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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

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Ancient Rome was an imposing city even by modern standards, a sprawling imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, a "mixture of luxury and filth, liberty and exploitation, civic pride and murderous civil war" that served as the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria. Yet how did all this emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy? In S.P.Q.R., world-renowned classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand years later still shapes many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty. From the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus to 212 ce―nearly a thousand years later―when the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire, S.P.Q.R. (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries by exploring how the Romans thought of themselves: how they challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation. Opening the book in 63 BCE with the famous clash between the populist aristocrat Catiline and Cicero, the renowned politician and orator, Beard animates this “terrorist conspiracy,” which was aimed at the very heart of the Republic, demonstrating how this singular event would presage the struggle between democracy and autocracy that would come to define much of Rome’s subsequent history. Illustrating how a classical democracy yielded to a self-confident and self-critical empire, S.P.Q.R. reintroduces us, though in a wholly different way, to famous and familiar characters―Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero, among others―while expanding the historical aperture to include those overlooked in traditional histories: the women, the slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and those on the losing side of Rome’s glorious conquests. Like the best detectives, Beard sifts fact from fiction, myth and propaganda from historical record, refusing either simple admiration or blanket condemnation. Far from being frozen in marble, Roman history, she shows, is constantly being revised and rewritten as our knowledge expands. Indeed, our perceptions of ancient Rome have changed dramatically over the last fifty years, and S.P.Q.R., with its nuanced attention to class inequality, democratic struggles, and the lives of entire groups of people omitted from the historical narrative for centuries, promises to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come.

606 pages, Hardcover

First published October 19, 2015

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About the author

Mary Beard

65 books2,907 followers
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 "Britain's best-known classicist".

Mary Beard, an only child, was born on 1 January 1955 in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Her father, Roy Whitbread Beard, worked as an architect in Shrewsbury. She recalled him as "a raffish public-schoolboy type and a complete wastrel, but very engaging". Her mother Joyce Emily Beard was a headmistress and an enthusiastic reader.

Mary Beard attended an all-female direct grant school. During the summer she participated in archaeological excavations; this was initially to earn money for recreational spending, but she began to find the study of antiquity unexpectedly interesting. But it was not all that interested the young Beard. She had friends in many age groups, and a number of trangressions: "Playing around with other people's husbands when you were 17 was bad news. Yes, I was a very naughty girl."

At the age of 18 she was interviewed for a place at Newnham College, Cambridge and sat the then compulsory entrance exam. She had thought of going to King's, but rejected it when she discovered the college did not offer scholarships to women. Although studying at a single-sex college, she found in her first year that some men in the University held dismissive attitudes towards women's academic potential, and this strengthened her determination to succeed. She also developed feminist views that remained "hugely important" in her later life, although she later described "modern orthodox feminism" as partly "cant". Beard received an MA at Newnham and remained in Cambridge for her PhD.

From 1979 to 1983 she lectured in Classics at King's College London. She returned to Cambridge in 1984 as a fellow of Newnham College and the only female lecturer in the Classics faculty. Rome in the Late Republic, which she co-wrote with the Cambridge ancient historian Michael Crawford, was published the same year. In 1985 Beard married Robin Sinclair Cormack. She had a daughter in 1985 and a son in 1987. Beard became Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement in 1992.

Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Beard was one of several authors invited to contribute articles on the topic to the London Review of Books. She opined that many people, once "the shock had faded", thought "the United States had it coming", and that "[w]orld bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price".[4] In a November 2007 interview, she stated that the hostility these comments provoked had still not subsided, although she believed it had become a standard viewpoint that terrorism was associated with American foreign policy.[1]

In 2004, Beard became the Professor of Classics at Cambridge.[3] She is also the Visiting Sather Professor of Classical Literature for 2008–2009 at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has delivered a series of lectures on "Roman Laughter".[5]

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 3,714 reviews
Profile Image for Sean Gibson.
Author 6 books5,655 followers
December 6, 2017
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 more 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 “Senātus Populusque Rōmānus,” 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!)
Profile Image for Larry.
1,402 reviews76 followers
January 2, 2016
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.

Profile Image for David Gustafson.
Author 1 book113 followers
February 22, 2019
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.
Profile Image for Loring Wirbel.
286 reviews78 followers
June 14, 2016
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 more 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 more 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 more 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 more than 600 pages, if she had simply provided a little more organization and factual detail to match the timeline at the end, SPQR might have been a much greater classic.
Profile Image for Trish.
1,851 reviews3,364 followers
September 10, 2019
SPQR: "The Senate and People of Rome"

Ancient Rome.

Birthplace of so many impressive inventions we take for granted nowadays. We think we know so many things about this place, have heard half-truths or old theories by historians. Mary Beard sifted through all of that to search for the truth (or as close as we can get to it so many thousands of years later) and is here to tell us what really went down.

I must admit that it was interesting to hear of all the weird stuff my buddy-reader had heard about Ancient Rome that I never heard about. Maybe because I read different history books or because there are different things on the European curriculum than the American/Canadian one.
However, the author herself also mentions a few older theories that have been disproven, some "rewritings" of history shortly after certain ancient events (now you know how old PR campaigns are, you're welcome), and had a very nice way to connect all the archaeological/historical bits with their direct influences on modern day life.

Interestingly enough, the book starts this impressive look at Ancient Rome by analyzing how this culture dealt with terrorism. Especially from today's perspective, that was fascinating. We talk, of course, about Catiline and Cicero but it snowballed from there.

From personal hygiene (though slightly modified, thank goodness), to parties, to "bread and games", to certain political expressions (like the Ides of March), to traditions, to architecture and poetry as well as orations and writing styles ... Rome might have fallen but it left behind one hell of a legacy.

And all that after it started out so small and as nothing more than many other places. Yes yes, there is the whole origin myth with the two boys and the she-wolf but come on. Basically, many things were coincidence that turned out to be lucky and eventually you got collosseums, an almost unmatched military power, one hell of a trade empire and so much more.

