Rating: ★★★★ // History that is read like a novel
Favorite Line: “It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not.”
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.
SPQR: Senatus Populusque Romanus (“The Roman Senate and People”)
I am by no means qualified to review a non-fiction book on the history of Ancient Rome. I studied Ancient Rome in high school and college, and I have read multiple books from that time period. I have a strong interest in Roman myths and in the Roman Empire, but my knowledge does not go past that of an intrigued lay person. Therefore I cannot attest to the accuracy of the statements nor the legitimacy of Mary Beard’s assumptions or speculations. I can, however, say that this book absolutely fascinated me.
I have not read a book by Beard before this one, but now I want to go back and read her earlier ones. The details are incredible, and they are told in a lighthearted way that gives the book a conversational tone. Truly, while reading it I felt as if I was sitting across from her in a pub or at dinner, and she was telling me these things as if she had seen them all happen first hand.
“Vespasian continued his down-to-earth line in self-deprecating wit right up until his last words: ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god …”
SOQR covers early early early Rome (which is why it says “Ancient” in the title), and it is not at all about how Rome fell, a topic widely covered in school, but rather how it rose to glory. It talks about the myth of Romulus and Remus (one of my personal favorites), it talks about separation of classes and how it changed over the years, it talks about the thought processes behind the forming of government and political philosophy, and it talks about the military changes and how Rome became the ultimate power in the world.
“There is little point in asking how ‘democratic’ the politics of Republican Rome were: Romans fought for, and about, liberty, not democracy.”
Most of the book is straight fact, but as with most ancient civilizations, there are gaps in history and Beard seamlessly tells the reader how she believes those gabs are to be filled in, but she also tells of how others believe they should be filled in, and how she came to her conclusion. This aspect of her writing really impressed me because while she is an expert in her field, she was able to recognize other expert’s ideas and she gave them credit for their differences of opinion.
It amazed me how often I found similarities to our own government, here in the United States and that of Ancient Rome. It became clear that our founding fathers were well versed in the beliefs of the Roman Empire and many aspects of the ancient government (but by no means all of the aspects) found their way into the building of our government here.
“He divided the people in this way to ensure that voting power was under the control not of the rabble but of the wealthy, and he saw to it that the greatest number did not have the greatest power – a principle that we should always stand by in politics.”
As I previously stated I am not qualified to properly review this, so I decided to go through and read reviews of this book of people who may be a little more qualified than myself. Most of the reviews were very positive, there were some, however who were less than enthused about her take on Roman history. These reviews mostly stated that her book was a great outline of the times, but lacked the depth needed for this kind of study. I think this is a fair critique as a proper and fully in-depth book would be 5 times as long as this book (it’s over 500 pages already) and I would have never ever ever picked it up to read. Some people disagreed on her personal opinions, which is again fair, and some of the reviews started with statements that went something like “I don’t like history books,” which makes me wonder why they picked up this book in the first place.
I would love to talk to someone who knows a little more about this subject to see what I missed or how their views differ from Beards, but for now I am sticking to my opinion that this is an excellent book on Ancient Rome.
You can buy the book here on Book Depository!