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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015)

by Mary Beard

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
4,816872,380 (4.12)140
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? Classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand 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, S.P.Q.R. (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") examines not just 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 book 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, S.P.Q.R. reintroduces us to famous and familiar characters -- Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero, among others -- while expanding the historical aperture to include those overlooked in traditional histories: the women, the slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and those on the losing side of Rome's glorious conquests.… (more)
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English (81)  German (1)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  Catalan (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (87)
Showing 1-5 of 81 (next | show all)
This book has lots of good information discussing the Rise and fall of the Roman Empire. Some parts of this is quite dense. The part I enjoyed the most was women’s lives during this time. Mary Beard discusses how there are part in Roman views were similar to some of todays views. I also enjoyed that she brought in plays that were popular at the time and how that plays in to what was happening in their world. ( )
  Frogiekins04 | Mar 25, 2024 |
The author reconstructs a lot of what ancient Rome was like from a mix of sources. But what is special about this work is the awareness it brings into the process of reconstruction itself, how evidence leads to expanded views of what society was like for different groups.

In practical terms the story of Roman society and politics serves as a reminder in contemporary politics 2020. ( )
  yates9 | Feb 28, 2024 |
This was a nice summary of some aspects of a period of Roman history, built on the latest scholarship. It was well written and informative, but also a bit of a skim across the Roman world, never taking the time to really dive into any aspect, which left me a bit unsatisfied. ( )
  danielskatz | Dec 26, 2023 |
Richly deserving of the kudos it has earned, therefore well worth a read if the topic interests you: Mary Beard is one of the world's great historians.
  Mark_Feltskog | Dec 23, 2023 |
I went into this with a pretty fragmentary knowledge of the history of Rome - some events, some names, some dates, but nothing coherent and mostly scraps from Wikipedia etc. So I can't judge this on how well this matches scholarly consensus or whatever. I can say from my perspective it was a very entertaining, easy to read introduction that still talks on an academic level about important issues without being impenetrable.

The timescale is from Rome's founding (both mythical in 753BC and what we know of what actually happened) to the granting of citizenship to all inhabitants of the empire in 212AD. She sees that period as having a noticeable continuity, split between the republican era and the empire but with the emperor being legitimised through republican institutions like the senate. Afterwards things ruptured significantly more and the centre of the empire moved away from Rome itself, with new social divisions, far less stability, the East/West split etc. Her account isn't a straight retelling of history - only major events are really talked about in more than passing, some in pretty little detail and little care for chronology - but one about the culture, structure, the internal conflicts. Therefore there's far more attention paid to Cicero's life and letters than to the Punic Wars, because they give our best picture of what the Roman Republic was like.

The very first chapter is about the Catiline Conspiracy and Cicero's "foiling" of the plot. It gives her a chance to talk about how limited our sources are - we know so little about the motivations of those who were defeated past what the victors with an interest in smearing them put in their mouths. She gives a very good criticism of Cicero's self-promoting story with alternative explanations of what happened (eg trumped up conspiracy for Cicero's self gain, anger among the poor in an economic crisis) and she regularly reminds us of the need to be sceptical about taking Roman word for gospel. It's fascinating too seeing the same issues crop up then as now - she makes the parallels specifically.

The first half-ish of the book is about the Roman Republic, looking at how Romans themselves imagined their origins as well as how they saw themselves. There's discussion of the oddity of the founding myths - eg having 2 brothers, the fratricide, having a mass rape (of the Sabine women) as one of the major events, Romulus being a king and kings being responsible for the culture of the Roman republic yet kings being hated. Also comparison with what we know from archaeology - Republican commentators projected back the contemporary structure of the Republic on to the past, so eg saw the Conflict of the Orders as producing their complicated political structure when the Twelve Tables show a much more simple system with very little obvious governmental role. Also interesting is the talk about the possible real elements to Roman myth - the leftovers in their rituals, how Etruscans saw things etc.

