SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Cover of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Cover of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is a monumental work by the historian Mary Beard.  It is impossible, in a brief review, to do justice to Beard’s achievement.  SPQR (the title stands for “The Senate and People of Rome”) covers the period from 753 BCE, the supposed date of the founding of Rome, to 212 CE, when the emperor Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire.  In a fascinating section early in the book, Beard discusses various legends about the founding of Rome, including the stories of Aeneas and Romulus and Remus, and says they are just that—legends, with no historical truth to them.  Much of the evidence for the early period of Roman history is archaeological, and archaeologists disagree on exactly how old their discoveries are.  There is compelling evidence that early Rome was ruled by kings, as the legends say, but no one knows for certain whether the seven kings of legend actually existed.  Beard discusses the written sources for this period--Roman historians such as Livy, who were writing hundreds of years later—and says they had no direct evidence about this time, and were relying on tradition.

Much of SPQR covers the period of the Republic and early Empire, and here Beard has much more primary source material available to her, including the letters of Cicero and Pliny the Younger.  She discusses how Rome grew from a relatively small city, not much different from its neighbors, to the capital of a vast empire which stretched from Britain in the west to Syria in the east.  Beard does an excellent job of describing both the political institutions of ancient Rome and the social history of the period.  She is wonderful at interspersing the stories of famous figures such as Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus, Pompey, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Augustus, Caligula, and Nero, with the lives of ordinary people, including women, the poor, and slaves.  One of the most fascinating sections of the book is about Cicero and his family, and his heartbreak on the death of his beloved daughter Tullia in childbirth.  It illustrates the experiences of women in Rome.  As Beard says, in several ways women in Rome lived better lives than their counterparts in Greece: they were not confined to the home and could appear in public.  But many women died in childbirth, which was the case almost until modern times, and of course they could not vote or hold public office.  I also found Beard’s section on the early Empire very interesting.  She attempts to rehabilitate the “evil” emperors Caligula and Nero and makes a compelling case that they were defamed by their successors.  In fact, she says that to the ordinary people of Rome, it did not make much difference who the emperor was, and that the emperor Tiberius could easily have stepped into the shoes of Commodus, who ruled almost 200 years later.

Beard has been criticized for not covering the period of the later Roman Empire, but she makes a strong case that the year 212 CE, when Caracalla granted citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire, represents a turning point in Roman history, and that the years after this are part of a different era, with a different religion for much of it, as Christianity eventually became the official religion of the empire.  She leaves it for a different author to cover this period.  SPQR is a must-read for anyone interested in Roman history, especially the Republic and early Empire, and if you thought Roman history was boring, think again.  Beard writes about it in a way that makes it accessible to any reader, and her book is refreshingly free of academic jargon.  Roman history comes alive in this book.

SPQR is available from the Recreational Reading Collection at the Art, Architecture, and Engineering Library.  Unfortunately, the Hatcher Graduate Library's copy is listed as missing.  I hope they decide to order another copy, especially since the book has recently been published in paperback.