Mary Beard’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome wasn’t really what I expected, which threw me off while I was reading it, and took me a bit to come to grips with after I finished.
What I was expecting was… a history of ancient Rome. Start at the beginning, proceed through the end, telling the reader what we know and how we know it, explaining along the way the uncertainties that we still have and the gaps in our knowledge and maybe occasionally “things we thought we knew, but we were wrong,” when they’re common-enough misperceptions.
But in fact this is kind of “Mythbusters: Rome Edition.” The book is really organized as series of anecdotes about individual periods of Roman history, in loose chronological order. For most of them, Beard will give a retelling of the old, accepted story of that event, and then freeze frame, pull back the curtain, and here’s why you shouldn’t necessarily believe that, and here’s what we really know nowadays. (Which in many cases is: honestly not a whole lot.)
And so while I was reading it at first, it felt like cotton candy fluff, a bunch of glossy “Did you know…?” blurbs all connected together. I kept waiting for the actual meat of the book to really kick in, and—in the sense I was expecting—it never did. Frustrating.
But as I’ve had a chance to think about it, my reaction has grown more positive. Yeah, okay, it’s a high-level history—it’s a relatively short volume that covers 1000 years, it almost has to be. And yes, it’s not the comprehensive history I wanted. But there’s legitimate value in unteaching the mythology of history, in explaining why sources that have been historically taken at face value shouldn’t be. And there’s value in explaining the methods of modern history and the kind of evidence that historians look for, and have available. And of course, there’s value in looking beyond the stories of the nobility into the history of the “regular” people of Rome, the history of women, and the history of slaves, which Beard also does.
It’s still not the book I want—I want the book that does all that stuff in the context of telling a detailed history—but it’s a book that’s worth reading if you want an accessible, quick overview of modern historical understanding of Roman history.