The second halfish is about the Empire, with an interval for the period ~90BC-30BC when things were in flux and the political structures of the Republic were in crisis. To very inexpertly summarise she pins the fall of the Republic on the Marian reforms creating non-propertied soldiers that relied on their generals to provide for them, the ability of the top Romans to acquire massive wealth (both through trade/property and war) which they could use to raise their own private armies and the Republic's focus on overseas war and expansion with very poor administrative infrastructure, relying on compliant client states, generals and governors who cared little for the senate and saw opportunities to enrich or empower themselves. The conservative faction was willing to abandon Republican convention themselves with the assassination of Gracchus and the murders of his followers just to avoid any change in their wealth. The conquest of Rome by Sulla and his installation of his own dictatorship, backed by military force enriched by war and after ignoring the Senate's decision to remove his generalship, paved the way for the later emperors as it proved the failure of the Republic's structures. It's clear that afterwards there was no returning to the classic republican system. Even Brutus had coins with his own face on them minted after killing Julius Caesar, something that was previously considered taboo.

Augustus appears as a skillful politician who successfully appeases the senate by creating new privileges for them and giving them more power in name while constraining their power in fact. The senate mostly becomes an administrator implementing the emperor's desires but they're still wealthy, powerful within their own sphere and generally given respect by the emperor (except when they get killed for whatever reason). The emperor, through his massive wealth acquired through war, inheritance and personal possessions, acts as a major philanthropist who appeases the poor while putting his stamp on Rome through massive building projects. Augustus is seen as setting the template for the next 200 years - there's very little change in the system and even the borders don't expand much. Outside the couple of short periods of civil war life goes on pretty much the same, with the difference between emperors being very limited even with all their personal vices and virtues. It's an impressive feat of stability and it's hard to imagine how it was done - she admits it's not really clear because we're unable to see into the emperor's palace, which was incredibly private. One of the virtues of the book is making it clear when we really don't know something and explaining why while giving some possible suggestions.

There are a few things that I'd have appreciated being discussed more eg Roman slavery is a constant feature but she never really delves into like the legal/moral/economic basis of it, I don't know enough but it seems kind of important. However, I realise there's tons to cover in a short space and I think overall she did an excellent job. I highly recommend this as a fascinating, easy to read overview of the period. ( )
  tombomp | Oct 31, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 81 (next | show all)
By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.
 
"She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process."
added by bookfitz | editThe Atlantic, Emily Wilson (Dec 1, 2015)
 
You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In “SPQR” she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power) while maintaining an intimate tone.
added by eereed | editNew York Times, Dwight Garner (Nov 17, 2015)
 
"SPQR is pacy, weighty, relevant and iconoclastic. Who knew classics could be so enthralling?"
 
Beard presents a plausible picture of gradual development from a community of warlords to an urban centre with complex political institutions, institutions which systematically favoured the interests of the upper classes yet allowed scope for the votes of the poor to carry weight. We may think of the Greeks as the great originators of western political theory, but Beard emphasises the sophistication of Roman legal thought, already grappling in the late second century BC with the complex ethical issues raised by the government of subject peoples.
 

» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Beard, Maryprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Barabás, JózsefTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bischoff, UlrikeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Duran, SimonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dyer, PeterCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Furió, SilviaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Gil, Luis ReyesTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Mertens, InekeTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nygaard, AndersTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Piccato, AldoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Radomski, NorbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Randmaa, AldoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Weilguni, MarinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book has been fun and poignant in the making. It was the brainchild of my friend and editor, the much-missed Peter Carson, who sadly died before seeing a word of it. I can only hope that he would not be disappointed in the result ... And thanks go especially to Peter Stothard, who has read and advised, fed and watered me, throughout the process of gestation and writing. If this book were dedicated to anyone, it would be to him. From one Peter to another, thank you both.
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Ancient Rome is important.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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? Classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand 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, S.P.Q.R. (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") examines not just 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 book 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, S.P.Q.R. reintroduces us to famous and familiar characters -- Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero, among others -- while expanding the historical aperture to include those overlooked in traditional histories: the women, the slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and those on the losing side of Rome's glorious conquests.

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Contents:

Cicero's finest hour -- In the beginning -- The kings of Rome -- Rome's great leap forward -- A wider world -- New politics -- From empire to emperors -- The home front -- The transformations of Augustus -- Fourteen emperors -- The haves and have-nots -- Rome outside Rome.
Haiku summary
Hut, village, market town,
Kingdom, Republic, Empire,
Rome, unstoppable.

(sibyx)

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