I’m sorry for starting this post with an appalling pun, but there’s no place like Rome. At least that’s the impression I got from reading Mary Beard’s lively and engaging book, SPQR.
SPQR covers the first thousand years of Rome’s history: from the legend of its founding, through the hundreds of years of the Republic, to the first two hundred and fifty years of the Empire. It is a clever mix of political and social history. Although the rich, powerful and famous left more evidence behind, Mary Beard paints a picture of what Roman life was like for everyone, from slave to emperor and from all corners of the empire.
Although the book deals with Rome’s history broadly in chronological order, Beard has deliberately not written a blow by blow narrative account. She focuses on some key themes to show how, although the Roman state changed, there was also a fair amount of continuity. For example, Beard argues that the role of Emperor changed very little between the start of the reign of Augustus in 27 BCE to the end of Septimius Severus’s reign in 211 CE. Given the wide variety and ability of people who became emperor, this continuity is amazing, and a testimony to how resilient the Roman state was. Another key theme of the book is its focus on the city of Rome and the surrounding area. It would be impossible, in the space of 600 or so pages, to write a history of the whole Roman Empire, so Beard has wisely chosen to show how the city and its institutions formed and controlled the wider republic and empire.
Alongside Mary Beard’s perceptive analysis of how Rome developed and changed, there are some marvellous pictures of individuals. My favourite is Cicero, the politician and prolific writer. He was a senator of Rome during the fascinating last years of the republic, witness to the death of Julius Caesar, and of the early years of the Empire. Mary Beard portrays him as a formidable but fallible figure, and does so with a great deal of humour. Also fascinating are the stories of the large cast of soldiers, merchants and freed slaves who’s lives we can glimpse through the scanty traces they left behind.
This leads me to one of the most interesting aspects of SPQR: how patchy much of the evidence is for our understanding of Rome. My assumption was that the history of ancient Rome was well documented, so I was surprised by how little hard evidence exists for most of the thousand years covered by the book, and how much has to be deduced from partial sources. Whist Mary Beard is able to rely on a some written records, much of Roman history can only be glimpsed through monuments, gravestones and inscriptions, many of which are defaced. This is part of what makes SPQR such a good example of the historian at work. Mary Beard points out that it is the result of a lifetime’s study of the evidence. It is not just an interpretation of established facts, it is also a fascinating piece of detective work, painstakingly put together over many years.
This might make SPQR sound like a very dry book, but it isn’t. Mary Beard has a rare talent for making painstaking academic research entertaining. She doesn’t dumb anything down, or sensationalise it: instead she makes it interesting, exciting and relevant. In fact, Beard goes out of her way not to sensationalise Roman history, and plays down many popular views. SPQR isn’t filled with mad emperors such as Caligula, Nero and Commodus (of Gladiator fame), or widespread bloodshed in the Coliseum. She points out that many accounts of ‘mad’ emperors were written by people wishing to justify those who overthrew them. Similarly, gladiatorial combat, as an entertainment, had only a limited lifespan, and with 500,000 inhabitants of Rome the Coliseum was never the popular entertainment venue it has been made out to be.
If any of you are fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian, you’ll be familiar with the line ‘What did the Romans ever do for us?’. This is an interesting question, that Mary Beard kind of discusses at the end of SPQR. Her conclusion is that our society faces many of the same problems as the ancient Romans and, whilst we can’t directly apply their solutions to them, their approach still underlies some of our assumptions. So, maybe the Romans didn’t bring us roads and peace, but they certainly contributed to the way we think of society.
I’d really recommend SPQR if you want to immerse yourself in the other world that was Ancient Rome. It’s definitely one of the best history books I’ve read in years. It’s entertaining, informative and makes you think about our world too. It’s a shame there aren’t more historians around like Mary Beard.
SPQR is published by Profile Books and is available from the usual outlets.