A sweeping, revisionist history of the Roman Empire from one of our foremost classicists.
Ancient Rome was an imposing city even by modern standards, a sprawling imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, a "mixture of luxury and filth, liberty and exploitation, civic pride and murderous civil war" that served as the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria. Yet how did all this emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy?
In SPQR, world-renowned classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even 2,000 years later still shapes many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty. From the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus to 212 CE, nearly a thousand years later, when the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire, SPQR (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") not just examines how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries by exploring how the Romans thought of themselves: how they challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation.
Opening the audiobook in 63 BCE with the famous clash between the populist aristocrat Catiline and Cicero, the renowned politician and orator, Beard animates this "terrorist conspiracy", which was aimed at the very heart of the republic, demonstrating how this singular event would presage the struggle between democracy and autocracy that would come to define much of Rome's subsequent history. Illustrating how a classical democracy yielded to a self-confident and self-critical empire, SPQR reintroduces us, though in a wholly different way, to famous and familiar characters.
©2015 Mary Beard (P)2015 Recorded Books
Every prior reviewer of this book has called it some version of messy and disorganized. It is neither. But its approach is more interpretive than narrative, and those readers new to Roman history will likely be lost. The goals of this book seem to be, above all, to question assumptions, and to apply rigorous skepticism to the standard version of Roman history. Thus, a reader who knows the standard version will get far more out of it.
A few examples include:
-Were Hannibal's tactics at Cannae as innovative as they're cracked up to be?
-Were small farmers really a vanishing breed in the time of the Gracchi?
-Did the bad emperors (Caligula, Nero, et al.) really have much of an impact on life at Rome?
She brings to bear all sorts of new and newish research, showing her work by explaining why we know what we do, and what evidence we actually have, vs. what assumptions have been spuriously made in the past. Nothing is simply stated as fact, as in so many older accounts. This is presumably what has lead others to call it disorganized, but it is in fact the book's greatest strength.
Her examination of the legendary, or pre-historic period of Rome -- the times of Romulus and the kings, is particularly insightful: the best assessment I have read of a period at which most historians simply throw up their hands and say, "we just don't know."
All told, this may be my favorite book on Roman history… It's not for beginners, but I'd recommend it to anyone as the SECOND book on Roman history to read!
I listen to lots of books on history, so I was looking forward to SPQR. But it was a slog to get through this book. It is difficult to follow because the book is not linear - it jumps around through centuries of Roman history in an attempt to link events and social attitudes but this only confused things for me. There are endless statements along the lines of "we don't know" or "the evidence is inadequate." Well of course it is - the historical record is always going to be like that, even for more recent times. It is always difficult to discern people's motives, let alone the facts. And there is a relentless emphasis on speculative aspects about Roman history such as the status and fate of slaves, family structure, and childbirth and rearing. These topics could be fascinating if the author's generalIzations were not based on such flimsy evidence and so evidently biased by issues in our own time. I think I may even have heard the phrase "rape culture" in the book, though if I did not, that certainly seems to the author's position. I am ready for a feminist history of Rome, but not this one. To top it all off, I did not like the narrator's voice.
Perhaps someone with more of a pure academic interest might have appreciated the endless seemingly meaningless detail and droning presentation.
In the end, I simply could not finish the book. The experience was like strolling through a botanical garden with a guide that endless drones on about the latin names of various plants. A story should have a narrative arc, and I just couldn't detect one.
I initially thought Prof. Beard narrated the book herself, but apparently she hired voice talent after all. She chose poorly.
I'm sure it was completely accurate
I bought the book on the strength of an interview she did on NPR here in the U.S., where she did a fine job making a compelling argument for the history of this period. Unfortunately the product itself lacked entertainment value and thus also failed to inform.
