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Hail, Populus, a parable from Rome for modern times

Title: Populus

Author: Guy de la Bédoyere

Pages: 468 including appendices, glossary of terms, notes, suggestions on further reading, list of illustrations and index

Publisher: Abacus Books

Price: £25.00

Published: April 2024

ISBN 9781408715154

Who other than Guy de la Bédoyere would start a history of life in ancient Rome with the tale of a tomb made in the shape of a stack of bins for kneading dough? He immediately explains the context, that it is the resting place of the ashes of a successful baker, Eurysaces, who made a small fortune from a state contract for supplying the dole and  'was keen for everyone to know it for eternity'.

Anyone who is aware of the author from his years as the de facto expert on matters Roman on the Time Team television archaeology programme will appreciate his ability to share knowledge in an instructive and entertaining manner.

Anyone who read his previous book, Gladius, from the same stable, will look forward to digging into more of the same in Populus (which he translates very helpfully as 'ordinary people').

A paragraph later he moves effortlessly from the ordinary people to the not-so-ordinary people at the top of the pile, writing of the halls and vaulted chambers where emperors had lived, 'some wisely, others with absolute barbarity, some for decades and some for only days or weeks.

He tells us how on his first visit to Rome, at Easter 1975, his most compelling thought was of the Roman people themselves who crowded into the Circus Maximus to cheer for their favourite charioteers, jeered at the defeated gladiators in the Colosseum, jostled, argued, idled at the forum, worshipped at the temples, rioted, fought and feuded during elections. He makes it all sound rather like the modern day, and effortlessly so, which is one of the gifts of the very good history story teller.

“In our own troubled times, there is something reassuring about discovering how much of the human experience is common to other ages,” he then writes, anticipating the above comment.

He even makes the organisation of trade guilds interesting, and thoroughly modern. “Roman trade guilds were notorious for their factionalism, rivalry and their increasingly dominant role in day-to-day urban politics,” he writes, provoking a stab of recognition in the consciousness of anyone who has lived in the UK in the past 60 years.

”The most important guilds were also closely involved in local politics, with the freedmen members playing active roles in make sure their preferred candidates were elected to office and would thus promote their interests,” he observes. Later he draws on the work of the satirist Lucian about a religious charlatan fiddling prophecies that had not been fulfilled so that it looked as if he had been right all along. Nostradamus meets the Bene Gesserit in Dune, one is tempted to add.

And there is a very real warning embedded in the history, pertinent to the gullible of today. “A slave manager of a farm estate should not allow 'fortune-sellers and sorceresses' onto the farm where would inveigle 'unsophisticated people' into handing over money in return for a useless prophecy,” he writes.

Next he tells of a man called Cosmus in Rome, who loitered on the thresholds of the Temple of the Divine Augustus and Temple of Minerva, where the crowd gives him the scraps he barks for. Does that not also sound terribly 'modern' in terms of everyday experience?

The writer ends, as he began, with specific reference to an 'ordinary' person, in the form of Agilia Prima, also known as Auguria, who had died following her 20th birthday. The funerary text celebrated her chastity, modesty, and frugality, and exhorted her husband not to mourn her because she has preceded him to the grave. 'Death is the nature, not the punishment of mankind. Whoever chances to be born, therefore also faces death'.

The inscription finishes thus: 'Be well, those who live above, and all men and all women'. A lesson deftly delivered to today's Populus.

In summary, Guy de la Bédoyere is uncommonly good at putting a human face to what in other hands would often be tediously dry historical fact. Though the fact that this reviewer misread 'underpins' as 'underpants', leading him to make a mental note to place an advance order for the author's next work on the topic before finishing the second page of the introduction to Populus, possibly says something about his own mindset...

* Apologies for the absence of the 'grave' accent on the second 'e' of the author's surname but I simply cannot work out how to translate it from the brain onto the iMac keyboard.


Populus cover






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