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  • SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
  • Mary Beard
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  • 06 May 2019

About the Author: Mary Beard

Winifred Mary Beard born 1 January 1955 is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Newnham College She is the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog A Don s Life , which appears on The Times as a regular column Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as Brita



10 thoughts on “SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

  1. says:

    I have a weird thing with acronyms The minute I see one, I start thinking what it might stand for, and there are no rational limitations to what that particular grouping of letters might encompass.Needless to say, when I picked up SPQR, my brain exploded I mean, how often do you get an acronym with a Q in it Sure, there are some limitations with that, but also possibilities that don t generally arise To wit here is what I thought this book might be about before I actually read the subtitle and summary Samuel Pembroke Quit Racquetball Wherein a gang of aging white investment bankers get mad at their friend, who decides to forego their Wednesday evening racquetball game to spend time with his family Snort Purr Quack Roar Wherein a pig, a cat, a duck, and a tiger become roommates and have to learn to live with each other s particular quirks or quacks, as the duck insists on referring to them.Seven Portly Queens Roll Wherein a magical kingdom in a faraway land determines who wears the crown and rules the land by rolling ladies of a particular size and shape down a steep hill to see who gets to the bottom first Septuagenarian Penises Quickly Rumple Wherein a twentysomething vixen with an old man fetish quickly learns, much to her dismay, that the stamina of aged lotharios is considerably less than she d hoped Turns out SPQR actually stands for Sen tus Populusque R m nus, which basically means The Senate and People of Rome Which, obviously, is considerably less exciting than all of the aforementioned possibilities.I suppose some of you are wondering about the book, and whether it was any good if so, you should know better than to read my reviews for any sort of useful content.That said, there is much to admire in the scope and breadth of Ms Beard s millennium spanning history, in particular her detailed examination of exactly what it meant to be Roman an impossible to define concept due to the fact that the Romans themselves didn t necessarily think of themselves as such, it seems and leveraging every inch of the historical record to consider the roles, life, and treatment of people at all strata of Roman society There are fascinating tidbits in here some likely apocryphal, though those instances are dutifully noted , and Beard s scholarship is beyond reproach, but the aforementioned scope breadth makes the book a challenging read.It s hard to digest and absorb this much history and information, much less to synthesize any meaning from it Beard herself notes that she s not sure we can learn all that much from the Romans example, whether in terms of governance, military tactics, or social programs And there are a lot a LOT of players in this drama, and exhaustive detail, which makes it a scholarly delight, but something of a slog to get through at times Still, it s an impressive achievement covering one of the most important epochs in Western history Overall, I d peg this somewhere around 3.5 stars, and we ll round up Unlike those septuagenarians our poor vixen tried to love up on, who tend to round down Hey oh

  2. says:

    In spite of her incessant, unsubstantiated opinions, in spite of her chatty conjectures, in spite of her tenuous statements directly followed by her own contradictory analytics, Mary loves talking to herself in spite of the absolutely needless references to contemporary culture and politicians, Mary Beard s SPQR is worth reading with a golf ball size grain of salt if one is a devout Roman history nerd, a blizzard is raging outside your window and the snowplows have yet to drop by.Somehow, enough interesting historical tidbits, that the devout nerd probably already knows by heart, manages to survive Beard s merciless writing to keep the reader awake Roman history will endure even this boob tube babble that scholars are unlikely to find very useful.

  3. says:

    Mary Beard writes about how Rome grew, not about why it collapsed That focus is rare in books about Rome And she doesn t look at Rome out of admiration, or as a guide to how the world works the past repeats in the present, etc. The Romans were as divided about how they thought the world worked, or should work, as we are There is no simple Roman model for us to follow p 535 She writes about the Romans because they are interesting, because they left us a considerable record, and because they grappled with serious issues As she notes early in the book, to explore Rome from our vantage point is like walking a suspension bridge with the familiar on one side and the utterly alien on the other side And she spends time on both views.The book begins at around 63 BCE at the time when Cicero, consul of Rome, stopped a threat to the state by Catiline, an upper class failed politician It begins then not because the event was sufficiently dramatic though it was , but because a significant body of Roman writing exists from that time Although she analyzes Rome s beginning, she does it from the point of view of Ciceros era because of the availability of records And the book ends in 212 BCE with Caracalla s decree extending citizenship to all free men living within the Empire Given that Rome s founding took place, according to Roman historians, in what we call 753 BC, and that the empire in the west did not end until 476 AD and the dispossession of Romulus Augustulus, her focus is on the central part of Roman history the period when Roman power was sustainable.Beard writes well and accessibly She concentrates on humanity, especially those Romans who rarely receive much attention She makes quite clear how the western view of Rome has shifted over time The book is well worth buying and consulting, but, first, it is worth reading for the sheer pleasure of seeing a first class mind at work.

