For hundreds of years, travellers have made their way to the Eternal City, being drawn into the heart of the Roman Empire to see for themselves where its history and legacy began.
Our enduring love affair with Roman history has repeatedly led to it being mythologised in fiction, films, TV and drama, from Shakespeare’s history plays such as Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, to historical fiction authors like Robert Harris or Anthony Riches, to the numerous films that range from the cheesy to the downright inaccurate.
In her book SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard takes our cultural fascination with Roman history and cuts it down to size.
SPQR covers the history of ancient Rome from its blurry beginnings (both mythological and real) (some time between 1300BCE – 600BCE) to its development into a city-state and establishment as an empire that came to govern most of the known world.
But SPQR surprisingly does not start at the beginning. Instead, Beard rather unconventionally decides to begin her book with Cicero’s dispute with Catiline in 63 BCE. You are essentially starting your journey through ancient Rome 3/4 of the way through, then looking backwards, and then forwards up to 212CE. Although this seems at first counter-intuitive, Beard’s unusual approach means that you are from the word go trying to find the links between Rome’s beginnings and the integrated cracks of the late Republic and early Empire as Beard herself slowly knits together a whole picture of the history of Rome.
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Getting into the nitty-gritty of it
What also makes Beard’s history stand out is that although she covers the standard, well-versed, ‘big’ parts of Roman history, she also goes into more mundane and individual elements such as the housing conditions of inner-city Rome, or paintings on the walls of Roman bars which showed stories of fights over a dice games.
This switching between the micro and macro, the governmental and domestic makes SPQR a fascinating read as you can begin to piece together what the real ancient Rome looked like day-to-day, as opposed to it being mythologised by focussing purely on the actions of the elite and Rome’s international manoeuvres.
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A slow start
However, although Beard’s historical walkthrough of ancient Rome is easy to follow and intriguing it was not without its niggles. For one, it does take a while for you to actually get to the history part. Beard’s background as a university lecturer definitely seeps into her writing style, particularly in the introduction, as she poses lots of unneeded questions to the reader before actually getting going.
Although this is a good way of getting the reader thinking, I did feel at times like I was reading the transcript of a lecture presented to history students as opposed to reading a book on Roman history catered for the general public.
Despite these introductory questions, the tone of the majority of the book is altogether very readable and down to earth, almost like having a conversation with Beard over coffee as opposed to reading a history book. Her colloquial and witty style adds life, humour and eloquence to Rome’s history, making SPQR a much more enjoyable and easily understandable read for the novice historian.
History is in the details
The downside is that there were points where Beard’s down to earth and colloquial style did mean that she was not as specific in places as you would like. On reading SPQR, you’re often left wanting to know more – more details, more specifics, more gore, more scandal.
Caesar’s assassination was one subject among many that could have been elaborated upon on Beard’s part as they felt a little skimmed over, with Beard relying on the reader’s assumed knowledge of the details. In this way, Beard’s framing of her subject is, at times, a little vague even for the most novice reader of Roman history. It sometimes felt almost dumbed down in an attempt to make it more colloquial and understandable. However, the book as it stands is around 500 pages long, covering a thousand years of history. More detail would mean a bigger, more padded out book, which would arguably be too long to be enjoyable as it would no longer be the concise history of ancient Rome.
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Although Beard could have elaborated at points, she can be praised for not falling victim to exaggeration in SPQR. Although vague in the specifics, Beard’s treatment of some of the myths and half-truths of Roman history helps to bring Rome into the readers’ understanding as an ancient city and not the site of fantasy.
While she dismisses some myths as clearly impossible, or simply impossible to prove, Beard also does not pretend there is a single story or truth to the myths or that she and other historians know all the facts about the stories to come out of Rome. While Beard often acknowledges what is the most likely reality of a myth or legend, she does not make grandiose claims that this is the definitive truth, or even the whole truth, highlighting that some parts of Roman history are still very much uncertain and unknown.
In this way, SPQR successfully brings the history of Rome to life without sacrificing realism and objectivity, presenting a concise although at times vague history of one of the most fascinating periods of history, unpacking its past, both mythological and real for all to read.