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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Paperback – Illustrated, September 6, 2016
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New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book
Named one of the Best Books of the Year by the Wall Street Journal, the Economist,Foreign Affairs, and Kirkus Reviews
Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award (Nonfiction)
Shortlisted for the Cundill Prize in Historical Literature
Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize (History)
A San Francisco Chronicle Holiday Gift Guide Selection
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice Selection
A sweeping, "magisterial" history of the Roman Empire from one of our foremost classicists shows why Rome remains "relevant to people many centuries later" (Atlantic).
In SPQR, an instant classic, Mary Beard narrates the history of Rome "with passion and without technical jargon" and demonstrates how "a slightly shabby Iron Age village" rose to become the "undisputed hegemon of the Mediterranean" (Wall Street Journal). Hailed by critics as animating "the grand sweep and the intimate details that bring the distant past vividly to life" (Economist) in a way that makes "your hair stand on end" (Christian Science Monitor) and spanning nearly a thousand years of history, this "highly informative, highly readable" (Dallas Morning News) work examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries. With its nuanced attention to class, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries, SPQR will to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come.100 illustrations; 16 pages of color; 5 maps
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― Greg Woolf, Wall Street Journal
"Though she here claims that 50 years of training and study have led up to SPQR, Beard wears her learning lightly. As she takes us through the brothels, bars, and back alleys where the populus Romanus left their imprint, one senses, above all, that she is having fun."
― James Romm, New Republic
"By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control…She moves with ease and mastery though archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus."
― G. W. Bowersock, New York Review of Books
"In SPQR, her wonderful concise history, Mary Beard unpacks the secrets of the city's success with a crisp and merciless clarity that I have not seen equaled anywhere else."
― Ferdinand Mount, New York Times Book Review
"Beard does precisely what few popularizers dare to try and plenty of dons can’t pull off: She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process. Her magisterial new history of Rome, SPQR…is no exception…. The ancient Romans, Beard shows, are relevant to people many centuries later who struggle with questions of power, citizenship, empire, and identity."
― Emily Wilson, The Atlantic
"A masterful new chronicle…. Beard is a sure-footed guide through arcane material that, in other hands, would grow tedious. Sifting myth from fact in dealing with the early history of the city, she enlivens―and deepens―scholarly debates by demonstrating how the Romans themselves shaped their legendary beginnings to short-term political ends…. Exemplary popular history, engaging but never dumbed down, providing both the grand sweep and the intimate details that bring the distant past vividly to life."
― The Economist
About the Author
- Publisher : Liveright; Reprint edition (September 6, 2016)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 608 pages
- ISBN-10 : 1631492225
- ISBN-13 : 978-1631492228
- Item Weight : 1.1 pounds
- Dimensions : 5.5 x 1.1 x 8.3 inches
- Customer Reviews:
About the author
Reviewed in the United States on June 29, 2022
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Beard begins her history at the dawn of Roman civilization and ends with Emperor Caracalla’s grant of citizenship to everyone living in the empire in 212 AD. She starts by writing that Rome’s seven kings were likely more myth than reality. It is highly unlikely, she says, that just seven men served over the course of 250 years. It is noteworthy, she says, that many of the enduring features of Roman life were introduced by the kings. “Abominated as they were, kings were credited with creating Rome,” Beard writes. For instance, Numa created much of Rome’s religion and Servius Tullius developed the census and the associated centuriate assembly system that gave weight to the wealthier classes. Moreover, some of the kings were clearly Etruscan in background, which underscored from the earliest days that Roman leaders could come from outside of the city, a key theme of Roman self-identify. Much like the United States, Rome was a city of asylum where anyone could rise to the top.
Next Beard turns to the Republic, which she is quick to note did not spring full grown in the wake of the rape of Lucretia in 509 BC. Rather, she argues, it took centuries for the Republic of Cicero’s day to develop. Major turning points occurred in the early fourth century BC. First came the Roman destruction of Veii, Rome’s Trojan War, in 396, and then the sack of Rome by the Gauls in 390 BC. The pattern of conquest and fear of conquest was thus established, she writes. “Roman military expansion drove Roman sophistication.” The sophistication in building the massive defensive walls around the city and the logistics of incorporating large contingents of allied forces required “infrastructure unthinkable in the fifth century.” Next, in 367 BC, the plebs were allowed to stand for the consulship. Henceforth, Beard writes, being a patrician “carried a whiff of snobbery attached to it and not much more.”