There are a lot of contradictions to the city, too. The sprawling luxury we know from still impressive ruins compared to the filth of some areas, the technological and cultural advancements compared to the poverty and debauchery, the famous concept of liberty that was lived there like only in few other cultures compared to the exploitation of areas that got assimilated, the concept of democracy compared to autocracy (a struggle that basically defined the Roman Empire).

In short: the author does a wide sweep from the beginning of what we now call Ancient Rome (back when it was just a settlement), to Cicero and his famous orations, to Gaius Julius Caesar being stabbed to death by people who wanted what he had managed to get, Nero who famously put the city to the torch and so many others.

What I love about history is that it is constantly being revised and rewritten as our knowledge expands and the author had a wonderful way of showing how one thing happened, then was turned into something else for someone's benefit, before yet another version ended in our history books that have had to be rewritten since.

However, there is a reason this isn't getting full marks. While the writing style was very amicable, I couldn't always see the red thread or the author's reason for connecting a certain event with another; just like I couldn't always follow her leaps rom one piece of evidence to the next while she was trying to show a domino effect.

A very good book that gives a nice overview by displaying the newest available evidence from a talented author that I'll certainly read more of.

Profile Image for Jan-Maat.
1,525 reviews1,771 followers
October 29, 2019
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 arsehole Nassim Nicholas Taleb, some tasks after all do require divine intervention - remember Caesar, that you are human. As a historian however I don't think she is great. I haven't noticed a grand transformative insight from her, her political analysis, I feel, is a continuation of Syme's The Roman Revolution, and Syme was no great original either, in a sense what he did was take Mussolini and the claims of the Fascists to be reviving ancient Rome at face value, not as the Black Shirts felt - to glorify themselves, but to turn their cudgels back on their own claims and to see the street-fighting and thuggery inherent in Roman politics ancient and modern.

Few scholars though ever get to be original, perhaps the last time any one could be truly original was back in the BC years and even then not often and far less often than people claimed. Among her gifts though Beard is a communicator and it is easy for me listening to her on the TV or reading this book to imagine her in the lecture theatre. And if you are in search of claims to be original or big striking ideas then that most middle of the road product - a conventional history of a conventional topic as this is might well be the worst place to look.

Whether you might like or dislike this book I imagine depends on what you are expecting and what you are looking for, for myself I might have liked more explicit discussion of the classical writers who she draws upon, and more too about the roads, aqueducts and use of concrete, but then we all have our peculiarities. As a standard history of Rome from the beginning to 212 AD - she uses BCE and CE through which I dislike deeply - as I said we all have our peculiarities.

The Middle Way
The main tendency of the text, unsurprising in a book aspiring to be the conventional history of a conventional topic is it's middle of the roadism. For example she points out that contrary to the traditional division of the Roman Emperors in to good and bad, that some historians think that the 'bad' ones misunderstood. She evades stating exactly where she stands on the issue by pointing out from the perspective of the ruled that the difference between a 'good' and a 'bad' emperor was not really appreciable beyond the ranks of the elite. Actually I quite like this too, she gives the impression of not accepting the pretensions of the great and the good.

The major theme of the whole book and for Beard the one fact that explains Roman success from collection of huts by the river Tiber to mighty empire is citizenship and this is why she ends the book in 212 AD, the year in which all inhabitants of the empire where granted Roman citizenship. In the early days of the republic, Beard says, when the Romans defeated a neighbour they tied them into a relationship with Rome. They had to provide a contribution of soldiers to help Rome in fighting its enemies and in return got to share in any loot. They happened upon this arrangement purely out of efficiency, the early Romans didn't have the resources to police, tax or control those they defeated, letting them run their own affairs was easy, obliging them to provide soldiers the simplest way to extract value, simply as a by-product it created communities which were not Roman but through sharing in Rome's victories benefited from their association, leading members of these communities might be granted Roman citizenship or entire communities might be granted clusters of rights which further developed their interrelationship with Rome. Rights such as freedom from local courts and right of appeal to Roman ones, and if found guilty the right to be beheaded rather than a painful and prolonged form of death. This was a mechanism which engaged diverse elites across the Mediterranean world and created a double citizenship - one could be a citizen of Rome and of any other city in which you happened to have been born and raised and have access to a different sets of rights.

Therefore we can ask of the Italian Social war, fought between Rome and it's allies, were they fighting to get deeper in, or out of Rome's embrace? Beard points out that the Roman rule always relied on collaboration and many of the most famous rebels against Rome had started out as collaborators.

The gifting of citizenship to all isn't the end of two or multi tier relationships between Rome and those subject to it, but simply revealed more clearly the division between honestiores and humiliores (p.529), or the elites and the rest as we could say.

For Beard the first thousand years (give or take) of Rome are a continuity. The same fundamental mechanisms, structures and dynamics run on until 212 AD then there is a shift towards late antiquity and a Christian Empire, implicitly something so deeply different that it would require another book.

The significant point was the career of Augustus who stabilised the unsteady republic: "Autocracy represented, in a sense, an end of history...unlike the story of the development of the republic and the growth of Imperial power, which revolutionised almost every aspect of the world of Rome, there was no fundamental change in the structure of Roman politics, empire or society between the end of the first century BCE and the end of the second century CE" (p.336). This I felt is a very big claim. But reading her book not a wild one.

Augustus took at first as his symbol the enigmatic puzzle setter- the Sphinx. His adopted name, Beard tells us was suggestive but meaningless, it all reminded me of certain Mega companies currently busy changing the world whose names reveal nothing of the nature of their operations or even their chosen field of operation. So he too allowed everyone to read what they wanted into him. Did he set out to make himself a king in all but name or did he cautiously explore the limits of the possible until he found himself there? It's all very mysterious but Beard shows us something of the concerted effort he went to in establishing a brand and in making it near impossible for anyone else to do what he did - to come in from the margins and establish a political machine around himself.

