A sweeping, revisionist history of the Roman Empire from one of our foremost classicists.
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 SPQR, world-renowned classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even 2,000 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, SPQR (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") not just examines 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 audiobook 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, SPQR reintroduces us, though in a wholly different way, to famous and familiar characters.
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Shallow and unsatisfying
I believe in second chances
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.
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.
Excellent Reexamination of the History of Rome