Beard agrees with the historian Polybius who saw the Roman political system as responsible for the success of the city during the Republic. The mixed constitution provided the state with strength and stability. She writes that the tradition of ancestor worship and the competition for political office and military spoils is what drove the expansion of empire, not any formal plan of imperial conquest. It was a coercive empire, she says, not one of annexation. The Latin word imperium meant “the power to issue orders that are obeyed,” and that is what the Roman’s did. However, the influx of conquered people and wealth would challenge what it meant to be traditionally Roman.
Next, she points to the year 146 BC as a turning point, the year both Carthage and Corinth were razed. Roman violence was suddenly turned inward, beginning with the controversial tribunates of the Gracchi brothers. The road to Augustus, she claims, runs directly from the brothers to Marius versus Sulla and then Pompey versus Caesar. Each did their part to undermine key elements of the Republican system that led inexorably to dictatorship. The feud of the Gracchi brothers introduced violence to the domestic political process. The reforms of Marius allowed men without property to serve, thus turning the army into “a new style of personal militia” directly controllable by only the commanding general. Sulla added the military march on Rome and Roman soldiers spilling Roman blood, not to mention proscriptions and reviving the dictatorship. Pompey, for his part, climbed to the top of the political system outside of the natural order of the Republic, gaining commands without officially holding office. Caesar was just a culmination of his predecessors’ careers.
Beard affirms the remarkable legacy of Augustus in the transition from Republic to Empire, “a puzzling and contradictory revolutionary.” Perhaps his greatest reform – and certainly his most expensive – was the introduction of pensions for soldiers. No longer were the Roman legions dependent on their commander for taking care of them. Now after 20 years of service soldiers received 12 years salary or the equivalent in land. The reform cost an estimated 450 sesterces or half of the annual imperial income. But it effectively removed the army from politics, at least for the time being. Augustus also made the Senate hereditary for three generations and allowed the Senate’s bills to have the weight of law. Now that Augustus was solely responsible for receiving positions in the imperial infrastructure, elections slowly died off and the old patron/client system, once the bedrock of Roman society and politics, was rendered nugatory. Although Augustus held the consulship 13 times, the position had largely become symbolic. The Roman Republic was dead but kept alive as fiction by filling old positions and offices. Or as Beard explains it, “Augustus was cleverly adapting the traditional idioms to serve a new politics justifying and making comprehensible a new axis of power by systematically reconfiguring the old language.”
Concerning the first two centuries of emperors, Beard writes that for all of their idiosyncrasies and outlandish behavior they were far more similar than they were different. “There is no sign at all,” she writes, “that the character of the ruler affected the basic template of government at home or abroad in any significant way.” Moreover, “there was hardly any such thing as a general policy for running the empire or an overarching strategy of military deployment.” The emperor did represent a new tier in the structure of command, but “his role was largely a reactive one; he was not a strategist or forward planner.” The truth was that the emperorship provided “a remarkably stable structure of rule,” at least for the first two centuries of the empire. Between ascension of Augustus in 31 BC and the assassination of Commodus in 192 AD there were just 14 emperors (not counting the three short-term emperors of 69 AD). In a period half as long, between 193 and 293, there were no fewer than 70. For all of its stability, however, succession was an enduring challenge, as naming a new emperor always came down to “some combination of luck, improvisation, plotting, violence and secret deals.”
In closing, SPQR is a marvelous synthesis of one renowned scholar’s take on one thousand years of Roman history. I’ve read much Roman history, particularly the Republican period, but I learned a lot from SPQR. I suspect Beard has delivered something very few authors can, a learned piece of scholarship that advances our understanding of Roman times that is as much admired by her academic peers at is enjoyed by the general educated public.
In essence, we laymen tend to believe we know the story of ancient Rome, its founding, rise, and ultimate fall, but as it is with civilizations so far removed from present day, there’s always more to the story than a straightforward timeline and list of Kings, Consuls, and Emperors.