Still Beard says in a way he was nothing new. Rome had being tending toward autocracy for at least a hundred years before he made it permanent. Beard describes Pompey as the first Emperor in terms of his public image and public works, an idea familiar from Warwick Bell's Rome in the East: The Transformation of an Empire, Rome eventually modelling itself on the Greek monarchies of the near-east, heirs to Alexander the Great, cultural patrons who might in their lifetimes be honoured as gods. This apparently was fine in Rome, just so long as you didn't want to be called a king - that alone was unforgivable.

the invention of tradition
Beard says that one of Augustus's tricks was 'radical traditionalism', so he had the powers of a Tribune, but not the title and wasn't elected to the office - it sounded traditional and reassuring but at the same time was completely new and radical. This Beard tells us wasn't anything new, and several times she says that when Romans spoke in terms of the good old days or claimed great antiquity for a practise that in fact this covered up that they either didn't know or where covering over some kind of innovation which brings me to where Beard begins her book.

In the beginning was the Catiline conspiracy
Beard begins her history in the middle of the story with Cierco's denunciation of Catiline, the point that I felt Beard was making was that Roman history more or less began around that time, with authors from then on either looking back or discussing the events of their own life times, and when looking back they saw past events in the light of the struggles with which they were familiar. Before than we largely have to rely on the archaeology, such earlier writers as do survive in fragments are writing retrospectively too. Because of the publication of Cierco's speeches and the preservation of thousands of his letters we can get uniquely close, though only from one perspective, to events as they were happening.

Every generation will have it's own history of Rome, indeed every generation requires it's own one as evidence emerges still from the mud of northern Europe and Egyptian rubbish dumps, Beard's book is a fine introductory text covering the basics and showing some of the controversies and complexities in contemporary scholarship. My idealistic views of the Gracchi brothers were challenged - Beard reminds me again to read Plutarch , I was reminded repeatedly that the study of Roman history is a good primer for studying all history, reading about Sulla I heard news about the body of General Franco - so little has changed. We all live within the same problem that Polybius hints at - what is the purpose of a state, who is for, what can it do, as we co-exist in groups larger than Dunbar's number the same issues repeat themselves.
Profile Image for Labijose.
928 reviews387 followers
June 13, 2021
Mary Beard es un personaje muy popular como historiadora y arqueóloga, con un curriculum impresionante. Yo he visto una serie documental sobre Roma, y otra sobre Pompeya, escritos y presentados por ella. No exenta de polémicas, esta clasicista y académica inglesa levanta pasiones, tanto a favor como en contra.

En “SPQR” nos presenta una visión de Roma desde su “supuesta” fundación por Rómulo y Remo, hasta el 212 d.C. Fecha en la que Caracalla concedió la ciudadanía romana a todos los habitantes “libres” de su vasto imperio. No es tanto un repaso a los hechos históricos sino más bien una descripción analítica de los diversos factores que influyeron en el devenir de tan importante civilización. Se basa mucho en recientes descubrimientos arqueológicos, muchos de los cuales han venido a desmentir parte de las creencias que sobre los romanos se tenían. No va en orden cronológico, pues empieza con Cicerón y sus catilinarias, y, tras un repaso a los padres fundadores y a los reyes, vuelve a enlazar en este punto, para seguir avanzando por la república hacia César y los principales emperadores posteriores.

Interesante que la autora se cuestione constantemente sí lo que habíamos asumido hasta la fecha fue realmente así, no dudando incluso en “despreciar” alguna de las fuentes clásicas de las que hemos bebido. También pormenoriza la vida cotidiana del ciudadano de a pie (capítulos 8 y 11), y, por supuesto, hace un repaso a la cultura de la época, sin olvidar a los griegos, a los que tanto debían los nuevos conquistadores. Es interesante su abordaje sobre temas que hoy creemos actuales (la inmigración, la integración del extranjero, la multiculturalidad, los abusos de poder, la corrupción), pero que están ahí desde la noche de los tiempos, y los romanos no fueron ajenos a ellos.

La autora debe mucho de este conocimiento a la correspondencia, tanto de Cicerón como de Plinio el Joven, que afortunadamente se ha conservado en bastante buen estado hasta nuestros días. También es muy interesante el análisis de la “Res Gestae” de Augusto, una especie de auto biografía, que nos dice mucho de la personalidad de este primer emperador. Y hace un pequeño repaso a los mejores escritores y filósofos de la época, sin olvidar a sus precedentes griegos.

