“Triumphantly, he announced their deaths to the cheering crowd in a famous one-word euphemism: vixere, ‘they have lived’ – that is, ‘they’re dead’.”
Almost three months later, I have finally finished this expansive account of Ancient Roman history. SPQR – the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state: Senatus PopulusQue Romanus – is neither a nostalgic glorification of Western imperialism nor another reworked reduction of how Rome fell. Instead, Beard chronicles with wicked wit their most dignified and depraved moments, piecing together an exceptionally engaging mosaic of how Rome grew from an insignificant village to the first global superpower.
While this did take me much longer than the typical book to read, SPQR is most certainly not a stale or stuffy textbook. Simplification simply does not exist in Beard’s lexicon, and as compelling as her writing is, it takes some time to digest. Besides, exam season is a terrible distractor; at one point, I was stress-reading eight books at once. 🙃
“His supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society.”
Ever since Roman Week in Year 3 (we wore togas and wrote on homemade wax tablets instead of our usual workbooks), I have been engrossed in Graeco-Roman mythology. Sure, Percy Jackson made it cool, but I assure you I was thoroughly fixated years before The Lightning Thief.
Yet despite this persistent interest, I never gave much thought to the folk behind the folklore. So when I found SPQR in a bookstore – a critically endangered species in Hong Kong – I jumped at the chance to buy it.
As a culture that prided itself most on its military prowess, it would have been far too easy for any work on Ancient Rome to get lost in all the conflicts, conquests and controversies. Beard did dissect these in vivid detail, but she also painted us just as detailed a depiction of the ‘home front’ (what a delightful pun): “How long did Romans expect to live? At what age did people get married? What rights did women have? Where did the money come from to support the lavish lifestyles of the rich? And what about the slaves?” She was careful, too, not to overlook the poor, of whom – and not just from Ancient Rome – historical evidence is always sparse.
“This time, the senators met in the temple of the goddess Concord, or Harmony, a sure sign that affairs of state were anything but harmonious.”
This being said, towards the latter half of the book, Beard slipped into progressively more presumptuous prose. This was most rampant in the chapter Fourteen Emperors, which frankly read as self-assuredly as the Edward Gibbon whom Beard made the subject of her satire.
I am, however, inclined to give Beard the benefit of the doubt; after all, SPQR was written for the popular reader, not the academic scholar – or even the ancient civilisations enthusiast. So perhaps she felt she was doing us a favour by skipping the sometimes dull elucidations of exactly where her conclusions were drawn from. Her Further Reading section is rather extensive – spanning some 26 pages.
Nevertheless, I would suggest SPQR only as a starting point. A sweeping starting point, yes, but a starting point nonetheless. No single book can ever be a comprehensive account of Ancient Roman history – or any civilisation’s history – anyway, covering ‘just’ the first millennium or no.