We are, all of us, at least in the western world, more under the lingering influence of the ancient Roman empire than we care to admit or even realize. And Mary’s treatment of Roman history helps us see ourselves a little clearer in today’s mirror, from whence we came, who we are, and where our civilization might be heading.
Like the gods of Rome, I am placing SPQR in the pantheon of great summer reads. It’s a book you can enjoy time and again and always feel you’re reading it for the first time. But perhaps I’m a bit starstruck. I’d like to vacation with Mary in Rome just to listen to her talk about epitaphs and artifacts.
If you enjoy reading about ancient Roman history, you’ll love SPQR.
I do remember that what pleased me most about it was that Mary Beard tells us carefully what we know, and how we know what we know. It is my position -- I have gotten into arguments over this -- that you don't actually know anything unless you know how you know it.
Now, the brutal fact of the matter is that we don't actually know all that much about the history of the Roman Republic. Much of what we think we know comes from a small number of often sketchy and not-all-that reliable sources. For instance, the writings of Cicero (a politician) loom large. Also, for earlier times, gravestone inscriptions are important. (That's an example of a "sketchy" source.) For many readers Beard's embrace of ignorance will be a problem. They have read extensive and detailed histories of the Roman Republic (as have I) and are not going to be happy that someone tells them those histories are mostly fables, and that we do not, in fact, know what battles were fought in the early days of the Republic or how they were won.
Personally, I love it. I can't help it -- when you tell me "We don't know this,", it is exciting. So much possibility! So much left to discover! Just think how exciting it will be when we invent a time-travel machine and can send historians back to Rome to find out what really happened. (Hat tip, Connie Willis.)
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There is no doubt reading this that Beard really does live and breathe her subject matter and speaks to you as though she was there having conversations with these people. The book is often anecdotal, relatable and humorous. Making history relevant always has been Beard’s underlying quest to determine why history is still so important and how we can relate the past to the present and this book is no exception.
So why 3 stars? The stars awarded are a credit to Beard’s breadth of knowledge. Those parts of the book where you are gripped and the pleasure of being party to her enormous wealth of knowledge on a subject I love.
However, if I were to review this book on the basis of whether it sets out its objectives and satisfies the reader I’m not so sure. One thing that jumps out at you reading this book is that whether or not it is excellently researched or entertaining, it is NOT “a history of Ancient Rome” in terms of what many readers would expect.
For anyone who has a mild interest in Rome or has very little experience with it I would steer well clear of this book. Whilst Mary’s writing style is accessible, much of the content of this book is not for those who don’t have a working knowledge of Ancient Rome beforehand. Several names are peppered throughout sometimes expecting you to know who they are, events happening are taken for granted and more importantly so much is missing. In fact the book seems very deliberate in teaching you considerable amounts about the people and places you don’t normally hear about and glazing over the famous bits. Not only this but her consistent lack of committing to an answer (the ultimate “we just don’t know” attitude to ancient history) is far too frequent for me and begs the reader to infer why they are even reading this if the author isn’t invested in any of the sources she is working with.
If you write a history of Rome you either have a very long book (certainly longer than 537 pages) with considerable detail or you have a smaller book which covers the history briefly but without the detail.
Beard appears to do neither. Based on the length of this book it would be long enough to cover the first millennium of the Roman Empire (as it does) in relatively broad strokes. However, Beard appears to go into specific events or themes in microscopic and anecdotal levels of detail whilst glazing over pretty significant people and events. She adopts the strategy of going into detail (good) but only picks certain bits.
Take the emperors for example. The chapter on Augustus is superb and arguably the highlight of the book for me. Yet the chapter before it barely gets under the surface of Caesar (probably assuming we’ve heard all this before) and the chapter after runs through the following emperors up to commodus (lots of emperors) so quickly and doesn’t even cover some of them barely at all. Just taking the first few, Caligula is given a lot of coverage but Claudius gets next to nothing. Almost nothing said of the Flavian dynasty, Trajan, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius etc in fact I’m not even sure Antoninus Pius is mentioned once.
It’s almost as though Beard has an agenda with this book. Essentially this book is about Mary Beard using her accessible and anecdotal writing style to explain how the Roman people (not just the important ones either) evolved and changed over 1,000 years socially and politically in terms of how an empire should be run and how it’s citizens should behave. The emphasis is clearly on social and political change. It’s no mistake that almost the first 40% of the book is entirely a political and social commentary on the rise and fall of the republic.
