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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.
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!
74 of 83 people found this review helpful
Would you try another book from Mary Beard and/or Phyllida Nash?
Would you ever listen to anything by Mary Beard again?
I believe in second chances
How could the performance have been better?
The reader should have paid more attention to the text. Her phrasing often was at odds with the sentence structure of what she was reading.
Any additional comments?
If a Sunday morning TV pundit were to write a history of Rome, she might write this book. SPQR suffers from the same flaws that make contemporary journalism so unsatisfying. In particular, in place of real analysis Beard substitutes a kind of pseudo-skepticism, simply dismissing certain reported events in early Roman history with no explanation beyond asserting that they are “incredible” or “beyond belief.” She does not confine these dismissals to highly mythologized stories like that of Romulus and Remus, but includes many later events whose historical foundation appears as well grounded as events she accepts as fact. So, for example, she accepts Livy’s account of a clash between Plebeians and Patricians in the early 5th century BCE leading to the establishment of the Tribunes, but rejects historical accounts of the Roman Senate, or a formal concept of the Res Publica, existing much before the middle of the 3rd century BCE, simply because she finds it unbelievable that such a complex political system could have existed so early. <br/><br/>Another major flaw is Beard's use of archaeology as negative evidence. After telling us early on, for example, that because of extensive subsequent building there are very few places in the city of Rome that can yield archeological evidence of the early Republic, she later asserts the lack of such archeological traces as evidence against Rome having been destroyed by the Gauls. Similarly, the lack of any laws dealing with foreign relations in the fragmentary and reconstructed 12 Tables is taken by Beard as evidence of a lack in any early concept of foreign policy. I suspect that were it not for the fortuitous survival of the tomb of the Scipios (which Beard more or less takes as the start of real Roman history), she would have treated everything before Cicero as myth.<br/><br/>One of the worst consequences of Beard’s pseudo-skeptical approach is her almost complete neglect of issues related to land ownership and agrarian reform, which Livy describes as central and perennial problems from the 5th century BCE on. To burrow a phrase from Beard, it is impossible to believe that Livy’s and others' accounts of these problems are pure invention. Beard reluctantly takes up the issue when discussing the Gracchi, but even then gives little credit to the idea that large scale agricultural operations and military recruitment were displacing freeborn labor from the countryside, which both contemporary and modern historians have identified as one of the major social and economic developments in the late Republic. <br/><br/>Those unfamiliar with Roman history will learn little from this book. Those who know more will find it shallow and disappointing.<br/><br/>Finally, the book is poorly read. I get the feeling that the reader was not paying attention the meaning of the words. She inserts long breaks between phrases and around parenthetical comments that make them sound like they are separate, unrelated ideas. This didn’t destroy the meaning of the words, but added needless extra work to what already was a dreary job.<br/>
73 of 83 people found this review helpful
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.
17 of 19 people found this review helpful
A heavy-handed edit was needed to rescue this non-chronological, disjointed jumble of facts and speculation about the history of some but not all of the Roman Empire. While much of the information is fascinating, it is presented in such a non-linear manner it is very hard keep a good grasp on what is being talked about at any given moment, even what century you're in. (Several are often jumped among in individual paragraphs, even individual sentences.) Especially as an audiobook, this is an especially disorienting tour through Roman history.
Among other things, the author starts in the middle (mid 2nd Century BCE), then jumps back to the beginning (spending huge amounts of time on the issue of fact vs. myth in early Roman history, while not ever taking a firm stand on where she herself thinks the line should be drawn), then lurches forward, before ending, arbitrarily, in the mid-3rd Century CE, before what she herself acknowledges are many of the Roman Empire's most important events, including its collapse.
The particular narrator here does not help, providing clear diction in an upper-class English drawl. Overall, the impression of going with the Duchess to tea and having no choice but to politely listen as she rambles through a series of quasi-connected facts she recently learned about Rome. There are moments of clarity and clear chronological presentation (the overview and first couple decades of Augustus' reign as emperor, for example), and I definitely learned a lot, but I cannot recommend this overall as a priority audiobook for history buffs.
8 of 9 people found this review helpful
This book wasn’t for you, but who do you think might enjoy it more?
The author of this book assumes the reader knows and understands the whole of Roman history, and so she pays little attention to laying out significant events and there details. The focus is instead on in-depth analysis and conjecture of micro level events, and they are so boring I almost fell asleep in my car.
What could Mary Beard have done to make this a more enjoyable book for you?
The timeline needs to be linear. Some diversions are acceptable, but since the author was constantly digressing it was hard to follow what was occuring
What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?
Disappointment! I wanted to like this book, but it has nothing to offer me.
15 of 19 people found this review helpful
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.
48 of 63 people found this review helpful
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.
15 of 21 people found this review helpful
It was a bit tedious to get into with the stories of archeological findings of the first Roman settlement. Then again, I'm not fond of reading about archeological excavations. I like her thesis. I didn't expect her to only cover the 1st millenium of Rome, but it's what supported her argument.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
What did you like about this audiobook?
It seems that Mary Beard isn't particularly fond of the Romans. She gives passing praise to anything positive the Romans introduced into the world. She also uses Liberal PC speak to criticize the Romans. In doing so she makes unnecessary comparisons to modern day conservative ideology.
How has the book increased your interest in the subject matter?
The book makes you not want to read anymore about Ancient Rome.
Does the author present information in a way that is interesting and insightful, and if so, how does he achieve this?
Mary Beard skips everything interesting about Rome and makes her book about Roman society in a way that criticizes them for values that we hold today in an attempt to dismiss Rome as more terrible than the worst barbarians.
Do you have any additional comments?
It's a look at Ancient Rome through Liberal political eyes. There is clearly a progressive agenda in the writing.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
I’m surprised Mary Beard’s writing is so filled with bits of superfluous information, like a machine with too many cogs; it has so many small parts that it moves along not fulfilling its function. Beard’s television documentaries on ancient Rome are excellent, her video persona that of a “broad” in the best sense of the term, and so I bought her book. SPQR, however, is constructed from obscure references with Latin names that turn boorish as they flow one after another, page after page. Non-scholastic readers of history run into this phenomena often: professors want to pen books that are both academic in design yet appealing to the public, and consequently end up with a thing that is neither fish nor fowl, not serving either function well. I give Mary’s book a grade of C-. Sorry, Mary, because you’re better than this. Decide who your audience is. The narrator’s tone reflects the writing. . . cultured, erudite, devoid of forward energy.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful