July 14, 2016

Book Review: "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome" by Mary Beard

(CCLaP is dedicated to reviewing as many contemporary books as possible, including self-published volumes; click here to learn how to submit your own book for possible review, although be warned that it needs to have been published within the last 18 months to be considered. For the complete list of all books reviewed here, as well as the next books scheduled to be read, click here.)

SPQR, by Mary Beard

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
By Mary Beard
Liveright / WW Norton
Reviewed by Jason Pettus

So why have you not seen any new book reviews from me in something like a month now? Because I've been spending that entire time slogging my way through one single book, the 600-page SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by British historian and sometimes archaeologist Mary Beard, and wanted to go nice and slow so that I would really absorb everything that she says here. And she talks about a lot of stuff here, not a history of the Roman Empire per se but a history of Rome, the city, during the years when it was an Empire; although that's a bit misleading, because she starts all the way back at the city's semi-mythical founding (traditionally set at 753 BC, but most likely more like 1000 to 1500 BC), and then ends only at 200 AD, the date that the Empire gave full citizenship privileges to every single citizen on the planet.

And Beard has an additional complication in her book as well, which is that she hopes to examine not just the lives of the ultra-rich and famous that most histories of Rome concentrate on, but to shed some light on what daily life must've been like for all the normal everyday citizens as well, the wives and slaves and tavern owners, of whom there is barely any physical evidence and almost no written records; and that's where her experiences in archaeology come into play, examining the latest digs from both Rome itself and its far-flung outposts to give us perhaps the best view yet at what it was like to actually exist and live within the Roman Empire, whether that was at its height around the time of Christ or way back when Rome was nothing more than a series of huts being ruled by a competing series of barbarian-like tribes.

In essence what Beard shows is that Rome has always been a city of slow and steady transition, not frozen in "eras" like we usually think of the Empire but rather a fluid progression from chieftans to group rule, to a proto-form of democracy, to a slow and steady corruption of that democracy, to an eventual dictatorship as the Empire grew too large for a small group of consensus-builders to handle. And in the meanwhile, she brings great insights into living conditions within Rome itself over this approximate millennium that her book focuses on, the kinds of things Romans did for fun, how exactly urban life was set up back when a million people lived together without indoor plumbing or a police department, as well as extended looks at the ways the various colonies influenced and had a pull over what normal life was like in the capital as well. Plainly written but chock-full of actual information, this is not a book you can easily skim through; but if you give yourself the time and energy to do a thoughtful reading of the entire thing, armchair historians will find it a rewarding and insightful experience, a sort of "people's history" to serve as a great companion to all those dusty endless lists of emperors and the wars they officially fought.

Out of 10: 9.0

Read even more about SPQR: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Wikipedia

Filed by Jason Pettus at 7:00 AM, July 14, 2016. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Nonfiction | Reviews |