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Publisher's Summary

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

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What listeners say about SPQR

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  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars
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    5 out of 5 stars

Extraordinary analysis that requires background

This is an incisive work that draws from an incredible depth of text, archaeology, and historical analysis. Because the topic and the resources Beard is drawing from are so vast, the text is occasionally organized thematically, or uses a specific historical incident to broach a larger topic in Roman history and behavior.

Some of the readers who have left reviews seem a little frustrated that this book is not necessarily a self-contained, single volume chronological history of a millennium of Mediterranean history. I think this is a fair critique, given the approachable subtitle of this text. If you would like to get the most out of Beard's magisterial work, it helps to have a basic understanding of the chronology and the political structure of Rome. Beard does not necessarily explain what an equestrian is or who the plebs were. Instead she does assume you can look those up, or you are already familiar.

If you don't have a basic background in Rome, but you want to gain Beard's perspective, I recommend the Great Course taught by Garrett G. Fagan on The History of Ancient Rome. Fagan lays out the mechanics that are necessary to understand Beard. It would be difficult to follow a baseball game without knowing the rules, but you could probably figure it out. Reading Beard without background is like watching a game without the rule book. In some ways, Fagan is your rule book for Roman History, and Beard is an adept commentator once the game gets going.

97 people found this helpful

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A disjointed jumble of information about Rome

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.

46 people found this helpful

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Excellent Reexamination of the History of Rome

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!

168 people found this helpful

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Chronology

Call me crazy, but when I read a history I like it to be in chronological order. I can't understand why anyone writes a book that bounces from one time to another. It's confusing and very difficult to follow.

13 people found this helpful

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Shallow and unsatisfying

Would you try another book from Mary Beard and/or Phyllida Nash?

Maybe

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.

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.

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.

Those unfamiliar with Roman history will learn little from this book. Those who know more will find it shallow and disappointing.

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.

188 people found this helpful

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How can Ancient Rome be boring?

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.

40 people found this helpful

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A great historical look at the era

I really enjoyed this audiobook. The insight in to ancient Rome is fascinating in a way I have not seen before. The narration was on point too!

4 people found this helpful

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excellent history and a bit of woman's perspective

overall I just enjoyed to listening and I don't want to make too much of the authors gender but I noticed some difference.
The author spent more time describing how common people lived and how women lived. there was no feminist revision, such as we see in fiction with women reimagined as great warrior princesses. just a genuine interest and occasional focus on women great and common and what their lives may have been like. it was refreshing and compelling.

4 people found this helpful

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An excellent summary of the first millennium of Ancient Rome

After having thought I knew a good amount of Ancient Roman history, I read this book which has shown me that there is far much more to know. Mary Beard is a highly accessible writer, while retaining the rigorous detail of academic texts. This book is a necessity for those searching to know more about ancient Roman society, common people, and/or the larger historical and cultural effects of this fascinating civilization.

4 people found this helpful

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Directionless and Insignificant

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.

24 people found this helpful