A los que busquen una descripción detallada de emperadores y personajes varios quizás les resulte insuficiente. Como ya he dicho, este ensayo es más un análisis del concepto de Roma per se. Como erudita del tema, la autora no se corta a la hora de dar su visión personal de aquello que nos está contando, lo cual puede ser positivo o no en una obra de este tipo. Además, sabiendo que se dirige a un público muy amplio, y no necesariamente entendido en la materia, MB simplifica bastante el relato, cosa que veo que a los estudiosos de Roma no les ha gustado mucho. Si esta obra ha servido para abarcar a un mayor número de lectores, y, al mismo tiempo, despertar su curiosidad por el siempre interesante tema de la historia de Roma, creo que es entendible y hasta deseable. “Senatus Populus Que Romanus” está llamada a ser su obra.
Profile Image for Louise.
1,623 reviews281 followers
April 10, 2021
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. For the everyday people sheshows 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.
Profile Image for Sam Quixote.
4,427 reviews12.7k followers
September 14, 2018
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 more 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 Senātus Populusque Rōmānus ("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 more 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 more engaging to read!
Profile Image for Justin Evans.
1,525 reviews756 followers
March 25, 2016
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 more 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, more 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 more 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 more 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.
Profile Image for Simon.
800 reviews99 followers
February 1, 2016
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 more 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.
Profile Image for Connie G.
1,648 reviews437 followers
October 22, 2017
"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".
Profile Image for Paul.
1,146 reviews1,910 followers
June 27, 2022
4.75 stars
This is what I call a proper history book, well written and well researched. The timeline is basically the first Roman millennium. From the alleged founding of Rome in the 700s BCE to the death of the Emperor Caracalla in the early 200s CE, the Emperor who granted citizenship to all Romans. Beard’s history is wide ranging rather than intensely detailed. She looks at themes and questions and this isn’t just a history of great men. Beard debunks a few myths along the way and tries to give an insight into the lives of everyday Romans. Although it’s over five hundred pages it isn’t really detailed or comprehensive given the masses of source material that exist. It’s actually an excellent introduction and starting point. It isn’t straight chronology, but it generally flows. The lack of a linear narrative has irritated some, but I think that it isn’t really a problem and Beard’s academic sensibilities shine through as she considers her arguments.
Obviously all histories of Rome reflect the concerns of the time they were written in (just look at Gibbon) and Beard spends a good deal of time looking at how Romans defined liberty and who was it for. Beard also makes use of modern archaeological techniques and discoveries. Because Beard focuses on structures rather than personalities we do get glimpses of everyday Romans, even slaves. Beard looks at culture, food, obvious problems such as feeding a large city like Rome and the issue of disease and sanitation. The tone often feels chatty rather than academic, but there is erudition running through it and the chattiness keeps the reader engaged.
Beard makes the case as to why a history of Rome is still important:
“Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it. Rome has bequeathed to us ideas of liberty and citizenship as much as of imperial exploitation, combined with a vocabulary of modern politics, from ‘senators’ to ‘dictators’. It has loaned us its catchphrases, from ‘fearing Greeks bearing gifts’ to ‘bread and circuses’ and ‘fiddling while Rome burns’ – even ‘where there’s life there’s hope’. And it has prompted laughter, awe and horror in more or less equal measures. There is much in the classical world – both Roman and Greek – to engage our interest and demand our attention. Our world would be immeasurably the poorer if we did not continue to interact with theirs.”
This is engaging and easy to read and I’m a great fan of Mary Beard.
Profile Image for Paul.
2,306 reviews20 followers
August 6, 2016
I recently resolved to start reading more nonfiction again. I used to read a ton of it but, for reasons I can't recall or explain, I stopped quite a few years ago, focusing entirely on fiction. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I wanted to broaden my literary horizons again and to explore some areas I'd previously neglected.

One of those areas is history and where better to start than with the ancient Romans? This book came recommended by a friend so I dove right in.

One thing became clear quite quickly: thanks to the combined efforts of Monty Python and Eddie Izzard, I am entirely unable to take the ancient Romans in any way seriously. I did my best, I really did, but... those skits are apparently hard wired into my subconscious at this point.

On a slightly more serious note, from my admittedly inexpert opinion, this is a really good book. The author writes in a conversational tone and never tries to bamboozle the reader with technical jargon (I'm not entirely sure what comprises technical jargon in the history field but, still, credit where credit's due). After a slightly high-falutin' prologue that had me wondering if I'd erred in picking this book up, the rest of the tome is laid out in logically arranged, largely chronological chunks that even a goober like me found easy to cope with.

The subject matter is consistently interesting and I learned quite a bit while remaining entertained. The author even cracks a few jokes. What more could you want from your first history book?

I enjoyed reading this and made short work of it. It's certainly made me more confident about reading more books in the historical vein. Good stuff!
Profile Image for ·Karen·.
610 reviews752 followers
May 29, 2020
What Mary Beard does here, brilliantly (duh!) is to give us not just the history of the first Roman millennium but also the history of the history that accrued in roughly the next two millennia. Well, perhaps not all of it, but she has a good bash at hacking away the undergrowth of myth and legend, imagination and fantasy, horror and fun, all those stories that may have distorted the narrative in the last two thousand odd years.
She does not begin at the beginning of Rome, but rather at the beginning of the history of Rome. Her first chapter picks apart the Catiline Conspiracy, disarmingly informing us that the reason why this story can be told in such detail is very simple: it's because the Romans themselves wrote a good deal about it, much of which has survived. The chapter is also a blueprint for her methodology: having given a brisk tour of the various sources and the routes by which they may have come down to us through time, her next section asks, pertinently enough, might there not be another side to the story? How loaded an account does Cicero offer? Thus what she does is not so much narrate history as interrogate and interpret it.

As she points out in her prologue:
For the earliest history of Rome and when it was expanding in the fourth century BCE from small village to major player in the Italian peninsula, there are no accounts written by contemporary Romans at all. The story has to be a bold work of reconstruction, which must squeeze individual pieces of evidence - a single fragment of pottery, or a few letters inscribed on stone - as hard as it can. Only three centuries later the problem is quite the reverse: how to make sense of the masses of competing contemporary evidence that may threaten to swamp any clear narrative.

All I can say is that she's equally good at both squeezing the single and sifting the mass, without ever forgetting those lives that seldom go on record at all: the poor, the struggling, and around fifty per cent of all classes whether destitute or wealthy elite or anything in between: women. And she's just a marvellous communicator, crisp, sensitive and witty.

Naturally this book, as all such enterprises, is covered in bits of puff, most of which are the normal stuff you'd expect, you know, enthralling, masterful, exemplary, tick tick and tick. But then we have the Daily Mail (!) The Daily Mail! That's the paper that spends most of its time reporting on the body size of female so called celebrities, condemning them for being too fat/ too thin/ too toned/too blobby. What on earth? So yes, they come up with something suitably ludicrous:

"If they'd had Mary Beard on their side back then, the Romans would still have their empire".

Oh well. I suppose you can't expect them to have actually read the book.

