SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
Mary Beard
Profile Books  606pp  £25

Mary Beard traces the history of Rome’s first millennium from its notional foundation by Romulus in 753 BC to Caracalla’s decision in AD 212 to extend citizenship to all free inhabitants of the Roman Empire. This is, by any standard, a grand narrative and one that few current scholars would have the confidence to offer. Beard, however, does so with brio and is a singularly engaging guide. Many will have reason to feel gratitude to the author for a thoroughly enlightening and consistently enjoyable work.

SPQR begins not at the very beginning but in the 63 BC consulship of the great orator Cicero and in the throes of his struggle to put down the rebellion of Catiline. To Beard, this episode encapsulates much of the crisis of the final years of the Roman Republic, but it also exemplifies the questions that the historian must confront: was Catiline the decadent aristocrat and public enemy of Cicero’s imagination or the champion of the downtrodden that he claimed to be? Was the Catilinarian revolt an existential threat to the Roman state or a convenient way to add lustre to the year of Cicero’s consulship? Beard sets out the evidence economically, introduces some telling analogies with recent political experience and leaves it to the reader to decide.

From Cicero and Catiline, Beard travels back in time to the origins of Rome and to a period when the literary record offers markedly little by way of authentic evidence. Yet there is a story to tell here. For the legends of Aeneas and Ascanius, of Romulus and Remus tell us a great deal about how those who developed them conceived of the city of Rome and the many different peoples who came to settle there. Archaeology, too, offers some fascinating insights: an early Roman cremation urn in the shape of a hut is a wonderful complement to Virgil’s description of Aeneas stooping to enter the house of King Evander on the Palatine.   

SPQR is essentially a political and military history. Two of the 12 chapters concentrate on issues of social history and Beard’s expertise as a religious historian informs and enlivens many sections of the narrative, but her principal focus is on the rise of Rome, the city’s internal political struggles, the acquisition and management of empire and the changes that empire brought to the city itself. Along the way there is a consistently spirited narrative of the Roman Republic and, in particular, of the great names associated with its final century: Sulla, Marius, Caesar, Pompey and, of course, Cicero. Yet there are also splendid stories from the margins. I particularly relished the actor on stage in Ascoli Piceno at the outbreak of the Social War, who was confronted with an audience that would have made the Glasgow Empire look hospitable. 

Beard’s approach to the rule of the emperors is rather different. Eschewing a continuous narrative from one reign to another, she investigates the dynamics of a system. Those seduced by the wilder chapters of Suetonius’ Lives of the Twelve Emperors might regard the imperial government as a gaudily dysfunctional mess; Beard instead stresses stability and continuity both at home and abroad. She is especially interesting on how a tiny cadre of resident administrators could hold distant and expansive provinces together and how crucial to the success of the system was the collaboration of local elites themselves, who were set on becoming Roman. The letters of Pliny to the emperor Trajan on the governance of the province of Bithynia reveal a dutiful public servant seeking guidance on everything from public building programmes to how to deal with a new religious grouping called the Christians. 

This is a long work but it does not feel that way. I sat down and read the first 200 pages in one contented five-hour stretch. The text is generously illustrated and Beard has a fine eye for those monuments and inscriptions that carry far more than their own weight. Maps place early Rome amid its neighbours, set out the dimensions of the city in the imperial period and show the extent of the Empire at its height. While SPQR is in itself a thoroughly satisfying account, it never shies away from uncertainty or pretends to have the last word. Those for whom this represents the first of many steps in Roman history will welcome the detailed guide to further reading and the timeline that follow the final chapter.

Matthew Leigh is Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at the University of Oxford.

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