SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard: A review

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her excellent history of ancient Rome and her discussion of why it matters to us, Mary Beard makes the point early on that, because of the work of archaeologists and dogged historians, we know more today about the culture of that time and what was happening than those living in the era knew. It's a fascinating thought to consider that so many of the famous acts that we read about were actually taken more or less in the dark and with little certainty of how things would turn out. So, the ancient Romans crossed their Rubicons and cast their die time and again and kept their fingers crossed to see what the outcome would be.

Is it any different today? I was finishing up reading this book last night as the voters in Iowa were caucusing and once again they had some surprises for us, even as the murderers of Julius Caesar who expected the populace to approve of their actions were surprised. Indeed, in politics, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Beard writes a comprehensive history of the three or four most consequential centuries in the history of Rome, and she gives some time, as well, to its founding and the origin of the myths surrounding that founding. Hers is a non-linear history, as she time travels back and forth through the centuries to show parallels and connections. But a majority of her prose is spent recording the events of the first century B.C.E. and the first century C.E.

The first century B.C.E., of course, is the time when the republic that was Rome finally died and the dictatorship was born. It's the time of Crassus, Pompey, and Caesar, as well as Cicero, Catiline, and Cato. Beard focuses on Cicero as a prominent representative of those times.

The high point of Cicero's political life was his work in quashing and destroying the notorious "Catiline Conspiracy," which was alleged to be a treasonous plot to overthrow the government and install the Senator Catiline as ruler. Cicero's eloquence in persuading his fellow senators and in isolating Catiline was the turning point of the day and Cicero evidently dined off those memories for the rest of his life.

The first century C.E. was dominated by Augustus (Octavian), the nephew of Julius Caesar who he had designated as his heir. He, of course, was the winner in the struggle with Mark Antony over control of the government after Caesar was assassinated on that fateful Ides of March. He instituted many reforms and showed an instinct for survival which allowed him to rule for forty years and die in bed. Although there have always been persistent rumors that his wife Livia may have helped along his death in aid of the prospects of her son Tiberius, who succeeded Augustus.

Though Beard gives us the highlights of all these very well-known events and people, her real focus is more on the P part of the SPQR. She is interested in detailing the lives of the common people, the people who are usually overlooked in these volumes. She gives us the lives of women and children and slaves and tells how the policies of the government impacted them. She shows us the everyday life in the ordinary homes and tells us how these people responded to and commemorated the great events of their lives - birth, marriage, death.

Beard also does a bit of mythbusting when to comes to the founding of Rome; it wasn't founded by Romulus and Remus or by Aeneas. She also makes a persuasive case that some of the villains that we've been taught were so terrible may not have been as bad as they've been made out to be. Guys like Caligula and Nero. They certainly weren't BFF material but their stories were written by those who got rid of them so there may have been a good deal of propaganda in what we've been told.

The Empire that Rome became was relatively benevolent toward its conquered territories. For example, they were able to keep and worship their own gods as long as they agreed to make sacrifice to the emperor/god. Very few demands were made of them other than that they had to provide soldiers for the defense of the realm. The residents were given many of the perks of citizenship and, eventually, all those living in conquered areas were granted automatic citizenship which afforded them certain protections that were not available to others.

This is a long book, over 500 pages, but it reads at a fairly fast pace. Beard writes for the general public, and even though the book is very well-researched and has plenty of references, notes, and suggestions for further reading, it is not a dry scholastic tome. For anyone, like myself, who has long been fascinated by Rome and its history, this book affords an impressive overview. 

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  1. I admire women who read history. Well-behaved women may seldom make history but also seldom read it! I liked your review. Last year I finished Will Durant's Caesar and Christ, so I even knew what you were talking about! (http://keepthewisdom.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-story-of-civilization-iii-caesar.html) What will your next history book be?

    1. I, too, read Caesar and Christ many years ago. (As I said, I've long had a fascination with ancient Rome.) I remember that book as being pretty heavy going but jam-packed with facts. I set out to read the entire Durant series of history books, but I only got about a third of the way through. Maybe I'll return to it some day.


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