Mary Beard: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome

January 16, 2016

51NyAcHeyJL._AA160_This wasn’t what I was expecting; in some ways it was less good, but in many ways a lot better.

My memories of learning Roman History are from upwards of forty years ago; it was very serious stuff, highly academic, packed densely with names of important people and dates, quite a few of which I still remember. At the end of a couple of years I had a pretty clear understanding of the last century or so of the republic and the first four emperors. Things have moved on rather since them, and Mary Beard makes this clear in a lively, wide-ranging and thought-provoking book.

Obviously she can draw on new material, discoveries and research; equally, she is aware that most people will have very little knowledge of the field, so she is concerned to give an overview that her readers can build on. She writes in a rather livelier style than her predecessors of the nineteen-thirties, eschews names and dates, apart from the key ones, and gives a fuller picture of what it might have been like to live, not just in the tempestuous times I studied all those years ago, but at various other moments in Roman history. She separates fact from myth, and debunks quite a lot of hoary old chestnuts long accepted and believed about Roman times (challenging some aspects of the apparent dreadfulness of Caligula for instance, so I found myself learning quite a lot, and also understanding people and events in rather different ways.

Ancient Rome comes across as even more brutal and violent than I remembered it, and many of the heroes of the time are revealed to have been far less heroic than the past painted them. I was also surprised at just how much source material from the times had survived, in letters and books written by the Romans themselves. Beard draws widely on all this material, as you’d expect, but I do have one criticism to make here. I don’t know whether it was her decision or one by her editor, but I certainly didn’t find the section of general notes and references on each chapter, at the end of the book, terribly helpful, because they weren’t linked to the body of the text with superscript numbers, as they usually are in history books; this meant that whenever I was curious to know the source of a fact or a detail, I had to search about in a section of several pages till I uncovered what I wanted. I do hope this method doesn’t spread: inconvenience in order to avoid little numbers in the text, plus the absence of a proper bibliography…

I saw even more clearly how the institutions of the early republic just weren’t up to managing a huge empire; not were the politicians themselves (no change there then!), and that the problem with emperors was largely the succession. Once you attained power, you often set about vilifying your predecessor, and this means we are unsure about various emperors’ real reputations. Shakespeare played even more fast and loose with his Roman history than I had been aware of, too.

There are messages about governance and empire from those times which are still relevant today: where are the people and the institutions of the necessary calibre to manage an ever more complex world? The Romans failed to find the answers, and we don’t see to have done any better, really. And their empire lasted longer than any of the Western ones has done so far…

In sum, this is a good book if you’re new to Roman history, or want to re-kindle an old interest. I think I shall be going back to some of my old textbooks.


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