  4. says:

    Given the 5o years Mary Beard poured into the crafting of this book, and my own interest in the subject matter, I was tempted to give this four stars, but kept getting hung up by the author s decision to fall sway to the modern trends in academia of giving a postmodernist veneer to any narrative Plenty of reviewers have given Beard the equivalent of four or five stars, but when someone says this is a definitive history of Rome from the pre republic kings to Caracalla, I d have to say No, not really Like many recent books on the fall of Rome that do an adequate but scarcely stellar job, Beard s book of early Rome is a worthy read, but not the comprehensive study it might have been.This book is valuable because Beard reinforces the message again and again that we cannot rely on the prose, even the histories, of Roman and Greek writers from the time in question, because of the natural human tendency to exaggerate and tell half a tale Reliance on such histories must be backed up by finds from archaeologists and other sources She tries to fill in the blanks by offering alternative interpretations of what may have happened But in so doing, her story lacks a strong sequential narrative.I am not expecting Mary Beard to be Gibbon lite, and I am very comfortable with nonlinearity But taking the chapter Fourteen Emperors as an example, she is so busy letting us know where Suetonius s Twelve Emperors might be faulty, we never get a clear idea of the fourteen emperors between Tiberius and Commodus Earlier in the book, she shies away from giving a history of the year of four emperors, perhaps because the civil war surrounding them was too complex.There are valuable pieces of information in this book Beard shows how the tales of Roman kings prior to the republic are no reliable than the stories of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she wolf In fact, the early kings are as legendary as the Tuatha De Denaan in Ireland, and have to be accepted as little than fairy tales.Beard s description of the slow corruption of the Senate during the republic, and its eventual conversion to a showcase for fake democracy during the empire, reminds us of our own false democracies in the modern era It also should remind us that there was no golden age of Rome when its Senate was virtuous and incorruptible The problem was not simply that the republic, like Greece, was a democracy only for propertied men The problem was that Rome never enjoyed a democracy at all.Beard s final chapter, Rome Outside of Rome, provides some useful signposts on the difficulty of maintaining a far flung empire Yet we never get a solid sense of the continuous revolts among the Legion members and colonial governors, and the wars with Germania, Dacia, and the British Celts under Boudicca There is a useful timeline in the back of the book, but if only a trace of sequentiality could have been added to the book itself Beard ends her survey with a useful message I take to heart After showing that the Christian histories of the Constantine period and beyond are some of the least reliable and most fable filled of all a point made by Gibbon over and over in his multi volume Decline , she tells us that studies of ancient Rome are useful for providing frameworks, but that Rome should never be elevated as an example to the 21st century, the way some Renaissance era Rome worshipers would do when they took the Grand Tour of Italy I join with Beard in finding Rome and Greece to be merely the better organized of many ancient cultures worth studying, including many barbarian kingdoms as interesting as Rome Beard s book is a useful one that will be relied upon as a popular history for years to come But at than 600 pages, if she had simply provided a little organization and factual detail to match the timeline at the end, SPQR might have been a much greater classic.

  5. says:

    I love Mary Beard She would have my vote to become President of the Confederated Britannic Republics without even needing to shake my hand Judging from her treatment of trolls she seems to be an exemplary human, and while she has so far been unable to reform hardened view spoiler I use the term in it s technical sense hide spoiler

  6. says:

