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SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary…

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015)

by Mary Beard

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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English (41)  Italian (1)  Catalan (1)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  All languages (45)
Showing 1-5 of 41 (next | show all)
An enjoyable read. I've been wanting to read Mary Beard for a while. It's a great overview of Rome from its mythical foundings to the reign of Caracalla.

I liked in particular, Beard's tracing of Roman ideals to the ideals of today. Her re-telling of Cicero's handling of the Catiline conspiracy raises similar questions today, the nature of emergency powers and setting aside due process to save the state. The writings of the Romans also reflect on our understanding of citizenship and the nature of empires, even today.

In many ways, SPQR is typical of the contemporary work on Rome, at least in popular non-fiction (I can't speak for scholarly works, as I've only dabbled). There is a skepticism of taking ancient writers at their word, the idea that founding myths reflected more on those who wrote them, than those who were written about, syncretism of cultures in the Roman world and the Roman use of local elites in ruling the Empire.

While Beard's retelling of Roman history seems to be rather standard in that sense, I find that there's some surprisingly (at least to me, with my limited knowledge) radical ideas that I haven't read elsewhere. She asserts for example, that Romulus likely never existed, and that the "Empire made the Emperors" not the other way around. Part of Beard's claim on Romulus is backed by her argument that Romulus is a strange name, akin to Mr. Rome. Beard suggests that Pompey was the first real "Emperor" being treated so by the Roman subjects in the East. Interestingly, Beard lumps the first 14 Emperors together, to her they all follow the same template set by Augustus. Beard seems at least as equally concerned with Roman lives of the unrecorded than with the "great men" (and women) of history. A recurring theme in Beard's telling is that the stories the Romans told about their past, frequently spoke most about the times and circumstances of the tellers, rather than regard for historical accuracy. For example, Cato the Elder, in denouncing the corrupting effect of Greek culture on the Romans, nostalgically spoke of when people used to stand at the theater rather than sit in the slothly Greek matter, which Beard points out is probably an invention of Cato.

One of the features of the book I really admire, is that Beard clearly notes where the record is lacking, and what evidence historians are drawing their conclusions from. It seems more authentic to do as Beard does, which is lay the evidence before and reader and then draw her conclusions, allowing the reader to judge for themselves, if they believe the argument follows.

Overall, it's an excellent introduction to anyone looking for a broad view of Rome, that seems balanced and incorporates the general modern trends of Roman history in a short digestible volume. It's probably not the best work for a more traditional or character-centric telling of Roman history, though Beard probably provides enough information on the important Romans for the concerns of most casual readers. ( )
  vhl219 | Jun 1, 2019 |
A readable and no doubt a competent summary, but I got tired of the continuous debunking tone, often unsupported by any evidence. According to the author, all historians, ancient and modern, who wrote prior to her were misled by one variety or another of naïveté. Only she has the tough mindedness to see through their deficiencies.
  cstebbins | Mar 11, 2019 |
Rome still looms large in our lives, from the calendar to the political system. Senators, dictators, Republic, citizenship, protection of citizen’s rights are invented by the Romans. We still read classical writers, and can see the telltales of how a democracy slowly dies by a gradual erosion of the political safeguards. Beware of emergency powers: they tend to stick around.

This book is both engaging and frustrating. Mary Beard is more interested in themes than events; she would spend hours (I was listening) talking of motivations, sources, the historian’s job of untangling biases and doing educated guesswork. There are splendid details, great observation and analysis, interesting insights. What we don’t have here is a clear narrative of what happened. In addition, she jumps around in time, often splitting one event among multiple sections of the book.

The well-known murder of Julius Ceasar, for example, which should have been a riveting tale, is chopped into three sections, first analyzing its significance, the motivations, the fallout, etc, and giving the details much later on the book. This takes out all excitement and even makes her repeat parts of the story. Similarly, she starts in 63 BCE with Cicero vs. Catalan, which, as I gather, was extremely important, and takes up almost an hour of the book, but I still am hazy on what it was about, even though I re-listened to it two more times. What we get, however, is a treatise on Cicero, his life, his writings, his importance, etc.

This approach makes a muddled mess of the first half of the book, so frustrating that I almost gave up. However, the takeover and reign of Augustus is much better written, and I enjoyed it a lot. Perhaps because it is much better documented, and also lends itself being analyzed along themes much better than earlier Rome’s history. I also enjoyed the sections on the lives of ordinary Romans, the status of women, and the integration of all people’s into Roman life and citizenship. Towards the end she analyzes why Rome’s very open religious attitude could assimilate all sorts of other religions, except for Christianity - which eventually assimilated Rome.

Overall it is a worthy read for all the interesting info, but be aware that the second half is a lot better than the first. ( )
  Gezemice | Mar 8, 2019 |
Mary Beard has put together an intelligent, in depth, and readable book about at ancient Rome. She covers Rome's founding, the changing politics (predominance of the Senate shifting to the Emperors), some of the famous (or infamous!) characters, and also the lives of the middle and lower classes. She really gives a good overall picture of the empire - it's people, politics, and how it hung together for so long. I really liked how she didn't get bogged down in any one famous person.

I think this is one of those books that, while I won't remember all the specific details, it will inform my awareness of all things Roman. I really didn't know much going in, so it was great to get a better picture of this long-lasting and influential empire.

Definitely recommended. ( )
2 vote japaul22 | Jan 13, 2019 |
This took me two months to read on and off. Loved it. Not traditionally structured and it makes it that much fun and engaging to read. Relevant in our times of chaos. Beard makes it about the people, the institutions and the historian's accounts of the time. With context and a healthy dose of rationality. Makes you want to reach out to your local library and take out Cicero's letters or Suetonius's writings. It's a good feeling to have. ( )
  writerlibrarian | Dec 29, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 41 (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.

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Mary Beardprimary authorall editionscalculated
Dyer, PeterCover designersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Ancient Rome is important.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description

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.


Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0871404230, Hardcover)

One of the world’s foremost classicists presents a revolutionary history of the Roman Empire that will become the standard for our time.

By 63 BCE the city of Rome was a sprawling, imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants. But how did this massive city―the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria―emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy? In S.P.Q.R., Beard changes our historical perspective, exploring how the Romans themselves challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation, while also keeping her eye open for those overlooked in traditional histories: women, slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and losers. Like the best detectives, Beard separates fact from fiction, myth and propaganda from historical record. She introduces the familiar characters of Julius Caesar, Cicero, and Nero as well as the untold, the loud women, the shrewd bakers, and the brave jokers. S.P.Q.R. promises to shape our view of Roman history for decades to come. 100 illustrations; 16 pages of color; 5 maps

(retrieved from Amazon Fri, 10 Jul 2015 16:12:11 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A prominent classicist explores ancient Rome and how its citizens adapted the notion of imperial rule, invented the concepts of citizenship and nation, and made laws about those traditionally overlooked in history, including women, slaves, and criminals.… (more)

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