SPQR by Mary Beard is a quite different kind of history writing. While her subject covers a millennium of ancient Roman history, Beard is not attempting a grand conception of the civilization such as Burkhardt did for the Renaissance or as Jared Diamond has written in more recent years. Nor is it a popular narrative of the times one might enjoy reading such as those written by David McCullough or Doris Kearns Goodwin. Rather it is more like having an extended conversation with an esteemed scholar intimately familiar not only with all of the written documentation from the period, both literary and historical, but also all of the new and sometimes contradictory knowledge gained from modern science and archaeology especially about those segments of Roman society overlooked in earlier histories.
Beard reevaluates what we thought we formerly knew about the Romans in light of modern scholarship. She continually asks us to question the point of view of contemporaneous writers such as Livy, Catullus, Pliny, and Cicero and to keep in mind the audiences for whom they wrote. She gives us a richer and more rounded understanding of Roman society examining the lives of women, slaves, and the various conquered peoples of the Empire, much of this evidence gleaned from archaeology over the last century. She also helps us understand how Romans thought about themselves. Among the more fascinating aspects about Rome I learned is how Rome, uniquely in the ancient world, routinely absorbed freed slaves and these conquered peoples into its citizenry and what that meant for the city and the Empire.
What makes SPQR so enjoyable to read is despite the breadth of her scholarship, Beard’s writing is not at all academic. Her tone is lively, questioning and conversational. Because of her approach it might be helpful to some to have some prior understanding of the general outlines of Roman history, though it isn’t critical. In SPQR, Beard introduces to us many of the current reinterpretations of Roman civilization, giving us a richer and fuller understanding of the lives of all the levels of its society.