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Every prior reviewer of this book has called it some version of messy and disorganized. It is neither. But its approach is more interpretive than narrative, and those readers new to Roman history will likely be lost. The goals of this book seem to be, above all, to question assumptions, and to apply rigorous skepticism to the standard version of Roman history. Thus, a reader who knows the standard version will get far more out of it.
A few examples include:
-Were Hannibal's tactics at Cannae as innovative as they're cracked up to be?
-Were small farmers really a vanishing breed in the time of the Gracchi?
-Did the bad emperors (Caligula, Nero, et al.) really have much of an impact on life at Rome?
She brings to bear all sorts of new and newish research, showing her work by explaining why we know what we do, and what evidence we actually have, vs. what assumptions have been spuriously made in the past. Nothing is simply stated as fact, as in so many older accounts. This is presumably what has lead others to call it disorganized, but it is in fact the book's greatest strength.
Her examination of the legendary, or pre-historic period of Rome -- the times of Romulus and the kings, is particularly insightful: the best assessment I have read of a period at which most historians simply throw up their hands and say, "we just don't know."
All told, this may be my favorite book on Roman history… It's not for beginners, but I'd recommend it to anyone as the SECOND book on Roman history to read!
86 of 95 people found this review helpful
Would you try another book from Mary Beard and/or Phyllida Nash?
Would you ever listen to anything by Mary Beard again?
I believe in second chances
How could the performance have been better?
The reader should have paid more attention to the text. Her phrasing often was at odds with the sentence structure of what she was reading.
Any additional comments?
If a Sunday morning TV pundit were to write a history of Rome, she might write this book. SPQR suffers from the same flaws that make contemporary journalism so unsatisfying. In particular, in place of real analysis Beard substitutes a kind of pseudo-skepticism, simply dismissing certain reported events in early Roman history with no explanation beyond asserting that they are “incredible” or “beyond belief.” She does not confine these dismissals to highly mythologized stories like that of Romulus and Remus, but includes many later events whose historical foundation appears as well grounded as events she accepts as fact. So, for example, she accepts Livy’s account of a clash between Plebeians and Patricians in the early 5th century BCE leading to the establishment of the Tribunes, but rejects historical accounts of the Roman Senate, or a formal concept of the Res Publica, existing much before the middle of the 3rd century BCE, simply because she finds it unbelievable that such a complex political system could have existed so early.
Another major flaw is Beard's use of archaeology as negative evidence. After telling us early on, for example, that because of extensive subsequent building there are very few places in the city of Rome that can yield archeological evidence of the early Republic, she later asserts the lack of such archeological traces as evidence against Rome having been destroyed by the Gauls. Similarly, the lack of any laws dealing with foreign relations in the fragmentary and reconstructed 12 Tables is taken by Beard as evidence of a lack in any early concept of foreign policy. I suspect that were it not for the fortuitous survival of the tomb of the Scipios (which Beard more or less takes as the start of real Roman history), she would have treated everything before Cicero as myth.
One of the worst consequences of Beard’s pseudo-skeptical approach is her almost complete neglect of issues related to land ownership and agrarian reform, which Livy describes as central and perennial problems from the 5th century BCE on. To burrow a phrase from Beard, it is impossible to believe that Livy’s and others' accounts of these problems are pure invention. Beard reluctantly takes up the issue when discussing the Gracchi, but even then gives little credit to the idea that large scale agricultural operations and military recruitment were displacing freeborn labor from the countryside, which both contemporary and modern historians have identified as one of the major social and economic developments in the late Republic.
Those unfamiliar with Roman history will learn little from this book. Those who know more will find it shallow and disappointing.
Finally, the book is poorly read. I get the feeling that the reader was not paying attention the meaning of the words. She inserts long breaks between phrases and around parenthetical comments that make them sound like they are separate, unrelated ideas. This didn’t destroy the meaning of the words, but added needless extra work to what already was a dreary job.
83 of 96 people found this review helpful