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Mary Beard, “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome”


I have spent a good deal of the past fifty years of my life with these ‘first millennium Romans’. I have learnt their languages as well as I can. I have read a good deal of the literature they have left us ( no one has read it all), and I have studied some of the hundreds of thousands of books and papers written over the centuries about them, from Machiavelli and Gibbon to Gore Vidal and beyond. I have tried to decipher the words they carved into stone, and I have dug them up, quite literally, on wet, windy and unglamourous archaeological sites in Roman Britain. And I have wondered for a long time about how best to tell Rome’s story and to explain why I think it matters. … .

I no longer think, as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans — or, for that matter, from the ancient Greeks, or from any other ancient civilisation. We do not need to read of the difficulties of the Roman legions in Mesopotamia or against the Parthians to understand why modern military interventions in western Asia might be ill advised. … .

But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn — as much about ourselves as about the past — by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments. Western culture has a varied inheritance. Happily, we are not the heirs of the classical past alone. Nevertheless, since the Renaissance at least, many of our fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans and their writing. 

We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but this clash with the bankrupt aristocrat, or popular revolutionary, with which I started this book still underlies our views of the rights of the citizen and still provides a language for political dissent: “Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ The idea of ‘desolation’ masquerading as ‘peace’, as Tacitus put into the mouths of Rome’s British enemies, still echoes in modern critiques of imperialism. And the lurid voices that are attributed to the most memorable Roman emperors have always raised the question of where autocratic excess ends and a reign of terror begins. 

(Mary Beard, SPQR, p. 534-6)

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard takes its title from a famous Roman Romecatchphrase, Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, ‘The Senate and People of SPQRRome’. For a scholar who has lived with her subject for nearly half a century to produce a clean narrative and create a thoroughly readable book, not packing it with jargon is indeed very commendable. As she says in the opening pages of the book her intention is to write a story that “has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence — a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone”. What is truly incredible with crystal clear clarity she make innumerable connections with the literature (written material, myths and oral legends) left by the Romans to the evidence found at archaeological sites and linking it to contemporary politics. Not for a moment does it become dull. One of my favourite examples is how she analyses the founding myth or legend of Rome to the legend of Romulus and Remus, linking it to Cicero, and interestingly enough to Benito Mussolini. Apparently the nurturing wolf was an addition made in the fifteenth century explicitly to capture the founding myth Wolf and baby twinsand baby twins. But copies of the famous image are found all over the world thanks to Mussolini who distributed them far and wide as a symbol of Romanita. Later she adds that Livy was one of the Roman sceptics who tried to rationalise this particularly implausible aspect of the tale. “The Latin word for ‘wolf’ ( lupa) was also used as a colloquial term for ‘prostitute’ ( lupanare was one standard term for ‘brothel’). Could it be that a local whore rather than a local wild beast had found and tended the twins?” ( p.59) Similarly throughout the book there are many more examples of such absorbing detail. Whether it be about marriage, politics, elections, citizenship, status of women, adoption, warfare, military, trade, migration etc.

For those in Italy and Britain who live surrounded by Roman ruins and have constant engagement with Roman history this book must be utterly fascinating. Mary Beard has a wonderful agreeable style of writing that makes the history of ancient Rome accessible to everyone. It is not a prerequisite that a fair understanding of the history is required. And yet she has packed SPQR with a detailed bibliography, a timeline, an index and plenty of illustrations/photographs that it can work for the lay reader or the scholar.

In India most Indians go about their daily lives doing exactly what this book is spelling out — talking about the huge impact mythology and ancient literature has had through the ages and in modern times. Indians do it all the time with their oral traditions, myths, folklore and ancient texts. A testimony to this is the immensely successful commercial fiction. It is a fine art by contemporary storytellers to create fantastical stories that blend the modern with the ancient and myth with history. Since these writers are not historians like Mary Beard they take full advantage of their creative license to spin imaginative yarns. Whereas Mary Beard points out in the utterly fascinating SPQR that there is sufficient empirical evidence at ancient Roman archaeological sites whether in Italy or abroad to prove much of the written records inherited over two millennia is more or less authentic.

SPQR has been on the list for many literary prizes including the inaugural British Book Industry Awards, in the adult category for the 10th IBW Book Award and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle — deservedly so!

Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Profile Books, London, 2015. Hb. pp. 600 Rs 2250 ( Distributed in India by Hachette India) 

5 April 2016

 

 

 

 

 

Worldreader in India

 

WR logoWorldreader is actively seeking strategic partnerships with publishers and authors in India. Today it is being accessed by over 6 million readers in 69 countries, providing them with book titles in more than 43 languages. Worldreader would like to discuss a non-exclusive contract for publishing licenses for good, addictive and evergreen content for children, young adults and adults/women especially in Hindi and English. Given that the Worldreader platform supports multi-lingual formats the content could be across other Indian regional languages too. These texts could be across genres and reading segments– picture books, chapter books, bilingual books for children, stories, anthologies, fiction, translations, non-fiction, spiritual, health, cooking, memoirs, biographies, etc. Please email: jayabhattacharjirose1 at gmail dot com . For more information on Worldreader, please see the note below. 

