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

mary beard spqrOh, no, ancient Roman history! Dead white males talking about dead white males! The sort of thing you expect from desiccated old prep school teachers and moldy dons from Oxford and Cambridge. Well, sit back in your reading chairs, because you’re actually going to enjoy this book.

First off, as of this writing, Mary Beard is neither dead nor male. She is a Cambridge professor, but after you finish reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2015), you won’t hold it against her. Because this is a readable history, an engaging history, one suitable for a general audience. And yet at the same time it is not shallow. Moreover, readers will even learn something about how historians do their work, and why it can be exciting.

How does Prof. Beard do it? All the chapters are anchored in concrete examples. These serve as Beard’s launching pad for addressing her selected topics in each period of Roman history. For example, take Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus (d. 280 BCE[i]). If you look him up in Wikipedia, you will find a horribly dry account of his military career, which will bore your pants off even if you do understand the historical context of Rome’s Italian wars. In contrast, Beard uses his sarcophagus to discuss the values of Roman men in Barbatus’ era, the development of Roman political and military power in the early centuries of the Republic, and the social conflicts of the same era, before launching into a discussion of Roman law, anchored by a different example. And she does this so smoothly you don’t realize the range of what you’ve just learned in a few pages.

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor. (Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

Beard discusses ancient restaurants and bars while comparing the dining habits of the rich and poor.
(Credit: Wikipedia/Daniele Florio)

As you can gather from that description, Beard’s is not just a dry political or military history of Rome, like the one I read in high school.[ii] She’s concentrating on what she thinks are the important developments, whether they be political, social, economic, or cultural. So she has extended discussions about what the legendary stories of Rome’s founding meant to later Romans, the mechanisms by which Roman power spread, and how the common people lived, while skipping over such details as the specifics of every war or the reigns of every emperor, if they don’t contribute to her analysis in any significant way. Readers will come away with an understanding of how Rome was able to conquer and incorporate peoples, first in Italy and then around the Mediterranean, without getting bogged down in the details of the Third Samnite War or the reign of the Emperor Vitellius (who isn’t even mentioned by name).

Along the way, Beard is frank in explaining how historical evidence leads her to certain conclusions, and on the limitations of historical research. She persuasively argues, based on archaeological evidence and comparative historical analysis, that early Rome simply wasn’t large or sophisticated enough to have the elaborate government depicted by later Roman historians such as Livy. And she admits that historians have inadequate means to assess how Christianity spread in any detail, while at the same time arguing that the structure of the Empire did indeed facilitate that spread.

Frankly, reading Beard’s book was a joy. Her writing is smooth, so much that this will be the fastest 500+ page history book you’ll ever read. Beard communicates her enthusiasm both for the subject matter and the nature of historical research quite well. It’s hard to hit a balance between being scholarly and popular in a history book, particularly one on more remote periods, but Beard has done it with SPQR.

[i] For dates, Beard uses the “common era” convention, so dates are given as BCE, Before the Common Era, and CE, during the Common Era. These are identical to dates using the convention of the Christian Era, B.C. and A.D., respectively.

[ii] No, I don’t recall the title or author. It was not an assigned reading, but a book I picked out of the library on my own to read. Yes, I was a history nerd even then.

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13 thoughts on “Review: Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015)

    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      I don’t blame you, given how Roman history is usually taught. We don’t see or hear much about Beard here across the Atlantic, so I was surprised to find out she’s not just a scholar but has a role as a pundit. I only knew about her from another historian of ancient Rome.
      (P.S. All Bronte novels are indeed page turners!)

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  1. crimsonprose

    I have seen (I think on YouTube, might be on BBC iPlayer) a series on Rome presented by said Mary Beard. And having gorged myself on a glut of such programmes in the past, have ignored them. Perhaps I should not have done. Certainly your review of her book inclines me to seek out the series—or perhaps the book (though my reading list more resembles an overladen ship . . . it is listing to port.) Thank you from removing the over-sated blinkers from my eyes.

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  2. sarij

    Brian, I enjoyed the review. Coincidentally I just put down a book about the spread of Christianity. I did not make it through the Roman period as the book was dry and dull.
    You mentioned that Beard admits “that historians have inadequate means to assess how Christianity spread in any detail”. The author in the book mentioned above said the same thing, which was jarring to me as many other historians do think they know. (conjecture?) Now, I am really curious, and will seek Beard’s book out for this and the other reasons you mention in your review.

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      Sari, thanks for the compliment. I suspect part of the argument comes from what it means to track the spread. Is knowing when a missionary first appeared in a province enough, or do we have to try to figure how how many and what kind of people accepted Christianity?

      And then there’s the question of who is a “real” Christian, one which even contemporaries struggled with. Were the people who performed a token act of pagan worship during the Diocletian persecution still Christians? The North African church split over this issue (the Donatist controversy).

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    2. Malcolm David Logan

      I’m sorry. I don’t quite understand this. Historians have inadequate means to assess how Christianity spread in any detail? Are we talking about the early chuch, pre-Constantine? If so, doesn’t the missionary work of St. Paul give us a hint? Or are we talking post-Constantine, where Zosimus, Jordanes, et. al. tell us explicitly? Maybe the word “detail” is the point. As in, perhaps, detailed anthropological studies handed down to us from the first through fourth centuries. And if that’s the standard, than Ms Beard might as well assert that historians have inadequate means to assess anything about the time period.

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      1. Brian Bixby Post author

        Beard’s subject matter is Roman history prior to 212 CE, so, yes, she’s talking about the early Church. Her exact words to summarize her view are “The truth is that for two centuries after the crucifixion of Jesus sometime in the early 30s CE, Christianity is hard to pin down.”

        Since Beard does not require detailed contemporary anthropological studies to write the 500 pages of this book, let alone her other works on ancient Rome and its people, you may safely assume that is not her required standard of evidence for knowing about the time period. This isn’t a case of holding proof of Christianity to a higher standard than the rest of history: Beard is not concerned with the truth of Christianity, only its effect on Roman history.

        Ultimately, if you want to understand her standard, reading the book would be the ultimate resource. But I can offer a few observations. When discussing early Christianity, historians would like to find reliable information indicative of when and where it was introduced, who were its early adopters, how they coexisted withe the state, how did the religion spread from its early adopters, what range of beliefs were adopted by the early Christians, and so forth. But the type of evidence we have to answer many other questions about Roman history are for Christianity lacking or consist of only a few scattered references, and in narratives often compiled and embellished years later with mythical and legendary motifs. We have literally thousands and thousands of bits of evidence to try to reconstruct the economy of a Roman soldier. But the daily life of a Christian circa 100 CE? A lot harder: there are fewer sources and many of these are biased one way or another. Christians themselves destroyed some of the evidence: books rejected as apocryphal, however popular in their day, are often lost save for a few quotations in the early Fathers. That limits what can be said about the range of beliefs of early Christians. (A history treating of early Islam has a similar problem, due to the effort by the early caliphs to standardize the Koran.)

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    1. Brian Bixby Post author

      He IS one of the Scipios. He’s great-grandfather to P. Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the famous general from the Second Punic War who defeated Hannibal at Zama, just outside Carthage, in 202 BCE.

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