I do wish I'd had Ms Beard as a Latin teacher instead of Dr Cameron, one of the few (and to our eyes ancient) male teachers at the all girls' high school I went to. Latin was a form of excruciating torture, which involved physical pain (Dr Cameron would throw things at us, whatever was to hand, quite suddenly and accurately), ritual humiliation (the crime of using the accusative with the verb to be was punished by standing on your chair for however long Dr C felt was appropriate) and terminal tedium. I never quite saw what the point of it was, except to give us the honoured badge of 'culture'. People tell me, oh but it's such a good basis for learning other Romance languages.
So is French.
Profile Image for Czarny Pies.
2,452 reviews1 follower
February 9, 2017
Although this book is unquestionably fun to read, it is truly dreadful. In a highly engaging style, Ms. Beard reviews most of what I learned forty years ago when I took an undergraduate course on Roman history. The new items however are considerably less than her distressing omissions.
Ms. Beard repeats the same points about the historical sources that were explained to me in the mid 1970s. First, no new contemporary histories or written documents have appeared in over 1000 years. Second, Polybius (264–146 BC) was the first true historian of Rome. Third, most of the written sources for the period prior to the 3rd century BCE belong to the category of literature or legend. The 1st Century BC was the first time period in which sufficient contemporary historys and other documents to allow conventional historical analysis. Finally, the significant advances in archeology of the last fifty years do not provide any information on Rome's political history.
Thus for the two-thirds of SPQR Ms. Beard simply does what every historian since Edward Gibbon (1737-1794 CE) has done. She reviews the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Polybius, Titus Livy, Pliny the Yonger, Jospehsus and a handful of lesser authors from the period accepting what seems most plausible to her. The dustjacket of SPQR informs us that Ms. Beard debunks. In fact she is simply exchanging the bunk of one generation of historians for her own twaddle. However one must concede that as she states in her prologue and final chapter, she has every right to do so. My deepest concern is that she ignores Sir Ronald Syme's masterful Roman Revolution which still stands as the best analysis of the families and political factions that supported Augustus when he created the Roman empire. Next to Gibbon and Syme, Beard is a miserable second rater.
In the last third of the book, Beard finally decides to make use of the writings based on new archeological work that has been performed at sites in the Empire outside of the walls of Rome. Drawing on archeological field work most notably at Pompei and at various sites in Britain, Ms. Beard paints a very interesting picture of Roman society. I certainly found these sections more interesting than her lamentable political history.
Ms. Beard's verve and passion for the subject make SPQR great pleasure to read. On balance, however, it is a rather dimwitted work. Hopefully, some new synthesis historian will appear who will be able to truly integrate the findings from the archeological work of the last fifty years with the older school of history based on the analysis of contemporary historians and essayists.
Profile Image for Darwin8u.
1,559 reviews8,649 followers
January 15, 2018
"Roman historians complained about almost exactly the same issue as the modern historian faces: when they tried to write the history of this period, they found that so much of importance had happened in private, hater than publicly in the senate house or Form as before, that it was hard to know exactly what had taken place, let alone how to explain it."
- Mary Beard, SPQR


Senātus PopulusQue Rōmānus (SPQR)

I've been reading a bunch of classics the last couple years. I'm right in the middle of the Loeb Livy, enjoyed the last couple years reading Caesar, Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch, Gibbon, etc. I've also read a bunch of the more modern historians like Goldsworthy, Everitt, etc. But, I've been remiss in reading more books on the classics written by women. Mary Beard is a good place to start. She is about as close to a British Public Intellectual as you can get. She appears regularly on BBC and is known far outside of the academic, ivory covered towers of Cambridge (where is a professor of classics).

There wasn't much in this book that was new. In many ways, this book wasn't built on the new. It is a review, instead, of the first millennium of Rome. She covers the common ground from Rome's foundational myths to Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to all inhabiting within the Roman empire about 1000 years later in 212 CE. She hits all the highlights from Romulus and Remus to the Caesars and Cicero. She examines the writings of Tacitus, Suetonius, Plutarch and dozens of others. Her skill, really, is taking a more modern approach to Roman history and placing a bit of skepticism in some of the myths, and not just the obvious ones. She wants to look behind the words spoken by those in power, and beyond the words written by ancient historians. She also puts serious effort in discussing Roman slaves and women, despite the scant records. She wants to spend at least some time looking at the P in SPQR. It is hard to "do" Roman history and avoid BIG MAN history since most of what remains was written by or about BIG MEN. But she makes a serious effort in expanding the reader's view of Rome beyond what is carved in Marble.

That said, it wasn't a GREAT (5-star) survey. It was very good, no doubt, but it was just also a bit tame (both in prose and depth). It broke little ground and seemed at times to be solid, just not amazing. It was a well-constructed arch (see Constantine's Arch), just not a gigantic mosaic. It is important more than memorable. It was, however, good enough to keep and to inspire me to add both Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations and The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found to my to-read list.
Profile Image for Bettie.
9,988 reviews15 followers
December 31, 2015
Senatus Populus Que Romanus

Read by Phyllida Nash

Description: By 63 BCE the city of Rome was a sprawling, imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants. But how did this massive city—the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria—emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy? In S.P.Q.R., Beard changes our historical perspective, exploring how the Romans themselves challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation, while also keeping her eye open for those overlooked in traditional histories: women, slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and losers. Like the best detectives, Beard separates fact from fiction, myth and propaganda from historical record. She introduces the familiar characters of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Nero as well as the untold, the loud women, the shrewd bakers, and the brave jokers. S.P.Q.R. promises to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come.

Opens 63BCE and Cicero's Finest Hour and the Catiline Caper

We all love Mary Beard, especially when she reminds us that Rome was founded entirely by folk from elsewhere; a learning point for present day Europe perhaps.

Poussin - Rape of the Sabine

Picasso's version

28.12.2015 "This year saw reports of two executions of high-ranking North Korean officials and an endless stream of speculation about Kim Jong-un and his leadership style. Stephen Harrison, professor of Latin literature at Oxford University, considers the parallels with ancient Rome - as told by its historians."Source
Profile Image for ✨    jami   ✨.
653 reviews3,844 followers
May 22, 2020

I was supposed to spend two weeks in Italy this year which was reduced to 4 short days due to the impact of Miss Rona. So I thought, maybe I'll read a book about Ancient Rome which somehow substitutes for being on a holiday there and looking at these things (??). No, I don't think it was the same vibe but it was still interesting to read this all nonetheless.

