SPQR : a history of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

I know very little about the ancient world. My knowledge of the Roman Empire doesn’t really stretch much further then Roman Britain, apart from a few famous names – Romulus & Remus, Cicero, Julius Caesar, Claudius, Nero. After enjoying Mary Beard’s book on Pompeii, I was eager to read her new book about Rome in the hope of enlightenment.

The title – SPQR – is the abbreviation for The Senate and People of Rome. This book tells the story of Rome from it’s earliest beginnings until 212 CE. Opening with the dispute between the aristocrat Catiline & the famous orator, Cicero, in 63 BCE, we then go back to Rome’s beginnings to investigate the myths that lie at its heart. The twins, Romulus & Remus, suckled by a wolf, are the traditional founders of Rome. Mary Beard explores the origins of this story & whether there is any archaeological evidence to edge the myth towards history. Rome’s beginnings were agricultural, ruled over by a monarchy, but by the 5th century BCE, Rome had become a Republic, with a class system that encompassed both slaves & free citizens, patricians & plebeians. The decision to appoint official representatives of the people, known as tribunes, was crucial & eventually the second-class status of plebeians was virtually abolished as all major offices were opened to them.

The expansion of Roman power was crucial in turning the Republic into an Empire. The successes of the Army & its Generals led to a period of civil war & political assassinations that ultimately led to autocratic rule being re-established. The triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Pompey & Crassus, instigated to consolidate their power in the Senate, deteriorated as Caesar increasingly tried to shore up his own position at the expense of the other two. Julius Caesar’s attempt to become a dictator ended with his assassination but it was his heir, Octavian, who renamed himself Augustus & became Rome’s first Emperor. The story of the Julio-Claudian Emperors is probably the best known part of the story. Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius & Nero, their wives & families are notorious figures. The stories of excess, cruelty & betrayal are familiar through film, books & television. The empire continued on after them, with another ten emperors after Nero until 212 CE.

As interesting as the stories of the elite were, I was just as fascinated by the stories of ordinary Romans. These stories of ordinary people are difficult to find but Mary Beard has done just that in her previous books & TV series like Meet the Romans. In this book, she shows us what it was like to live in Rome. The diet, the houses (the rich lived on the ground floor with the poor at the top of the house. The bars, shops, baths & workplaces. In ancient Rome it was the poor who went out to eat as they had no way of cooking in their tiny apartments. She discusses marriage, the status of women, family relationships, the treatment of children, the ways of becoming a citizen & the entitlements that came with that status. These chapters give a real depth to the story of Rome & a feeling of what life was like then, in a period so long ago that it’s difficult to grasp. It also reminds us that, no matter what the Emperors or Senators were doing, life went on for the vast majority of Romans. Did it really matter which Emperor was on the throne? The plots & conspiracies, the foreign wars against rebels & enemies, impinged very little on the lives of ordinary people.

SPQR is engaging & absorbing. It’s the perfect introduction to the history of ancient Rome & it’s made me want to read more about the Empire in the works of the ancient authors like Tacitus & Suetonius as well as modern interpretations.

16 thoughts on “SPQR : a history of Ancient Rome – Mary Beard

  1. This is the best kind of reading sometimes, isn't it – a great book about something I don't know anything about and wouldn't have guessed I'd be interested in, until the author drew me in. I'm glad you enjoyed this!


  2. There are some authors, like Claire Tomalin, whose books I read no matter who they've written about. Their style is so engaging that I know I'll enjoy the book. Mary Beard is another of those authors.


  3. I would recommend reading Tacitus. His books are really fascinating. He has plenty to say about the emperors, but also has interesting stories about events in all parts of the empire. He was a patrician so had nothing to say about ordinary people. I have not read Suetonius.


  4. Your review has definitely given me more motivation to read SPQR. (I'm going to borrow it from the library too, I was going to use an audiobook but I think you're right, this is something that needs to be visually read.)

    I mostly stick to Ancient Greece but the Romans sound like they could have their own political drama show.


  5. It was the most fascinating part of the book. A lot is known from Pompeii & Herculaneum but I was struck by her comment that it didn't matter to the ordinary man or woman on the street who was Emperor, life went on.


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