My goal was to learn more about Roman history. Since my knowledge about time lines and politics were limited in this area, I thought the book would be helpful. However, the author assumes that the reader is fairly knowledgeable and jumped back and for about rulers and even referred to their names inconsistantly referencing them sometimes with their legal name, others by the name they chose to rule and sometimes by what others referred to them. Besides those issues the narrator had a garbled accent and sounded as if she had a cold most of the time. I have had to do a lot of research just to try to follow along. This may be a book that I will attempt to read in several years after I've taken several courses on Roman history. I will be curious to see what others more knowledgeable on this subject think about this audio book. Since I am in academics, not instruction, I want to hear what our PhD professors in history think of this book.
The author seems very knowledgeable, but I felt like I was reading her thesis for the first time. The positive outcome is that I am now looking for courses and other books about Roman history because the author has definitely raised my curiosity on this topic.
Genre fiction, trashy to literary--mystery, action, sci fi, fantasy, and, yes, even romance. Also history. Listener reviews help a lot!
This book is a good example of why I've learned more history from novels than from history books. Other reviewers are correct: it's rambling and disorganized. Steven Saylor's "Roma" and "Empire," taken together, cover the same time frame and territory as "SPQR," and although fictionalized they provide a much more palatable and understandable--and in my opinion just as accurate--overview of Roman history.
When I was in college, I learned that the most important date in any history book is the copyright date. "SPQR" is a classic example of this maxim (it's also a classical example, but I don't want to digress into puns). Just as Gibbons' "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" says as much or more about the values of Victorian Britain as it does about the Roman Empire, Professor Beard's interpretation harps on Rome's relevance to our own overwhelming concerns in the face of terrorism and the erosion of our global military and political dominance.
Beard is concerned with class and economic division, cultural diversity versus cultural imperialism, gender roles, the political uses of religion, and the psychology of “just wars" (and she uses that exact term). Of course these are all valid and important issues, and that they are relevant both to ancient Rome and to modern times is without question. But this presentation offers neither a coherent history of events nor any compelling scholarly focus or analysis.
It starts right up front. The book opens with a rather muddled description of Cicero's response to the Catiline rebellion of 63 BCE (you'll hear the date--and BCE--repeated often, but will never learn, at least in this chapter, what exactly happened during this civil war). Instead Beard poses the question of what political lengths are justified in the name of homeland security (again, she uses those exact two words). Did Catilina and his followers really have weapons of mass destruction stockpiled in their cellars (well, OK, she doesn't actually use those words), and was the Senate (at Cicero's insistence) justified in suspending civil liberties? But she never explains the events or addresses these questions in their historical context. One of the most dramatic series of events in Western history, and a crucial time in the transformation of Rome from a republic to an imperial state, is glossed over in a most confusing manner. (She'll return to the uprising later, but we've lost track and interest by then; meanwhile, read Robert Harris's marvelous novel "Conspirata" and you'll get the picture.)
To be fair, I think this book may be better to read than to listen to. Besides providing visuals that improve the books' focus, the printed book allows you skip around more, and to put the book down to look up more information when what's given is incomplete or confusing. And, sadly, Phyllida Nash was a poor choice for narrator. Her rather lilting voice is great for Georgette Heyer novels and cozy mysteries, but her presentation here enhances the intrinsic meandering of the writing, and it's tune-out time.
Anyone who is thoroughly familiar with Roman literature
I found that she did not help
I was really looking forward to listening to this - I was disappointed that I didn't like it- really tried to
The title of this review should be a tip-off: I think Mary Beard is often parading her sometimes provocative views to her peers in the ancient history guild rather than telling a coherent tale to educated general readers who want to learn more about the history of Rome.
There were long stretches in her traversal of Rome's story before the age of Crassus, Pompey, Cicero, and Caesar where it was difficult to tell what century--let alone what year--her narrative was describing. I'm sure this wobbly narrative technique is perfectly fine for the 1% of readers already deeply immersed in the details of Rome's history. But what about the other 99% of readers? I'm afraid the rest of us may tend to get a little lost, or at least confused. This probably accounts for the difference between the newspaper and magazine reviews of this book, which were highly favorable as I recall, and the more divided reactions of Audible and Amazon readers. Those newspaper and magazine reviewers, not surprisingly, were experts in Roman history, interested in learning what fresh light Prof. Beard was shining on her subject. Many of the rest of us could easily get lost just figuring out whether we were in the 4th century or 2nd century BCE.