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an expansive history, tracing from the supposed origins of Rome in 753BCE to 212 CE. This covers a lot of history, from looking at specific rulers and significant figures to significant events and founding myths to more broad questions like the wealth divide in Rome, Roman perceptions of themselves, and the impact of Christianity on later Rome. I sometimes found the way Mary Beard jumped through time periods and chronology a little confusing, but it all came together in the end.

There is definitely a lot of information I didn't know, so even though the tone wasn't always exactly what I want in non-fiction I still really enjoyed it. I can see how people who are a little more familiar with Ancient Roman history might not be into it, but personally I'm a newbie to it worked for me. I also really liked the inclusion of photographs of places, people and artifacts which Mary Beard discusses.

If you're looking for an intro into Roman history, I definitely recommend. Just be aware at parts it's a little dense and hefty

Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,852 followers
September 8, 2019
This is a solid and well-rounded examination of early Roman history, cutting through what must have obviously been a bunch of BS written of and about themselves in the early days but also giving credit where credit is due.

I mean, obviously, those two twins suckled at the teats of a wolf. Obviously.

But seriously, there's a lot of interesting facts that make me wonder whether the original tales of a city founded on liberty and the forceful taking of nearby tribe's women might not have been a fanciful tale, too. After all, there were a lot of positive things that came out of Rome that doesn't quite jibe with the whole idea of a bunch of brother-murdering brigands with a penchant for rule by rape.

Obviously, early Rome has gone through a TON of narrative revisions on itself. And continued to do so right through all the Emperors. Murder one average, run-of-the-mill Emperor, run his name through the muck to justify murdering him, and then play yourself up as a liberator.

Poor Julius. It's not like he was trying to set up a single rule system that cut out the senators. And then those same murderers did everything they could to ESTABLISH the same rule they used as an excuse to murder the poor sod! Alas.

Fascinating history, of course, and it goes well beyond the more notable examples. Probably most interesting to me was Augustus Caesar. He was a rip-roaring murderer in his youth but he got a MASSIVE PR overhaul. I don't know which agency he went to, but they did a BANG-UP JOB. So much so it set the whole tone for the next 1.5 millennia. :) That's BRANDING.
Profile Image for Melora.
575 reviews139 followers
August 13, 2016
Fantastic! Mary Beard's history of the first thousand years or so of ancient Rome never flags, maintaining a brisk, engaging tone and offering a level of detail just right for a general audience. If you've previously read a bit about Rome, Beard's book probably won't offer much new information, but she has a knack for posing interesting questions, suggesting fresh juxtapositions, and presenting seemingly familiar stories in thought-provoking ways. I listened to the audio version of this, published by Recorded Books and read by Phyllida Nash, with the physical book on hand for reference (the illustrations are certainly not necessary, but are nice to have), and enjoyed it tremendously.
Profile Image for Ashleigh (a frolic through fiction).
441 reviews6,544 followers
June 7, 2017
Originally posted on A Frolic Through Fiction

So here’s a review from someone who has limited experience with nonfiction books, and zero experience with learning about Ancient Rome.

I adore learning about history – but I am by no means a “history buff”. I can’t remember names and dates for the life of me. I just remember the stories and find everything absolutely fascinating.

So I was going into this book with a fairly average interest/knowledge rate. I knew vaguely of names and the fact the Roman Empire existed. I knew of the Roman Gods. Other than that, I was starting from nowhere.

And how well did it go?

Very well indeed.

Granted, I was wary at first. There’s a lot of names and dates to begin with, and I sat there thinking “oh god, it’s going to be like a textbook.” But it didn’t take long to get out of that. She sort of brushes it aside and says “but we’ll come back to that later”, and the book begins at a slower pace.

And yes, this book is a very slow read. If you’re like me, anyway (that being a sleepy book hoarding dragon). I only read a chapter or two of this each day, because I wanted to really take my time and soak in the facts. It’s not one to rush through (you might miss something!). But it doesn’t read like a textbook. It’s not a chore to read. I don’t know how, but it’s just not that way at all. The facts are there, but there’s also small hints of opinion too every so often, or reactions to the information. And I think that just made the book feel a tad more personal rather that textbook-like, which really helped get through it.

I also loved how there were so many graphics involved. Throughout, you’re shown maps, photographs, illustrations, all sorts of things that just help you imagine Ancient Rome. Not only were they interesting, but they also helped break up what would have been a massive chunk of text. Channel into my younger self’s love for picture books, oh yeah.

As for the information itself, it was very in depth. It even inspired me to write down and keep a li’l history notebook, so that I can look back and almost revise what I now know about Ancient Rome. Or rather, the rise of the Roman Empire. Where (apparently) most books are about the fall of the Roman Empire, here this one only focuses on Rome’s foundations and the rise of the empire. Which is very optimistic, I must say.

Y’know, if you ignore all the murder and rape and whatnot.

I loved reading this. It was slow going, yes, but that feeling of learning something just made me swell with happiness each time I opened the book. I’m now so excited to read stories from the days of Ancient Rome, or fiction retellings based on old stories and myths.

While I know this book really isn’t for everybody, it came to me just at the right time. I wanted to know more, and that is sure as hell what I got.
Profile Image for Judith E.
523 reviews185 followers
January 14, 2021
The more things change the more they stay the same, and SPQR’s account of 1st century Rome has glaring similarities to current U.S. policies. Both governments encounter difficult succession issues, they grapple with returning combat soldiers, the collection of taxes and documentation of citizens is complicated, and the absorption of other nationalities into Roman life is debated.

Mary Beard’s analysis of Rome’s transition from a Republic to an autocracy combines analysis of scarce ancient data with common sense explanations. There is an overkill reminder that we must be careful making suppositions of Roman life from scanty ancient evidence and she presents an admirable amount of research and intelligent speculation. The conversational writing style is full of distracting asides (sometimes in parentheses), sometimes between commas, -sometimes between dashes-, and it quickly became an irritant and hard to read.

