SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
SPQR is a not always strictly chronological study of important parts of the history of the Roman Republic and Empire to 212 CE. The author explores the seldom told complexity of the historiography of Rome. Background and context appear here only as needed to explain what Rome really means to us, and for always.
What do we really know of Romulus, Julius Caesar, the first Christians, and so much more of Ancient Romans? Modern biographies of Cleopatra, Hadrian, Marcus Aureus, and others seem to argue that we have a great deal of material to work from.
The basis of all Roman history, however, consists of a disturbing amount of myth and partisanship with a correspondingly disappointing lack of certainty from any means. Beard asks, however, if we can “perhaps find a little more history in the myth?”
This study demonstrates the limitations of modern archaeology, technology, and other means. Beginning with the example of the now little known Castilian Revolt, the author uses Cicero's efforts in stopping this threat to the Republic as a means of explaining Roman politics on the eve of the Empire.
We are not “better historians than our predecessors,” Beards writes, but we do bring to Roman history “different priorities.” From far more than our historical resources, our attitudes as an evolving culture “make[s] the ancient past speak to us in a new idiom.” At times it is stories so familiar and, at others, a world so alien. But does any of the interpretations honestly reflect the historical reality?
In no better way can archaeology, culture, documents, historiography, and stories combine to find the meaning of the history of Rome than in its founding stories, to which Beard dedicates a lengthy discussion. In SPQR reason is used as a resource in ways that Beard’s hero Cicero would have admired.
The problem with this subject, however, lies in that credible material exists only during certain periods that must somehow stretch to include centuries earlier. That scholarship and science provide too little credible information on this is important.
Whatever was real, the Roman Republic and Empire mattered and matters today. They affected the history of the world beyond that of older and larger civilizations and cultures, which in today’s historical studies do not rise above footnotes, while Rome is world history itself. As Beard writes, “it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
In the best tradition of Roman prose, the author uses descriptive words to write more image in fewer but more potent ways. Examples include “obviously fantastical elements” and “spuriously precise and implausibly large.” SPQR is also printed in a font easy on the reader's eyes. The extensive illustrations compliment this theme of finding meaning not just by reciting history but by exposing meaning by explaining method.
That Beard chose to write in a humanistic style would be a problem for some scholars in increasingly restrictive academia. Here it makes for engaging reading with high educational value.