Ancient Rome helps define the way we understand the world and think about ourselves. The ideas of liberty and citizenship, the Western calendar, phrases such as “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” and much more came from this one source. Renowned classicist Mary Beard, a professor at Cambridge University, has spent much of the last 50 years studying the literature of the Romans and the thousands of books and papers written about them. Her magnificent, eminently readable SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is an authoritative exploration of how a small and unremarkable village became such a dominant power on three continents. The title of the book refers to the Senate and the Roman People, the main sources of authority in first-century BCE Rome.
Beard says two things undermine modern myths about early Roman power. First, it’s true that Roman culture placed a high value on success in battle. She doesn’t excuse its terrible brutality. However, violence was endemic in that era, and other peoples were just as committed to warfare and atrocities as the Romans. Second, the Romans didn’t plan to conquer and control Italy. They saw their expansion in terms of making alliances with other people rather than gaining territory. The only long-term obligation the Romans imposed on those they defeated was the provision and upkeep of troops for the Roman armies.
From early times, Roman culture was extraordinarily open to outsiders, which distinguished it from every other ancient city. Peoples of Roman provinces were usually given full citizenship.
Beard notes that the most extraordinary fact about Roman culture is that so much of what they wrote still survives. She gives particular attention to Cicero, where we find “by far the most sustained insight” into the life of a notable Roman.
SPQR is the best kind of history. With a deep knowledge of her subject and a healthy skepticism about what we think we know, she enlightens us with riveting prose while broadening our perspective.