Worldreader ( www.worldreader.org ) is a non-profit organization with the mission of ‘providing digital books to children and families in the developing world. It was established in 2010 by Colin McElwee and David Risher. Worldreader is on a mission to bring digital books to every child and her family, so that they can improve their lives.It focuses on enabling digital reading especially using the mobile platform. The mantra is “Books for All”. Today it is being accessed by over 6 million readers in 69 countries, providing them with book titles in more than 43 languages. Another plus point in Worldreader’s favour is that it supports multi-lingual formats. It firmly believes that “Literacy is transformative”.

In fact Worldreader is one of Fast Company’s most innovative nonprofits of 2016 and won the GLOMO Award 2016 for the best mobile innovation for education. Even the UNESCO report on “Reading in the Mobile Era” highlights Worldreader’s programme. ( http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0022/002274/227436e.pdf )

Worldreader is now in India. It has been launched in India with its mobile reading to children programme or mR2C.

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

It is a two-year pilot in Delhi NCR. In collaboration with select NGOs as implementing partners mR2C seeks to promote pre-literacy skills by encouraging parents to read to and with their young children (age 0-6) and by empowering them to do so by giving them access to a free digital library of high quality, locally relevant books and educational materials via their mobile phones. But Worldreader is focussing on all reading segments and age groups: from toddlers – children – young adult — adult literature. Given how many people, especially women, own a mobile and are willing to charge it first, despite not having ready access to water or electricity makes the idea of delivering books via mobiles an attractive proposition.

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

mR2C in Delhi, pix credit, David Risher, Feb 2016

The organization uses e-readers, mobile phones and other digital technology to reach readers in more than 69 countries, providing them with over 28,500 book titles in 43 languages ranging from Afrikaans to Hindi. The e-book titles cover a spectrum of reading materials, ranging from beginner readers learning to read, to students and teachers accessing educational materials, to those reading for pleasure. So far it has reached more than 245 schools and libraries; 1,110,196 people reading every month; 5,653,216 people reached since 2010 and since its programme was launched in India, it has 92,698 active readers online ( Dec 2015). It works with 180 publishers to acquire and digitize compelling and relevant content for readers. The non-profit also works with donors, organizations, communities and governments to develop and digitize local and international books, as well as manage logistics and support. It has digitized more than 5,000 titles from African and Indian publishers. They are headquartered in San Francisco, California and have offices in Europe and Africa.

Through an internet-connected mobile device (feature and smartphones), children and families can read e-books with the organization’s reading application, called Worldreader Mobile. 250 million children of primary school age cannot read and write. 774 million people around the world are illiterate. 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty if all students in low‐income countries left school with basic reading skills – that is equivalent to a 12% drop in the number of people living on less than $1.25 a day. Geographically ¾ of illiterate adults worldwide are in sub-Saharan Africa and Southwest Asia. 2 out 3 illiterate people are women. It is known that readers in developing countries are primarily male but by removing cultural barriers that prohibit or discourage women from owning mobile technology and training women (as well as men) how to use basic mobile phones to access books and stories increases the possibility of women and girls reading more.  This mobile reading in turn positively impacts children since it appeals to (and can benefit) neo-literate and semi-literate adults and adolescents.

Worldreader Mobile is a reading application that provides access to books, educational resources and health information to people with mobile phones. The non-profit launched Worldreader Mobile in April 2012.  The app is also available on Opera Software, Microsoft Windows phones, and in Mozilla’s Firefox Marketplace. In partnership with Opera Software, Worldreader launched a Web-browser app, promoted on the Opera Mini platform. Reading on Worldreader Mobile is particularly popular with women, who spend on average 207 minutes reading per month, compared to 32 minutes for men. Research from a 2013 Report by UNESCO, Reading in the Mobile Era, found that reading on a mobile phone increased reading time across all media. There were also clear benefits for children that were not of reading age as one-third of mobile readers in the developing world use their phones to read stories to children.

Ian Denison at CEOSpeak, Jan 2016

Ian Denison at CEO Speak, Jan 2016. Organised jointly by NBT & FICCI.

Worldreader contends that their mission is two-fold: increasing access to books while springboarding local publishers and authors into an international market. It makes content available in English and an array of local languages such as Hindi and Marathi and this is possible without the high costs and other limitations with print. Worldreader defrays digital start-up costs for local publishers, giving readers better access to relevant content, while simultaneously introducing publishers to new markets. Thereby, strengthening your brand, spreading the word about your publishing house and lists and most importantly, allow your books to be accessed by the diaspora too.

At the recently held CEOSpeak organised jointly by NBT and FICCI on 10 January 2016, Ian Denison, Chief Publishing and Branding, UNESCO said “Problem is not enough content is available when content is primary to get reading takeoff actively on digital devices.” He illustrated this in his presentation by showing the Worldreader icon appealing for more good quality content to be available on the platform. In India Worldreader is actively seeking good content / publishing licenses in English and other local languages especially for children ( 0-12 years) and literature for adults.

13 March 2016