Book Review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome


by Mary Beard

New York: Liveright W.W. Norton, 2016. Pp. 608 paper. Illus., maps, chron., biblio., index. $17.95. ISBN: 1631492225

Why did Rome Rise?

In what is certainly not a traditional treatment, the brilliant and witty Prof. Beard (Cambridge), author of The Roman Triumph and many other works, takes us on a thoughtful walk through the story of Rome, from its mythic beginnings in the ninth or eighth century BC through what was arguably the culmination of Empire, with the extension of Roman citizenship to virtually all free persons in A.D. 212.

While rejecting the detail of the mythic origins and early history of Rome, Beard picks out some threads that she deems worth following, such as the curiously shabby origins of the city, the relative ease with which Romans accepted new peoples as Romans, the evolution of the “mixed” form of government, combining elements of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy, and more, which helped it rise from a small town on a minor river to domination of the Mediterranean world.

Beard at times digresses, to follow an idea or practice back and forth across the ages, even to the present, demonstrating the strength of Roman ideas and institutions or to compare Roman experience with modern practice.

Beard notes that the Romans were imperialistic, warlike, brutal, and greedy, but then, so too were pretty much everyone else at time, and not nearly as good at building a durable empire, by turning former subjects and enemies into loyal Romans, a feat few other empires have managed.

Beard regularly reminds us that much of what we “know” about Rome isn’t necessarily true (e.g., how bad was life for the average Roman under the “bad” emperors or how heavy were Roman taxes or what was Hadrian’s Wall for?), while touching upon everything from military practice to the status of women, the arts and literature, architecture, sanitation, gladiators, motion pictures, and how perceptions of the Romans have changed over the ages.

A good book for those unfamiliar with Roman history, SPQR is also very worthwhile reading for the seasoned student of the subject.

Note: SPQR is also available in hardback, $35.00, ISBN 978-0-87140-423-7, and in several e-pub and audio editions.

Reviewer: A. A. Nofi   

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