Some of Prof. Beard's bold statements are certainly provocative, something even the dimmest non-expert (me) can grasp. Her history ceases at the end of the 2nd century CE, certainly a defensible ending point. But as soon as Augustus has past the mid-point of his reign, she confidently assures us that there really is no essential difference among the emperors over the next two centuries. I think she means that Augustus created the "template" for reigning Caesars, and his followers in the next two centuries simply copied it.
That's a little like saying Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps Theodore Roosevelt, created the template for the modern American presidency, so nothing interestingly different has occurred among presidents since their Adminstrations. In some trivial sense that may be true, but many of us think the events of the Hoover and FDR presidencies or the Nixon and Obama presidencies suggest the personal strengths and demons of individual presidents can make a huge practical difference in events, even if the essential role of the president was defined by the model of Lincoln or Teddy Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Prof. Beard's narrative of the two centuries after Augustus's ascendancy is about as flat and uninteresting as you would infer given her basic thesis about the era.
The book is certainly stylishly written, and the reader (this one, anyway) is left with little doubt that the author knows what she's writing about. In addition, the reader, Phyllida Nash, gives a sparkling narration, conveying with gusto and subtlety the author's stylish wit. It was a pleasure listening to this book. The author should feel grateful her history was given to such a talented reader. Ms. Nash's narration kept me listening, even when the content of Prof. Beard's left me floundering.
I think I would enjoy *reading* this book. I love fresh reexaminations of history. But I'm very sorry to say that I'm finding it more and more difficult to listen to the narrator. Part of the problem may be in the writing, which involves many long sentences with multiple asides and parentheticals. This may be the wrong style of writing for a narrator who seemingly has to catch her breath every few words. Her pauses sound like full stops to me. And I keep being surprised and confused. When a sentence that I thought had ended. Keeps going. And I keep having to adjust. My understanding of what's being communicated.
Within the top five
This is not the average history of Rome arranged chronologically 756 to 476 instead Professor Mary Beard in SPQR concentrates on characteristics of Roman society that made the republic and later the empire a reality. Beard is a distinguished scholar who has written books on the Roman Triumph, Roman Humor ( yes they had one!) and with the late Keith Hopkins, the Roman Coliseum. In all these works she displays a unique ability to communicate complex ideas clearly with wit and humor. She also writes the blog "A Don's Life" and has done work for the BBC " The Romans" .In SPQR Beard begins in the late republic with Marcus Tullius Cicero 's oration against Cataline. for a supposed conspiracy against the Roman State. Beard used this pivotal event to show the structure and nature of Roman Society in the republic and how this fragile edifice fell eventually to Julius Caesar. When she moves to the empire Beard concentrates on the wider world of SPQR, and explains what it meant to be a Roman citizen in Judea, e.g.St.Paul Britannia or Gaul as well as Rome.. For all the real injustices, the wide disparity of wealth, slavery, the subordination of women, the world of Rome, gave a certain stability order and predictability to more people, than any society until the 19th century. Rome improved living conditions for many. Beard explains the status of women, though patriarchal Rome allowed women considerably more freedom than the much acclaimed classical Greece. She discusses the relatively high rate of literacy as reflected in inscriptions, graffiti at Pompeii and papyri in Egypt also the famous birthday invitation from a women whose spouse was a garrison commander near Hadrian's Wall. Slavery in Rome, while awful was never fixed, as in Greece nor was it based on race as in the USA. While many slaves lived under appalling conditions on the great estates many others achieved freedom and enjoyed modest prosperity, wile a few especially under the Emperor Claudius rose to great heights
Ms. Nash is a clear and competent narrator with a pleasing voice..
I enjoyed Beard's comments re the ancient sources, this is her effort to inform her readers how ancient historians work or how do we really know what we often read in various text's re Caligula, Tiberius etc.
I enjoyed her comments on health and hygiene in ancient Rome. Beard discusses, modern forensic studies which suggest that the Roman's in large numbers were infected with parasites from improper disposal of human waste and that their baths in an era before chlorine were breeding grounds for disease.
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