4 stars for content. 3 stars for presentation.
Profile Image for Margarita Garova.
407 reviews160 followers
April 14, 2020
3,5 звезди

Главното достойнство на "SPQR" е несъмнено амбициозният опит да предаде широкото платно на живота в Древен Рим – разгледано от множество гледни точки. Обхванати са елитите в лицето на Сената, конниците, консулите, а по-късно и императорите, както и голямата категория “обикновени хора” – от живеещите сносно до хронично бедните. В този смисъл съдържанието е вярно на акронима в заглавието “SPQR”, а именно “Сенатът и римския народ”. Доколкото в популярната култура Древният Рим се разглежда като история на управлението на амбициозни, блестящи, щедри, интелектуални, философстващи, нерешителни, развратни, зловещи, душевноболни и какви ли не още императори, включването на “народа”, било то римски граждани или чужденци, е особено важно.

Древният Рим е разгледан в двете си основни форми на съществуване – република и империя и преходът между тях, обяснен по начин, който според мен е силен плюс на книгата.

Историческият наратив за Републиката следва не само хронологията на събитията, но и проследява еволюцията на политически, обществени и юридически концепции и институти, които, с някои модификации, ползваме и до днес. Но и много порочни държавнически практики като предизборни машинации, съмнителни списъци с имена на избрани, военни кампании като инструмент на политическа пропаганда, показни символи на величие и ухажването на малоимотния електорат намират почти повсеместен радушен прием в съвременния свят.

Не така стоят нещата с втората (условно) част от книгата, посветена на Империята, където хронологията е пожертвана за сметка на обобщения и изводи за характера на имперското управление и наследството на Октавиан Август. Липсва по-подробно представяне на отделните императори с аргумента, че характеристиките на системата са вече предзададени и всеки след Август просто функционира в готовата матрица. Според авторката пикантериите и ексцесиите, които съвременната култура ни натрапва за образа на един или друг римски император не намират солидно оправдание в историческите извори и ни отклоняват от по-фундаменталните въроси на управленските принципи.

Не съм историк и не мога да преценя целесъобразността на такъв подход, но като обикновен читател ми липсваха отделните биографии, които да свържа в цялостна представа за императорското битие на Рим.

Достъпността като основна заявка на “SPQR” също не е осъществена равномерно. Наистина стилово Мери Биърд говори директно и приятелски на читателя, подготвя го за това, което предстои (“сега ще видим защо е така”, “нека погледнем на тази част от периода от друг ъгъл”), но “SPQR” си остава трудна за възприемане книга. Археологическият пласт е силно застъпен наред с историческия разказ; представени са всевъзможни интерпретации на артефакти от гледна точка съвременни и древни историци; наслояват се безброй хипотези за хора и събития; изобилстват обяснения откъде знаем едно или друго и защо не трябва да вярваме на даден извор, което в крайна сметка удавя основната идея и изтощава читателя.

Особено фрустриращо е обширното изложение на хипотеза, която подкупващо подготвя четящия да я възприеме, след което следва още по-обширно изложение защо тази хипотеза е малко вероятна или направо погрешна.

Някои съвсем незначителни персонажи са обяснени с подробно описание на родовете им за сметка на Първия триумвир��т на Марк Антоний, Октавиан и Лепид, в който за последния не се споменава нищо, сякаш е дошъл отникъде.

Не ми допадна и осъдителното отношение към древните от гледна точка днешното разбиране за морал (например преценката за римска песничка като “шовинистична”) или прекомерната употреба на съвременна политическа лексика за обществено-политически явления в Рим.

Стойността на “SPQR“ като исторически труд е неъсмнено много висока. Това е книга, която съзнателно демитологизира много от измислиците и митовете, с които е обвит Древен Рим. Нека само си припомним за въстанието на Спартак, употребявано от различни видове пропаганда като символ на борбата срещу робството/(класовата?) експлоатацията и други остроумни клишета, приписвани на този или онзи император. За мен обаче това целенасочено демитологизиране ми отне донякъде магията, която свързвам с класическата история. Не твърдя, че искам да бъда засипана с красиви лъжи, но една добра история на Древния Рим, така, както аз я представям, със сигурност не би била толкова клинична.

И все пак, ако има нещо, с което ще запомня “SPQR”, то е импозантната фигура (в метафоричен смисъл) на Цицерон. За мен той е негласният главен герой, еманация на древния римлянин с всичките му слабости и интелектуална мощ. Може би не е случайно, че книгата започва с неговите изобличителни речи, а жестоката му смърт бележи края на Републиката. Историята си знае работата.

Profile Image for Roman Clodia.
2,362 reviews2,301 followers
June 22, 2016
If you're looking for a linear history of Rome made up of events and dates then look away now: that's not what Beard gives us here. Instead, she has written a book which is part historiography, part cultural excavation, and part social investigation into how ancient Romans thought about what it was to be Roman. Most pressingly for a general audience, Beard offers an insight into the way academic Classicists think about the discipline, especially ancient history: rather than taking the sources at face value (as popular 'historians' like Tom Holland tend to), she instead considers both how we know the things we think we know, and what ideological and cultural pressures might be played out within the texts. For example, she takes the so-called 'Catiline conspiracy' at the start and looks at how it becomes a site of contestation between conservatives and radicals not just in 63 BCE but also for later ages right up to our own (e.g. Robert Harris' bestselling Lustrum).

This is a dense book in lots of ways but Beard always wears her intense learning lightly and her enthusiasm shines through. She offers a picture of Rome as a cradle of our own culture in some ways (immigration, terrorism, national identity, the pressures and responsibilities of democracy) yet never brushes away the alienness of Roman culture in other ways.

