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Winifred Mary Beard, OBE, FBA, FSA is an English Classical scholar. She is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of[…]

What would a society look like if all it knew was war? This is the sort of question you’d expect to be tossed around in storyboard meetings for dystopian sci-fi films. Would you believe it’s the kind of question that can shape an entire history of one of Earth’s greatest civilizations?

Ancient Rome: “It was a culture in which it wasn’t war that broke out; it was peace that broke out.” Such is the way respected classical scholar Mary Beard plunges into a fascinating discussion of militarism and society, and how the echoes of marching legions fueled the everyday ambitions of countless men. What would it have been like to live in such a time? Does anything today even remotely compare?

Mary Beard’s newest book, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome hits booksellers everywhere December 17.

Mary Beard: Rome is an extremely highly militarized society in a way that is, I think, inconceivable to us. The level of military activity is something that — it sort of approaches what we were familiar with in the first and second World Wars, but kind of for long stretches of time. I think one of the things that you should always remember about Rome is that it was a culture in which it wasn’t war that broke out; it was peace that broke out. The standard kind of position that Roman society was in was one that was at war. That said, we do have to realize that Rome probably wasn’t much different in its militaristic ambitions from other cultures. We tend to think of the Romans as unusually devoted to warfare, conquest, that pretty brutal and bloody conquest. They certainly were devoted to that. But so was everybody in the ancient world and there was no culture in Mediterranean antiquity, Greece, Rome, anywhere — Italy where people were nice pacific sort of society where they’d much rather get on with doing their knitting than going out and thrashing their neighbors.

This was a world in which disputes were fought out. There wasn’t much — there was a bit, but not much — diplomacy. It was the rule of warfare. And that in a way affects almost every way in which Roman society saw itself. And if you think of the top, the upper echelons of Roman culture and you say what would a rich young boy in a powerful family — what would be his greatest ambition in life? Well those ambitions I think would include getting rich, getting richer, getting elected to office, a nice villa on the coast, whatever. But the crowning glory for a young Roman as he looked at his future — his dream would have been to celebrate a triumphful procession. And that was something that was granted only to Roman generals who were superbly successful. If you went and you thrashed loads of the enemy — in other words you could come back to Rome. You could process through the streets in a fantastically elaborate chariot. You would have your soldiers behind you come cheering you on and you would have your prisoners and all the loot that you got in front processed through the streets to the admiring crowds. And we think of little kids dreaming of being president or in UK dreaming of being prime minister. Little kids in Rome would have dreamt about military glory, a triumphal procession. It’s the alchemy of their ambitions. It is always more complicated than that, though, because there’s two things which strike me as quite odd given that intense militarism. And one is that soldiers were not allowed in the city of Rome itself. So if you had come to visit Rome, you would, I think, in many cases have been struck by that it was a demilitarized zone. The only occasion that soldiers were allowed into the city was at the — on the occasion of triumph when they cheered their general on. Otherwise they were kept out. And so you’ve got a very strong sense of the center of the Roman Empire being almost entirely soldier free. The emperors eventually got a few Pretorian guards to be effectively bodyguards, but you don’t get legions; Roman legions don’t come into the city.

And as the Roman Empire goes on, as it ceases to be actively doing very much conquest in terms of expanding into new territory but becomes much more a sort of low-level occupying, policing force. Then you find these army barracks being much more family friendly than most army barracks that we’re used to. And there have been some very interesting excavations recently. The little fort very near Hadrian’s Wall in the north of Britain, a place called Vindolanda where one of the units that was essentially manning Hadrian’s Wall like a big wall, defensive wall that ran along the north of Britain. What’s been discovered in Vindolanda has shown quite how mixed and rather domestic community it was. So not only do you find loads and loads of little shoes, which show there must have been quite a few children running around this apparently rather blokish army camp, but a whole range of personal letters on wax tablets — on what remains of the wood of waxed tablets have been found — where you could see that their wives up there having perfectly ordinary lives right in the middle of an army camp. So in due course, I think, I don’t imagine that this is the case when the Romans are really actively pushing out the boundaries of the empire. But in due course, its militarism becomes quite domesticated in its way. Quite a family sort of enterprise. Even though soldiers technically weren’t allowed to marry, it’s clear that they effectively did.