    Books that span 1000 years of Roman history are usually about the empire s decline this one is how Rome was built Mary Beard s sweep of events goes beyond the consuls, senators, generals and emperors to cover the lives of their spouses, the middle class, the poor, and the slaves She tells what is known and what is not.Starting with Romulus and Remus she gives exactly the background the general reader wants She tells the purported story of their mother their mother s explanation for their birth, why they were exiled and that the Latin word for wolf was similar to that of prostitute She follows their story to the slaying of Remus and the myths regarding the death of Romulus She further explains how the Sabine women came to be raped and why they are considered peace makers.Beard gives the reader a feel for what it was like to live in Rome at the different times She quotes from speeches, poems, and gravestone testaments of the elite, but average Romans didn t leave these things behind She writes of what has been found of everyday people and how meaning is squeezed from unearthed pottery it s composition and where it was from bodies clothing, nutrition, wear and tear signs and games suggest literacy is common , artifacts pride in their work, popularity of fortune telling and documents showing their vulnerability to theft items like clothing, tools and beer.In covering women, sometimes the obvious is worth stating, and Beard does there were no women senators Instead of dwelling on Augustus s punishment of his daughter as is common in Roman histories , she explains how her father pushed her from one marriage to another She examines the value of women s virtue and the facts surrounding two specific rapes and whether they really led to regime change Most books on Rome report what is known, but just don t mention some fundamentals the reader wants to know Beard explains these voids and refreshingly says what is not known For instance, while most books use or refer to the census, the reader wants to know how it was assembled and counted After citing the ambiguities for the researcher, Beard notes that careers have been lost and gained in this area Lots of books cover Roman money, and may tell you how much a house cost Beard doesn t leave it at that She notes the cost of Cicero s house, but doubts his slaves carried wheelbarrows of coins to the seller She actually says that no one knows how it was actually paid for You can find lots of books on how the 18 year old Octavian took control of seemingly uncontrollable Rome While Beard gives you the policies he changed triumph restrictions, emperor control of the army, etc and something of his leadership style the numbers of Senators murdered , but she actually says it cannot be known that how Octavius Augustus did it when others couldn t.You see an evolution in managing the conquered territories In the republic, overseers had a free hand in the empire there was an uneven centralization Romans adopted local cultures, adding local gods and customs to their own In the republic there were civil wars and a slave rebellion in empire years there was no such foment Trade flourished and there was a lot of mobility In the republic Italians fought for rights of citizenship in the empire years, without a movement or uprising, Emperor Caracalla granted all residents Roman citizenship.It s hard to assess how much text should have been devoted to the Christians, since they were, as Beard notes, a small percent of the population Beard explains how this new faith was at odds with Roman values There is nothing on the crucifixion Perhaps there is nothing to be known of Augustus and what he thought or knew about it.In her last chapter Beard, again, expresses an unusually honest opinion in saying that after 50 years of studying Rome, while there is a lot to learn, there is nothing to apply to modern life and that no general should be following the tactics of Julius Caesar She has found that Romans were as divided on public issues as we are today and we should not take them too seriously.

  7. says:

    Historian Mary Beard covers the first 1000 years of Roman history, from its humble beginnings when supposedly Romulus killed his brother Remus before founding what would become the city of Rome, to around the time when Christianity sunk its fangs into the empire to become its main religion, in SPQR It sounds exhausting and I m here to tell you that it s even worse in the reading I got through the whole mammoth affair but it wasn t worth it Beard s core thesis essentially centres around this one question how did the Romans become such a major player in the ancient world And the answer is fairly simply it conquered one group of people in one country after another, taking their land and rebranding the people as Roman citizens It was the great melting pot, the America, of its day Simple Got it I m not enough of a Roman historian to argue its veracity but it sounds kosher to me.Except Beard repeats this point ad infinitum Oh my word, it becomes beyond tedious to read this same statement again and again as it gets run into the ground over the course of the entire book Not that she s much interesting in other areas Beard is a scholar and her book tends to read like most academic texts it s dry, esoteric and dull, with a tendency to cram in vast amounts of detail that nobody could possibly retain Which isn t to say it s inaccessible Beard writes in a way most people will be able to follow it s just that a lot of the book focuses on the minutiae of how Roman society operated and that turned out to not be very enthralling She s also writing narrative history but completely fails to create a compelling, clear or easy to follow overall picture of the first 1000 years of Roman history She jumps about constantly, going off on tangents, skipping over entire periods the book is mostly a lethal combination of boring and confusing I do appreciate the difficulty of her task It s ambitious and I don t think anyone can condense a millennia s worth of history into 600 pages, particularly given the huge number of surviving documents from this era And that s another thing that really annoyed me the repetition that a lot of what was written shouldn t be trusted outright as the Romans had a habit of self mythologizing A good historian will only believe something if there s evidence to back it up Duuuuh As a history student myself, that seemed blindingly obvious, and, even if someone reading this isn t, does it bear mentioning over and over and over and Her book begins just before the Roman Republic ends and the Roman Empire begins, with the rise of Rome s most famous ruler, Julius Caesar before jumping back to the very beginning with the early Roman kings gah And Beard makes the worthwhile note that, though an important point in Rome s history, it was a superficial change at best Rome was never a bastion of democracy to begin with and the ancient form of democracy was immensely different from today s version of democracy anyway It s the most salient piece of information I learned I was aware of this before but never had it fully formed in my mind until Beard stated it The title SPQR meaning Sen tus Populusque R m nus The Roman Senate and People in addition to being an accurate description of the book is cleverly ironic That was basically it for me unfortunately what history I didn t already know felt too bitty, mundane and inconsequential to register SPQR is, of course, an informative book but, man alive, I was damn near bored to tears most of the time It hasn t killed my interest in the Romans but it has dampened my enthusiasm for the subject for some time I honestly think I ve learned about the Romans from fiction than I have from Beard s nonfiction So instead of this, if you re interested in the Romans, I heartily recommend Robert Harris Cicero trilogy, Robert Graves I, Claudius novels, and even the Asterix comics instead They too are illuminating but vastly engaging to read

