome"), Beard, an acclaimed scholar of the period, traces Rome's history from the mythological founding of the city to the decline of the empire, which she dates to the decision by Emperor Caracalla to expand citizenship to all free men in the empire. Near the end of her book, Beard warns the reader to meet the Romans on their own terms and not use this history to inform how we view our own society. Still, I can't help but notice the parallels and find some compelling correlations.

The first part of Beard’s history deals with the emergence of the city, followed by the era when Rome was ruled by kings. Beard explains that there is scant, if any, historical evidence to support either of these periods, but cannily notes that the tales told about these early times provide a window on the Roman world of later centuries. For example, by telling how Romulus, their founder, extended citizenship to encourage growth of the city, this provides a backdrop to similar policies during that were extended within the later empire.

Following the period of kings came the Roman republic, governed by a Senate, a pair of consuls selected annually, and various functionaries at all levels of government. These roles were necessarily limited to those of wealth (and of course only to men), but still represented the height of representative rule in Rome.

For me, the book catches stride in its second half, when the archaeological evidence is firmer and the Republic gave way to empire. There are three aspects of this time in Roman history which I think will be of particular interest to you, Mr. Miranda, and in which you might find your musical and dramatic voice.

The footprint of the Roman empire was huge, stretching from modern day Syria in the southeast to Britain in the northwest, going as far north as the Danube in Europe, and encompassing the whole Mediterranean world. Inhabitants of these areas included Roman citizens, non-citizens, and slaves. Even two millennia ago, there was substantial movement of trade and people. Governors of Roman provinces, as well as citizens, were often likely to come from other parts of the empire. Beard tells of North African natives serving in Europe, as well as a native of Palmyra (now part of Syria) who ended up living, marrying, and dying in Britain.

The empire witnessed clashes of natives and immigrants (though I doubt the Romans themselves would have used that word). There was exploitation, disease, famine, and conquest. But the talents and mixing of different peoples (including emperors from Spain, Africa, and Thrace) also helped the empire thrive for generations. Doesn’t this just beg for musical treatment?

Or maybe you would like to trace the empire’s decline, the fall of great civilizations always being an interesting story. Rome survived emperors who get bad press today, such as Caligula (whose nickname, Beard points out, means “Bootykins”) and Nero. While barbarous in many ways, Caligula was little different from other emperors who also reigned through terror and murder. As for Nero, the idea of fiddling during the burning of Rome has no basis in fact, though he seemed to have more interest in performing than governing. Decades after Nero, Rome seemed to decline, then thrived during a period of good emperors—such as Trajan, Hadrian, and Marcus Aurelius.

But the decline did come and may derive from several factors. Was it that the expansion caused the empire to grow too big and ungovernable? Was it the growth of Christianity, which developed and spread entirely through the empire and was a cause of the split between east and west? Or was it the failure of the first emperor Augustus to develop a clear model of succession, which ultimately led to the intervention of military legions, backing their alternative candidates for emperor? All of these may have been factors. I’ll leave it to you, Mr. Miranda, to figure out how to tell the musical story.

Perhaps most interesting of all is how Rome first turned from republic to empire—an inversion of the narrative in Hamilton, but still worth telling. This happened over time, as different leaders such as the Gracchi brothers and Sulla began seeking the support of masses, as well as building power bases of Roman legions. This use of power was perhaps best exemplified by Gaius Julius Caesar, who appealed to the general populace and had a powerful military force supporting him. His assassination led to civil war between his opponents and followers, ultimately leading to the victory of his adopted successor Octavian (Augustus), who became Rome’s first emperor.

This part of Rome’s story always has me wondering about the place of representative government in the grander arc of history (representative being a relative term applied to a society over 2,000 years old). I speculate whether great Romans of the republic, such as the politician Cicero, looked back on their own version of antiquity and thought they had reached the end of history—that society had reached its pinnacle.

When such governments erode, are the people even aware of it? Can they do anything to reverse its course? Can we trace a time when the people could have done something before it was too late? Again, Beard warns not to use Rome as a window into our own times, but I suggest we may be able to learn from experience. In our current government, is it possible that such characteristics as the role of big money, partisan gerrymandering, an outdated presidential electoral system, and a president with undemocratic leanings might be part of such erosion?

Mr. Miranda, I admit this whole idea may sound implausible to a producer—actors in togas singing to a hip hop cadence—but I will leave it to you. In any case, when you encounter the history of Rome through a skilled historian and writer such as Mary Beard, the experience can be, like one of your shows, magical.

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