Book review: Mary Beard’s SPQR is an impressive scholarly monument but one that’s a little hard to get into
The British academic’s wide-ranging and groundbreaking history of the grandeur that was Rome leaves Ben Richardson feeling a little underwhelmed
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
In one of the many glowing critiques of Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome that have been published since your humble reviewer received his copy in the post, The Economist describes the book as “exemplary popular history, engaging but never dumbed down”.
I had two reasons for breaking my rule never to read what others have written before reviewing a book myself. First, this latest offering from the prolific professor of Classics at Cambridge University left me torn over which side of the “stocking filler” divide it should fall on. A quick survey of writers and publications whose opinions I value showed almost universal acclaim for Beard’s wit, academic rigour, accessible writing style, grand sweep, exquisite attention to detail and a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach. She had packed a groundbreaking, thought-provoking social and political history of the first 1,000 or so years of the Roman Empire into a natty 600 or so pages. Breathtaking.
The second, highly correlated reason for breaking the rule: my review is rather later than planned. As a history buff and avid reader of serious non-fiction, it’s a shock to confess I found this breathtaking romp of a book a bloody hard slog. A recent weeklong business trip to Singapore offered the perfect chance to wade through a few hundred pages; I managed about 40, dropping into a coma of indifference before 9pm each night.
Don’t get me wrong. I agree with almost everything all my betters (and quickers) have written. Beard’s book does succeed in being all the things they claim of it. And more.
Take the SPQR in the title – initials I’m deeply familiar with from dozens of Hollywood movies, banners of plastic toy legionnaires, Asterix comics and countless other sources, but have never delved into their meaning. The abbreviation of the Latin phrase for “the Senate and the People of Rome”, SPQR hints at the Roman concerns with identity and citizenship that Beard teases out and dissects throughout her book.
For those of us born into Western culture, the Romans can seem disarmingly familiar despite the centuries that divide us. We are weaned on their foundation myths, like Romulus and Remus at the wolf’s teat. We are thrilled by tales of Horatius’ heroism, Hannibal’s daring. We chuckle at Asterix and those crazy Gauls. From Shakespeare texts at school to TV reruns of Spartacus and Ben-Hur, Monty Python’s Biggus Dickus and his “wife in Wome” Incontinentia Buttocks, we have a deeply ingrained sense of where the Romans and their empire came from, what they looked like and how they fell. And now they are reduced to harmless irrelevancies.
Beard, quite rightly, sets out to upturn our understanding of the Roman narrative.
She opens her account not with the foundation myths and archaeological evidence from around the eighth century BC. Instead, the tale begins with a surprising and nuanced account of Cicero’s defining confrontation with the aristocrat and populist Catiline in 63BC.
One of Beard’s interpretations paints Catiline as head of a terrorist group hell bent on bringing down the institutions of the Republic. Yet the summary execution without trial of the plotters raises a disturbing alternative account that undermines Cicero’s reputation as a defender of what we might now called legal and constitutional rights. Beard delightfully skewers Cicero’s attempts at self-aggrandising propaganda and redrafting of history, but at the same time emphasises the legendary orator’s lingering influence on Western political thought and jurisprudence.
“Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves, from high theory to low comedy,’’ Beard said. “After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
She chooses to end her version of Rome’s story in 212 AD, when the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire – turning millions into Romans who would never step foot in the city that now defined their identities. What did it mean to be Roman?
Perhaps the one big idea in the book is the notion that Rome’s evolution from a scruffy and not particularly impressive hill village into one of the greatest empires the world has known was largely the result of accident and unplanned reactions to events. In her final analysis, the success of Roman military expansion was down to its greater ability to put more “boots on the ground” than its rivals.
The clear parallels between these ancient events are obvious. So obvious they sometimes feel stretched – especially with Beard’s usage of modern terms and concepts to make the text more “accessible”. Catiline was a threat to “national security”, for example. Surely that must count as dumbing down?
So too should Beard’s “knocking down” of widely held myths that are really just straw men. Does anyone really believe that Shakespeare accurately portrayed Caesar’s assassination? Or that Cleopatra actually killed herself with a snake bite?
More soporific than irritating is her tendency to delve into lengthy discussions of what may have really happened, only to conclude that we can’t say based on what we know now.
Mary Beard’s life mission to ignite public passion for ancient history has made her something of a rock star in the lofty world of British academia. A prolific author, she presented her own BBC series, Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, and is a regular radio and TV commentator, with an even more enthusiastic presence on social media.
That Beard has found a degree of celebrity status in the UK suggests she’s succeeding to make her field – and herself – seem relevant and important to a growing slice of the population.
And, despite all the misgivings, Beard’s book must be an apt candidate for a last-minute stocking filler. After all, as well as better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order … you could argue the Romans also gave us Christmas – after all, where would the Nativity have taken place had Augustus not called for an empire-wide census? On balance, it’s worth the slog and even the sleepiest of readers should be done in time for Easter – yet another festive legacy of Roman jurisprudence.