  8. says:

    Let s get this out of the way this is in no way a history of ancient Rome this is a history of Rome from its mythical founding up till the year 212 It s heavily biased towards the Republic and the transition to Imperial structures, so you learn virtually nothing about the last, say, 150 of the years the book claims to cover That s fine, but to say that Beard is breaking new ground by writing about the Republic and early Empire is ridiculous, and to give the book such a broad subtitle is simply misleading That aside, it s an exceptionally easy read, with a form that lets Beard and her readers have it both ways we get to grumble about the silliness of Great Man history and decry the lack of a focus on women, slaves, provinces and colonies etc in so much ancient history while also reading a book structured around Cicero, the Ides of March, and Augustus, that or less says we don t know much about women or slaves etc because, well, they couldn t or didn t write anything Depending on how you want to understand this you might call it saving the baby of narrative while losing the bathwater of hero worship, or you might call it ingenuous liberal self congratulation I cannot stress how easy this book is to read In many ways, it s a model history for the general reader I stress this because I realize this review is going to sound very critical, and I think this is a good book that everyone should read It s also very much of the moment, as the previous paragraph suggests Less of the moment, and much stranger, is Beard contention that there s nothing to write about once Augustus has set in place the imperial framework History, she assures us, or less ended, just as everyone has said for generations that history ended in the Byzantine empire Nothing notable happened Nothing much changed That s simply not true However, it is very fortuitous for the book s structure The last chapter that describes things changing is Fourteen Emperors, which takes us from Tiberius to Commodus The last two chapters proper are about class, and colonization romanization really essays on these topics than chapter of a history Again, this is fine, and good But the idea that nothing much happened thereafter until the well recorded fall was that in the fifth century Or the sixteenth well, time to head for the bar I probably would have thought much of this book had I never learned that Mary Beard once engaged Boris Johnson in a debate entitled something like Rome or Greece But enough the fact that I was so irritated by this book shows that it s a good history book, which makes readers care about its topic.

  9. says:

    SPQR tells the history of the first millennium of ancient Rome from the mythical Romulus and Remus in the 8th Century BCE to 212 CE when Roman citizenship was given to every free inhabitant of the empire by Caracalla SPQR stands for the phrase Senatus Populusque Romanus , meaning The Senate and People of Rome Quite a bit of information is included about the lives of the lower classes, slaves, women, and people in the far flung provinces of the Roman empire in addition to the history of the famous Romans Although most of the book is chronological, the author sometimes tells events out of order so some background in the subject can be helpful.Mary Beard is an engaging author who is sometimes humorous or satirical She s a well respected historian who writes in a conversational tone The story of Rome is quite amazing, and Mary Beard brings it to life in SPQR.

  10. says:

    Smart, smart, smart and so readable that you will be tempted to sit up all night in order to finish it Not that I did, of course Okay, I did Because it is history written with common sense, a point of view and a healthy level of snark just to keep things interesting I am not going to sprinkle quotes from SPQR throughout this review because spoilers, but just as an example of her common sense, read the account of Caligula s life and reign Or Nero s She isn t doing revisionist history neither of them emerges as being someone you would particularly like to know but Beard succeeds brilliantly in making the reader re think alternative narratives for each emperor, interpretations that portray them in a less over the top way than usual She also brings ordinary life under the empire into sharp focus by having an unerring eye for the telling detail Her accounts of Pliny the Younger ruling Bithynia in Trajan s name, peppering the emperor with administrative details and padding his expense account so his wife could head back to the big city for her grandfather s funeral are wonderful in evoking just what it meant to be a bureaucrat in the early second century The other surprise is how few people were actually running the entire shebang Beard makes a convincing case that native peoples bought into the idea of Rome enough to make the government relatively easy enough The empire hummed along as a dual culture, doing fairly well until the Augustan model of government broke down with Commodus and the military became involved.I highly recommend this book as a brilliant introduction to Roman history It is sophisticated enough to engage people who know the basic outline of the period, and well written enough to please those who don t.

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