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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome Paperback – September 6, 2016
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“Beard tells this story precisely and clearly, with passion and without technical jargon…SPQR is a grim success story, but one told with wonderful flair.”
- 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
A professor of classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard is the author of the best-selling SPQR and Women & Power and the National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated Confronting the Classics. A popular blogger and television personality, Beard is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.
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This book from Professor Mary Beard is in many respects a masterpiece, but it is also a somewhat original one because it covers the history of Rome, but only its first millennium. The period starts with its foundation, traditionally set at 753 BC, and it stops around to 212 AD, when the Emperor most well-known as Caracalla made all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire into Roman citizens, therefore changing what it meant to be “Roman” and making “more than 30 million provincials into Romans overnight”, to quote the author. The event was indeed momentous, as rightly emphasised by the author, but this was largely because of its far-reaching consequences, and these may only have appeared overtime.
It can seem odd to publish a book on the history of Rome or on the Roman Empire and stop in AD 212, knowing, as we do, that the Roman Empire continued for over two and a half centuries for its Western part, and at least a further century and a half in the East. This is where the book’s title, its meaning, and the author’s intentions are important to understand.
SPQR is the acronym of the Senate and the People of Rome. The meaning refers to a period where the Senate and the People exercised supreme power in the city of Rome, which was a city-state to begin with, then the capital city of Italy, and the capital of an Empire. It also refers to a period where they appeared to exercise such power, as was the case after the so-called “Roman Revolution” from Augustus onwards, during what used to be called the period of the Principate. This is the period where the Emperor styled himself as the “First among equal” or the Princeps - the First in the Senate, and was careful, at least initially, to preserve the appearances of the Republic and of its institutions.
However, this book is really about Roman identity and, more precisely, what it meant to be a Roman citizen, from the foundation of the little city on the Tiber to the million large city that ruled over an Empire centred on the Mediterranean that the Romans arrogantly – but aptly - called “Mare Nostrum” (“Our Sea). It is not about what it meant to be a subject of the Roman Empire, or of the Christian Roman Empire, with multiple imperial capitals and Rome being, at best, only one of them.
Here we get to the (relatively recent) divide between “Classics” and the Greco-Roman city-state model, as opposed to “Late Antiquity” which covers the Late Roman Empire up to the Arab conquests and no longer up to AD 476 only, and which is underpinned by the Greco-Asian concept of imperial power and Emperors. The reader is also “treated”, somewhat amusingly, to the “politically correct” and faintly ridiculous and hypocritical BCE and CE (Before Common Era and Common Era) that have become fashionable and which refer to exactly the same dates as BC (before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini – Year of the Lord), except that they attempt to hide the Christian origin of the supposedly “global” and “universal” dating system.
Since this book is about the formation and the expansion of Roman identity and Roman citizenship, Mary Bard stars by examining, explaining and debunking Rome’s founding myths, most of which seem to have been elaborated between the first century BC and the first century AD. She also analyses more recent Roman founding myths, such as the so-called decisive battle of Actium, and the propaganda of Augustus. Also included is an analysis of what the Roman regimes and societies really were like – the so-called Republic started as an oligarchy and if Roman Senators cum politicians chose, at times, to become “populares”, as Caesar did for instance, it was more about power and self-interest than about genuine interest for the poor. To help with this, the author makes use of recent archaeological findings and excavations in Rome itself, and all of what used to be called (somewhat disparagingly) the other “auxiliary disciplines” such as numismatics (studying old coins) and epigraphy (studying inscriptions).
To conclude, this is a remarkable book written in a very accessible style but nevertheless with few anachronisms and not attempt to “dumb down”, as books targeted towards the so-called “general reader” and written by academic specialists sometimes tend to do. It is also a book that contains numerous and carefully chosen illustrations which are intended to elicit the reader’s curiosity and interest, such as the fake representation of Cicero’s famous appearance in front of the Senate during which he confounded Catiline. Also included are five excellent maps of Rome and its surroundings, including its Empire. Finally, there are no notes but a rather copious section for “further reading” with just about all of the key references included and commented upon for each of the book’s chapters.
There would in fact be much more to mention about this very rich book. By this point, however, I believe that anyone reading this review will have understood how valuable I found it to be and how much I recommend it. Easily worth five stars, and I would have given it more had this been possible.
I liked several things about this book:
a) the author does a good job of challenging assumptions about what we "know" about Rome, usually pointing to a lack of evidence (or at least unbiased evidence) for this position or that (eg, how bad were Caligula, Nero, et al in fact?).
b) I found the chapters about the formation and early years of Rome particularly interesting.
c) the author makes several interesting points about how many Roman expressions and/or attitudes remain with us today.
While not intended as criticism, the following comments might be helpful to other potential readers when deciding whether this book is for them:
1) As mentioned elsewhere, the book ends about 200 AD, well before the end of the empire.
2) The author relies heavily on letters, etc. by Cicero and Pliny the Younger. While this is not surprising given the relative volume of their correspondence (compared to other known sources), readers who are very familiar with these writers might get less out of the book.
3) While the author returns several times to the topic of the unknown history of women, the poor, etc., ultimately I found little of interest on these topics in the book, probably because lack of source materials means there is little to say.
4) Generally there is little discussion of military topics.
In any event, a very interesting and well-written piece of work about Rome.
That being said, it's clear that Prof. Beard did not set out to write a political history of Rome, but to focus on the lives of the average people that lived in the era and to tell, as best as she is able, their stories. Part of her intention in so blithely glossing over the doings of the emperors is to highlight how little effect the political realm had on the lives of ordinary people. This she does very well, despite limited written records as compared to the lives of the wealthy. Beard brings to life how ordinary people sustained themselves, what careers they may have pursued, what they may have hoped for and how they lived. I found all this to be very well told and an aspect of Rome too often glossed over in favor of the more flashy tales of intrigue that pervaded imperial roman politics.
However, it needs to be said that Prof. Beard's work is a bit inconsistent in its intent and presentation. The first half dealing with the Republican era delves deeply into the political realm. She tries to highlight social aspects as best as she is able, but the poverty of primary records from that era limits what we can reasonably expect to know. Her lens focuses intently on Julius Caesar (as one would expect), the civil wars that followed, and the reign of Augustus. Tiberius and Caligula get passing mention but the remainder of the period "covered" is dominated by the social history, which again is fascinating and well presented, but the shift in focus is a bit jarring.
If you are new to the study of Roman History, I would not recommend this book as its approach to the chronology is too haphazard to do anything other than confuse the neophyte. If, on the other-hand, you have a general sense of the historical narrative and are looking to flesh out your understanding and understand how Romans outside the imperial bubble lived, then you will be very well served by Prof. Beard's work.