SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

I’ve been meaning to read a book about ancient Rome for years. Mary Beard is a respected Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, so her recent best-seller finally got me to do it. It was generally interesting but even with over 500 pages of text, it left me wanting more.

The book covers 1,000 years of Roman history, beginning with Rome’s founding, thought to be in the 8th century B.C.E., and continuing until 212 C.E.. That’s when the emperor Caracalla extended Roman citizenship to everyone in the empire who wasn’t a slave. The 1,000 years is broken into three parts. During the Regal Period, roughly 753 B.C.E. to 509 B.C.E., Rome was ruled by “kings” or chieftains. Details are sketchy at best.

The second period lasted from roughly 509 B.C.E. to 44 B.C.E. This was the era of the Roman Republic. Rome was relatively democratic, with various officials being elected either by their peers or by average citizens. Rome was ruled by combinations of “tribunes” and “consuls”, and the Senate was at the peak of its power. 

The era of the Republic came to an end when Julius Caesar and his troops crossed the Rubicon River in 49 B.C.E. and precipitated a civil war. Caesar’s eventual victory led to him being named Rome’s dictator in 44 B.C.E., the position he held for less than three months before being assassinated on the Ides of March. More conflict ensued, finally leading to Octavian, later known as Caesar Augustus, becoming Rome’s first Emperor. 

Augustus set the pattern for his successors. He reigned for 17 years, with the Senate playing a very secondary role. Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Nero and others followed in dynastic succession, some dying of natural causes, others being assassinated. Eventually, Rome lost control of its empire as power shifted away from the capital city.

It was disappointing to see that Beard has little to say about the individual emperors. There is hardly anything about their personalities, for example. What we mainly learn is that the bad ones probably weren’t as bad and the good ones weren’t as good as they’re usually made out to be. 

Throughout the book, Beard is more interested in bigger themes. Why did Rome become so successful? What was it like to live in Rome? How did Rome’s political institutions evolve? What was the relationship between Rome and its provinces? We learn, for example, that Rome benefited greatly from its diverse population, which included hundreds of thousands of immigrants (and slaves) from all parts of the empire, many of whom became Roman citizens (every slave who was freed automatically became a citizen).

So this is an interesting book, but it hardly made a dent in my curiosity about people like Julius Caesar, Caligula and Claudius. I did, however, learn that Julius Caesar hardly spent any time in Rome after he crossed the Rubicon. He was usually off fighting a war somewhere during the five years he was Rome’s dictator. I also learned that “Caligula” was a childhood nickname. His real name was Gaius and he did not make his horse a Senator. 

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