• by Mary Beard
  • Narrated by Phyllida Nash
  • 18 hrs and 30 mins
  • Unabridged Audiobook

Publisher's Summary

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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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful

Excellent Reexamination of the History of Rome

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!
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- Christopher

Lost Among the Seven Hills

This book is a good example of why I've learned more history from novels than from history books. Other reviewers are correct: it's rambling and disorganized. Steven Saylor's "Roma" and "Empire," taken together, cover the same time frame and territory as "SPQR," and although fictionalized they provide a much more palatable and understandable--and in my opinion just as accurate--overview of Roman history.

When I was in college, I learned that the most important date in any history book is the copyright date. "SPQR" is a classic example of this maxim (it's also a classical example, but I don't want to digress into puns). Just as Gibbons' "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" says as much or more about the values of Victorian Britain as it does about the Roman Empire, Professor Beard's interpretation harps on Rome's relevance to our own overwhelming concerns in the face of terrorism and the erosion of our global military and political dominance.

Beard is concerned with class and economic division, cultural diversity versus cultural imperialism, gender roles, the political uses of religion, and the psychology of “just wars" (and she uses that exact term). Of course these are all valid and important issues, and that they are relevant both to ancient Rome and to modern times is without question. But this presentation offers neither a coherent history of events nor any compelling scholarly focus or analysis.

It starts right up front. The book opens with a rather muddled description of Cicero's response to the Catiline rebellion of 63 BCE (you'll hear the date--and BCE--repeated often, but will never learn, at least in this chapter, what exactly happened during this civil war). Instead Beard poses the question of what political lengths are justified in the name of homeland security (again, she uses those exact two words). Did Catilina and his followers really have weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in their cellars (well, OK, she doesn't actually use those words), and was the Senate (at Cicero's insistence) justified in suspending civil liberties? But she never explains the events or addresses these questions in their historical context. One of the most dramatic series of events in Western history, and a crucial time in the transformation of Rome from a republic to an imperial state, is glossed over in a most confusing manner. (She'll return to the uprising later, but we've lost track and interest by then; meanwhile, read Robert Harris's marvelous novel "Conspirata" and you'll get the picture.)

To be fair, I think this book may be better to read than to listen to. Besides providing visuals that improve the books' focus, the printed book allows you skip around more, and to put the book down to look up more information when what's given is incomplete or confusing. And, sadly, Phyllida Nash was a poor choice for narrator. Her rather lilting voice is great for Georgette Heyer novels and cozy mysteries, but her presentation here enhances the intrinsic meandering of the writing, and it's tune-out time.
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- Carol "Genre fiction, trashy to literary--mystery, action, sci fi, fantasy, and, yes, even romance. Also history. Listener reviews help a lot!"

Book Details

  • Release Date: 11-19-2015
  • Publisher: Recorded Books