Very Short Reviews: Mary Beard’s SPQR

SPQR

Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, serves as the Times Literary Supplement’s classics editor, and regularly contributes to the New York Review of Books. Due to her frequent appearances on television, radio, and social media, she is, without question, the most publicly prominent classicist in Britain. Just last year, she published SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, an overview of Roman history that represents a lifetime of thinking about the topic. In this past, One Thing after Another has read books so you don’t have to. In this case, the blog has read this book and exhorts you to do the same—SPQR is an excellent work of “popular history” in the best sense of the term.

Mary Beard, A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015).

  1. As a classicist, Beard is, of course, interested in Romans, but she thinks the rest of us could profit from studying the experiences of these ancient people; as she puts it, while we cannot “learn directly from the Romans,” we “have an enormous amount to learn . . . by engaging with the history of the Romans” because “our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialogue with the Romans.”
  2. In some ways, the questions that Beard asks which drive the analysis and narrative forward are traditional ones that have occupied the attention of scholars for centuries: How was Rome founded? How did it grow to overmaster the other city-states of Italy and dominate the Mediterranean world? How did the republic eventually collapse? How did the empire work?
  3. It is her approach to these traditional questions that is novel and stimulating—for example, she returns repeatedly to questions of identity (e.g. How does one define a Roman, and how did the Romans define themselves?) that have resonance today.
  4. For example, once Rome became a power on the Italian peninsula, Romans had to reconceive who they were, what their role in the world was, forge new relationships with their defeated enemies (which often included a grant of citizenship), and deal with the consequent strain on their political institutions/culture.
  5. Once Rome had destroyed its most dangerous rivals in the Mediterranean, its “relatively small-scale political institutions” were hardly capable of “controlling and policing a vast empire,” and “Rome relied more and more on the efforts and talents of individuals whose power, profits, and rivalries threatened the very principles on which the Republic was based.”
  6. In other words, the empire created the emperors (not the other way around), which necessitated another reconsideration of what Rome was and who Romans were.
  7. Just as important and interesting (if not more so) as her approach to traditional questions is the way Beard patiently sifts through the existing archaeological and literary evidence to explain what we know about Romans and how we know it (much is a matter of educated guesswork that includes a great deal of reading between the lines).
  8. In other words, SPQR is not a plain, old narrative history in which one damn things happens after another in an inevitable chain (although one will get a good sense of the main periods of Roman history and how they are linked together); it is an extended and thoughtful meditation on Roman history.
  9. Surviving documents in Roman history are skewed heavily toward wealthy and powerful men, but Beard makes an enormous effort to represent the lives of slaves, women, the poor, peasants, provincials, frontier peoples, and others who have not figured prominently in most narratives; although these folks possessed multiple identities and often clashed with the powerful, she argues that they also participated in a vital, popular Roman culture that united them with their betters.
  10. This extremely accessible work reads like an engaging after-dinner lecture by an erudite person who knows not only how to entertain but also how to convey some thought-provoking ideas to an audience of non-specialists (this would be a very interesting work to use with undergraduates).

Interesting Fact: SPQR is the Roman acronym for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus which means “The Senate and People of Rome.” The phrase appeared on Roman coins, Roman documents, and the standards of the Roman army.

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