Mary Beard’s SPQR – book review

It took me two years to finally read my chunky hardback copy (signed) of Mary Beard’s SPQR, but it was definitely worth it.

Just to give you a hint of how persuasive an author Mary Beard is: while reading SPQR I finally added Plutarch and Svetonius to my to-read list. It took me three non-fiction histories of ancient Rome to come to that conclusion, so there you go…

SPQR wasn’t entirely what I expected – when I first reached for it, I thought it would be strictly a history of the Roman Republic, ending with perhaps the assassination of Julius Caesar. Instead, it starts achronologically with Cicero’s speeches against Catiline ( Quo usquo tandem abutere, Catilina, patentia nostra?) and the effect they had on shaping our historical preconceptions of ancient Rome. The book moves on to the legends of the founding of Rome and finishes in  212 AD when Caracalla granted Roman citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire.

A basic knowledge of the history of ancient Rome can be useful when reading SPQR,  as there are times when Beard’s chronological jumping (especially when she jumps between the different Punic Wars) can be quite confusing. There is a chronological table provided in the back to help one figure out the mental leaps.

I do feel that second half of the book is the stronger half – ironically, as it is the section that is about the Empire and not the Republic itself. I’m not sure why that is.  It might be that I am simply better informed about this period in Rome’s history and so I find it much easier to read about.

That said, I enjoyed reading about Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus (the radical tribunes of the people at the time of the Republic). I realized with horror that though I had learned about them at school I had almost completely forgotten of their existence.

Mary Beard gives us a great deal of information about her primary sources. Reading SPQR you will always know which ancient writer wrote about which aspect of Roman history. This comes as a much welcome relief after some of the other history books I’ve read. Beard does not use footnotes throughout the book (I’m not sure whether this was her choice or her publisher’s) but she does have an excellent further reading section which is divided according to the book’s chapters.

Overall, I think this is a great book to pack on holiday to Rome– or anywhere with Roman archeological sites: be it Bath, UK or Tunis, Tunisia–  and an incredibly useful reference for those with an interest in ancient history. Enjoy!

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