SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Highly recommended if you’re interested in the history of Rome (750 BC to 212AD) whether you are an old history buff or never did get around to this era.

It took some time to finish but well worth it as it’s something I’ve needed to fill a gap in my knowledge base  – and it is way, way more than that.   It’s an update on the old high school chapter on “The Grandeur that was Rome.”     As much as I’ve studied history of all sorts of eras and places,  the history of Rome,  on its own,  has escaped me.  I thought it was too militaristic,  too boring,  too complicated,  etc.  Still,  I got quite a lot anyway,  reading Rubicon by  Tom Holland and a couple biographies of Cleopatra.  I’m fascinated by the Roman presence in the British Isles,  Spain, the Middle East and so on.  But I’ve not touched Roman history specifically since high school.

sbeard.jpeg
*******
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
by Mary Beard
2016 / 537 pages (kindle – narrative only)
rating – 9
read by Phyllida Nash -18h 30m
*******

Beard is a scholar of Roman history and teaches at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of ancient literature.  So she knows whereof she speaks.  She also writes quite nicely.

So what’s new in the study of Ancient Rome? –  First I personally had better get caught up on the old stuff.  That’s okay because both the traditional information as well as the recent material is covered.  I had to stretch my memory and Google a few times to get some background,  but mostly I did okay if I paid attention. There’s a great timeline at the end of the book!

This is a fairly detailed study so even at 537 text pages,   it only goes from  about 700 BC to 212 AD with the basics as well as  even the name of Rome’s first public librarian is mentioned.  But it’s also broad with nice analyses.  SPQR are the initials of  “The Senate and People of Rome” which is used quite often in old Roman documents.

Although the book opens with Cicero and Catiline of the 1st century AD the story is generally told in chronological order from about 700 BC and the tribes of Italy with Romulus and Remus,  through the Kings  and the beginning of written law and the Senate,  after which comes the Republic with Consuls and more extensive voting privileges ending up with the early times of Empire.

The chapter titles give a huge clue as to the scope of the book.   Good maps and wonderful illustrations are also included.  There’s not much of in the way of source notes but that would really be too cumbersome – there is a good “Further Reading” section.

Prologue:  The History of Rome –

1. Cicero’s Finest Hour

2. In the Beginning

3. The Kings of Rome

4. Rome’s Great Leap Forward

5. A Wider World

6. New Politics

7. From Empire to Emperors

8. The Home Front

9. The Transformations of Augustus

10. Fourteen Emperors

11. The Haves and Have-Nots

12. Rome Outside Rome

Epilogue: The First Roman Millennium

There is quite a lot of political and military history here as is to be expected but Beard has inserted the social and cultural aspects as available,  primarily after Chapter 7.  The focus seems to be on the changes and system(s).

I’m amazed at how much like current times it was in those early days of any kind of “freedom” or “democracy.”  –  But as Beard states in the Epilogue,  we can’t really  directly “learn” all that much “from” the Romans as we can by “engaging with” the history.

Reviews:
The Atlantic –    The Secret of Rome’s Success
Mary Beard’s sweeping history is a new read of citizenship in the ancient empire.

The Economist –  What a strange lot
The Romans were funny, ambitious and cruel

The New York Review of Book – Inside the Emperors’  Clothes