SPQR – Mary Beard


The author gives us a deeply-researched view of Rome, from the founding myths of Romulus & Remus and the suckling she-wolf, to 212 CE, when every freeborn man in the Roman Empire was given citizenship. This was the culmination of 1000 years of Empire, yet the author argues it could be the beginning of the end, where one set of divisions disappeared, only to be replaced by deeper ones.

Rome is a subject that has been treated by countless authors, from so many points of view, that the reader could be forgiven for rolling their eyes at yet another viewpoint.

However, while the author is a serious academic, she distils the history into an interesting, digestible timeline, with critical figures and turning points highlighted. Even the nominal founding date of the city is looked at askance.

What I Liked:

  • How the author manages the accessibility of the subject matter.
  • How she challenges the various myths with a sceptic eye, from Romulus to the Rape of the Sabines, and the various warrior kings, to the celebrated way Cleopatra died.
  • The superb overview of an era that still echoes in our world.
  • The concise way the author introduces the famous characters (Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, etc.) and weaves their lives into the greater one of the city.
  • The author keeps revisionism to a minimum, and avoids judging the Romans by 21st century standards e.g. child labour, slavery, etc.

What I Didn’t like:

  • It took me some time to read it, but the journey is well worthwhile.
  • There’s always a demand for more information, but the author delivers a great read without getting too detailed (which I would like :D).


This is not “history-lite”. It is supported by serious research, and in-depth knowledge and passion for the subject. It is a fantastic overview of, and introduction to, the Empire. It covers a range of issues, from slavery, to remote Empire management, how the senate evolved and devolved, and of the strongmen who ruled.

There are some superb stories in here, for example the graffiti at Perugia. During the civil war, Mark Anthony’s wife Fulvia seemingly took command of the town, and the besiegers fired missiles at the walls, bearing crude messages about what they would do to her.

The author makes the point that the Romans themselves maybe didn’t know what it meant to be Roman: the greatest emperor Augustus still remains enigmatic, the sheer diversity of the Empire from Britain to Syria to Egypt makes it difficult to formulate a One Rome view, and it is likely that the (unrecorded) daily lives of the bulk of the population was largely unaffected by the machinations at court.

This is a superb read, informative and succinct. Thoroughly recommended.

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