If you already know a lot about Roman literature and culture I can almost guarantee that there will be things either new, or approached in a novel light here. If you have never studied Classics (or Ancient History) formally then this will give an up-to-date insight into where and how the discipline is currently situated. This may not be the best book for beginners or anyone new to the history of Rome and the Romans especially as it stretches from the mythical foundations of the city in 753 BCE to 212 CE but I would strongly recommend it if you either already have a basic knowledge of Roman history and/or are considering studying Classics at university.
Profile Image for Chris Leuchtenburg.
887 reviews6 followers
April 6, 2016
After fighting my way through the first hundred pages, much of which focuses on the limitations of historical sources and the myths Romans told themselves about their history, I skipped to the end to see if there was anything to salvage from this tome. On the penultimate page, Beard explains her purpose and made me think that I should have expended more effort with her book:

"I no longer think as I once naively did, that we have much to learn directly from the Romans.... But I am more and more convinced that we have an enormous amount to learn -- as much about ourselves as about the past -- by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments." [italics the author's]

I struggled with the absence of a neat, naturally progressing narrative and found the digressions into historical sources distracting, but that is central to Beard's approach. Maybe it is a book worth additional consideration.
Profile Image for Hannah.
238 reviews60 followers
March 5, 2018
4 Stars - Fantastic book

Simply said, this book is a fascinating and unique way to learn about Ancient Rome. I’ve never read anything quite like this examination of Ancient Rome and that is the main reason I enjoyed it so much.

Mary Beard distinguishes her Senatus Populusque Romanus (The Senate and People of Rome). She’s interested in Rome’s success not the typical “decline and fall.” Now, that’s not to say that she sugar coats Rome’s history by no means is that the case. However she takes an in depth look at how Rome became Rome from nearly all angles possible (women, slaves, non-Romans, etc.) to the best of her ability. To me, this differentiates her book from most other books on Ancient Rome because in my experience other books tend to focus on emperors, military conquests/defeats/wins, etc. because these are the better documented areas of Ancient Rome. Why don’t we know the same amount of information about women or the poorest of the poor as we do about Augustus? Documentation, documentation, documentation. I mean, just think about all the stuff and gaps in the areas that are considered well documented. Beard does an excellent job addressing some of these areas.

From an organizational standpoint, Beard’s book is equipped with more than just words. She’s included a plethora of maps, archeological photos, timeline, photos of the 14 emperors, a (simplified) relation tree of the emperors, her extensive bibliography, and index. It’s wonderful and useful. I don’t have to google image search everything she talks about because often there’s an accompanying photo. I just love everything about it from an organization standpoint.

I found it interesting that Beard notes that Rome’s founding story (Romulus and Remus) is unique because it’s not typical. The story has nasty elements including: abandonment, murder/fratricide, and rape. The story’s not one that you’d think people would be proud of. I then questions how this story shapes what it means to be Roman. It hints at a city and later and empire made up of people from everywhere with gritty backgrounds. Beard states that the fratricide in the founding story almost predestines some of the violence to come later.

For what city, founded on the murder of brother by brother, could ever escape the murder of citizen by citizen? p.65

After reading this, I feel like I learned a lot that I never knew which is always a good thing! For instance, I never knew the 12 Tables were a thing. For those of you, like me, that don’t know what 12 Tables mean let me briefly explain. They were 12 bronze tablets, now lost, that maintained the foundation of Roman law. I always find any information on Rome and women interesting mainly because we don’t know too much, especially ordinary women, not necessarily the relations of emperors. I also found the section on games and gambling full of new information too. I think Beard did a great job explaining these elements of Roman society with limited sources.

Beard notes that Pompey the Great can be considered Rome’s first emperor (p. 274). That’s something I would never have thought of on my own but is interesting to think about. She argues that his treatment in the East foreshadowed the ways future emperors would be treated. Whether or not you agree with her, it’s something to consider to challenge the traditional thought.

Something that I’ve always like about Ancient Rome is the art and architecture and that you have to rely on it to inform your understanding of the period. Beard uses all sorts of art history elements (coins, buildings, wall paintings, carvings/friezes, statues and sculptures, etc.) and she uses them well to inform her writing.

Do I recommend this one? Absolutely. Beard takes a subject that has hundreds of books written about it and makes something new. It’s subtle and overall wonderful. The writing is not pretentious or textbook-like. I would recommend it as a place to start or as a place to have a new perspective on the subject.
Profile Image for Andrew.
2,116 reviews
July 3, 2018
Okay I will start by saying that my knowledge and experience of learning about the Romans and Rome was limited to a rather basic understanding from school - which looking back was a great fun colouring in but I cannot say very informative.

Over the following years I managed to have a succession of teachers who succeeded in sucking all the excitement and interest about history right out of the room - i am sure they were very good teachers just not for me. So in the end I walked away with a profound hole in my historical knowledge I am only now realising and trying to rectify.

that said as part of a buddy read this title was suggested to me and I must admit once I was past all the questionable notes of praise (come on which publisher does not do that) I very quickly learnt that this book was incredibly well researched and (especially for me) easy to access with details presented in such a way even I a total history novice could not only understand but visualise.

There are so many facts presented in this book which could be discussed and debated but for me two things really struck out - first the author wanted to present the facts and explain the situation - She did not wait to either demonise the Romans or praise them and seem superior to us (I suspect both of which other authors on this subject have fallen into).
The second aspect was that even thought we are talking thousands of years ago and over incredible long period of time - there are a surprisingly large number of similarities between their culture and ours. True we may be shaped by the knowledge we have of Rome (the very name of this book is in fact discussed, explaining the phrase is used in modern and Roman politics) but also the fact that human needs and greeds shape their politics very much the same way it is today.

In short this book was both a fascinating insight in to Roman history but also exposed how certain forms of governance have not changed in all these years.

There is a lot more that can be discussed here from the historical use of sex crimes to stir up public action (often for individual benefits) to how power corrupts to the idea that a society is doggedly and rigidly fixed on an agenda even if it results in ultimately starting the beginning of the end of that society.

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