‘Ancient Rome is important. To ignore the Romans is not just to turn a blind eye to the distant past. Rome still helps to define the way we understand our world and think about ourselves; from high theory to low comedy. After 2,000 years, it continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.’
It’s not often that a history book gets rave reviews but that is exactly what happened when Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome was released. Surprisingly, this book also remained in the public consciousness over the coming months and remained on prominent book shelves. After reading Robert Harris’ Imperium, I felt that the time was right for me to delve into this significant tome myself. I quickly discovered why this book was such as success.
The chief strength of Mary Beard’s SQPR is that it knows exactly what it is not. A good teacher honestly admits to gaps in their own knowledge and invites the student to ponder deeper questions and mysteries with them. Mary Beard does throughout this marvellous insight of the early Roman empire and this is an admirably approach by the author.
She also declares in her opening prologue that her book is not ‘a simple work of admiration.’ This is refreshing as the culture and society of ancient times are far too often heralded as the high point of civilisation. As a result, we can become incredibly gullible in what we believe. Take the story of Romulus and Remus for example and then question how much you actually know about the foundation of Rome.
In SQPR, Beard picks these myths and half-truths apart and shows us what the real, hard evidence points towards.
“It is a dangerous myth that we are better historians than our predecessors. We are not.”
Using what is currently available, the author lays out the evidence in a clear and concise manner. The lack of further evidence is lamented thus poking holes in what we have to work with and the resultant theories that we have created. Where as most historical experts would fill this gap with their own beliefs and theories, Beard relents from force feeding the reader empty facts.
“It cannot be stressed enough that there is no certain independent date for any of the archaeological material from earliest Rome or the area round about, and that arguments still rage about the age of almost every major find.”
After reading this book, I was mostly surprised by how little we really knew about life in Roman times. This book raises the question of who really writes our history? Or what version of history will stand the test of time?
For example, those on the margins of society, who often make up the vast majority of the population, rarely get a say in how events were perceived. Instead we read about the soldiers, the politicians, the wealthy and the athletes.
Who will write our history for us?