Book review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (2015)

This is a review by Grant and it is included here because it relates to the episode of Book Chat that follows it. This was first published in Good Reading magazine.

Ever since the mid 18th century when  Edward Gibbon wrote The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the Roman world has been the subject of  intensive scholarly and popular writing. Mary Beard’s SPQR is the latest in a long line of general histories of the late Republic and early Principate. To mention only a few, Tom Holland’s Rubicon and  Dynasty and Robin Lane Fox’s The Classical World cover similar territory as does Adrian Goldsworthy and Christian Meier’s respective books both called Caesar and Alan Everitt’s The First Emperor.

A number of questions arise. Why so many books on this period; what is the fascination? And is Mary Beard’s contribution worth a visit?

To answer the last question first: absolutely. Beard is a classicist with a strong knowledge of cutting edge archaeology as well as an exhaustive knowledge of the surviving classical written sources.  Unlike say Holland who in his recent Dynasty tended to take the ancient sources at face value, Beard is an astute reader of ancient agendas and skilfully interrogates her sources to test the received wisdom while avoiding revisionism for its own sake.  She is able to cut through Cicero’s self serving depiction of Catiline and Augustus’s of Anthony; both of whom suffered the fate that befalls losers in the historical record.

Beyond that Beard is a knowledgeable guide to Roman literature and society. Critically, she understands that the Ancient World is a very strange place not withstanding the frequent moments when it seems strikingly recognisable. As she puts it, it is like “walking on a tightrope, a very careful balancing act”.

Which brings us to the fascination. Partly it is that Roman politics is comprehensible albeit brutal. The motivations of  Caesar, Brutus and Octavian are quite explicable. The contest between libertas and dictatorship and between the “people” and the optimates has been played out innumerable times and, given that this history has been studied by European elites since the Renaissance, there is a real sense in which the fall of the Roman Republic operates as a template for all of the innumerable subsequent transitions from some kind of popular rule to authoritarianism. And then the Romans invented constitutional monarchy, although they never quite perfected the succession problem.

But the fascination also derives from the alien nature of the Roman world. A lot of it is shocking: exposure of unwanted children; the routine sexual exploitation of slaves (and the radically different conception of sexual orientation); the gladiatorial games; the endemic disease and violence.

Either way, we find it hard to look away. One does not have to posit that the study of the Roman World provides lessons directly applicable to our current dilemmas to recognise that even so there is something to be learnt about our human potential and experience.

Book review: SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard (2015)