There are so many points in this book where I think “what am I reading?” And “I can’t follow this at all”. It’s like listening to a teacher who cannot resist but go off at a tangent. There’s nothing wrong with a tangential and anecdotal style but when you’re selling it as a “history of Ancient Rome” it’s easy to feel short changed. It’s like going shopping to buy one item and coming out with 20 different items minus the one you went in for. A lot of the time reading this book you feel like you are not learning history but you are just getting Beard’s opinions, anecdotal jokes or showing off her Latin. In this sense it may be a socio-political commentary on the first millennium in Rome but “a history of Ancient Rome” it isn’t I’m afraid.
Still worth a read and very insightful for anyone with some existing knowledge (if you are starting out please buy something else for now). For anyone wanting to know more about Augustus’ influence the chapter on him is superb. The final chapter on life in the provinces is also fascinating as this is rarely debated in other similar books. The first half of the book is very dull though and feels like it takes a long time ambling its way through Beard’s quasi-fetish of Cicero which dominates so much of the first half of the book.
I think if Mary Beard had sub-titled this book with the idea that it was socio-political commentary on the first millennium in Rome centred around Roman citizenship then it would be a 5 star book. Sadly what we have is a book that is interesting and insightful and written with superb expertise but ultimately isn’t what it says it is on the cover which makes it, at times, come across as a rambling and anecdotal mess with little thread or coherent chronology of history being communicated.
Personally I was looking for a book that would take me through the different chapters of Roman history and describe the events, battles and give detail of political and social systems.
I thought I was getting a history book that would take me through a chronological timeline with detailed accounts. What I got was much different.
In fact, I’m shocked that this book has been so well received. It is quite pretentious and highly opinionated (without actually backing her opinions) piece of writing. There is a lot of assumptions of how certain people thought with no reason for it but her preconceived ideas of the world. She looks at the past through the prism of today which changes history itself.
In order to get a certain piece of history you need to go through A LOT of her annotations. If that’s what you’re looking for than great. However, that’s NOT what this book is marketed as. Quite disappointing really.
All these (and other reasons, I could go on for days really) make for a really exhausting read. Information that could have been written in 2 pages is extended to a whole chapter because her assumptions - NOT facts - and unrelated events are plastered all over it, interrupting the flow.
I’m wondering who is the targeted audience of this book. It’s definitely NOT for the general public wanting an introduction to Roman history, given how pretentious the writing format itself is. I also highly doubt that scholars would want to read this book unless they want an opinion piece.
Enough ranting for me. I DO NOT recommend this book and certainly do not see it as “essential” reading as the reviews led me to believe. Highly overrated and underwhelming.
Mary Beard takes as her starting point the Roman history that we all think we know from school, Shakespeare and Hollywood, then opens this up into a far more detailed, more subtle, more questioning look at these ‘iconic’ people, places and moments.
She begins with one such iconic moment: Cicero defeating Catiline’s ‘conspiracy’ in 63 BCE. She then opens up the screen to give us a clear and fascinating panorama of Rome at this period of the Republic, before moving back to the city’s mythical founders, Romulus and Remus and Aeneas, then tracking forwards again in time to show us how Rome arrived at that moment of Cicero’s pivotal triumph. From here she leads us forwards once more, via the assassination of Julius Caesar, through the days of the ‘great’ emperors (including the ones we know best from film and TV: Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.) The book ends in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla made every single free inhabitant of the Empire a full Roman citizen.
Through this framework of a fast-paced, essentially ripping yarn, what works best for me is Ms Beard’s probing, questioning approach. Just how right was Cicero? Just what evidence is there that Caligula made his horse a consul? What about the lives of the 'forgotten' people like slaves and women? These questions give us many new things to think about, not only with regard to Rome, but also to our own times. Although the author never belabours parallels with the C21st, they bubble up naturally in the reader’s mind. We also gain thought-provoking insights into the way history and historians work, whether creating myths or debunking them.
Mary Beard's writing is immaculate, highly readable and engaging and salted with touches of often subversive wit.