Book on Rome: SPQR by Mary Beard

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This was well-reviewed so I thought I would give it a try. I have a layman’s interest in Rome. I have read some non fiction, as well as I, Claudius, The Masters of Rome Series, the HBO Series Rome, etc. So I have a basic grasp of the timeline of events, main players and the forces at work.

This book was presented as a readable Big Picture view and it doesn’t disappoint. I believe Mary Beard is generally well regarded as a writer, Rome scholar and TV presenter in the UK. Her narrative voice is relaxed, authoritative and seemingly in complete control of all of the moving parts and how to use them to paint the Big Picture of Rome.

I have not done scholarly reading on Rome, so I can’t comment on the newness and/or general acceptedness of the portrayal of Rome, its systems and players. But her framing of the almost Locke-like tripartite balance of the Consuls, Senate and Plebs and how that supported expansion was fascinating. Also, the description of the underlying approach to tribute taxation and the notion of Roman citizenship as the means of managing the empire was insightful to me.

Anyone else read it yet?

Looks good, and good reviews! I think I’ll wait for the price to fall, however. It’s on my “watch list.” Thanks for calling it to attention!

I haven’t read the book yet, but, if you’re not aware of it, I’ll point you in the direction of her A Don’s Life blog. While generally much more wide-ranging, there have been multiple entries on it over the last year or two, such as this one, where she’s reflected on the process of writing the book and/or has solicited advice from her readership about it. As both herself and the TLS (who host the blog) have intended from the start, it’s an insight into what goes on in producing such work.

Very cool - thank you for sharing. I have read that one example and will chase more down.

I’m reading this book right now. She has a nice style, I’ll have to check out her other books.

It’s not “the Big Picture” of Rome, or even, really,* a *Big Picture of Rome. It’s not a grand overview of Roman history. It’s not even a grand overview of the period it focuses on (the Republic and the early Empire).

But I don’t think it was ever supposed to be. As far as I can make out, this book started out as being about Roman citizenship specifically, and maybe Roman identity more generally (that’s what it begins and ends with). Then, apparently, it got bloated with some of the parts of Roman history that happens to interest Mary Beard, and slapped with a title that is presumably meant to sound snappy, but actually makes it sound like it’s a Big Picture of Rome. Which it isn’t.

Maybe the book would have benefited from keeping a narrower focus, or at least being a bit more clear about what it’s about. You can’t talk about everything, and you probably shouldn’t (well, unless you’re either clinically insane or the History of Rome podcast, in which case go right ahead), but at least try to make it clear what your project is.

That said, it is pretty good. :wink:

And I generally like listening to Mary Beard talk (well, as long as she’s talking about Rome and not her opinions about Twitter), so that’s good, too. Sometimes she annoys me a bit, though. Talking about “the Emperor Gaius” and only in passing noting that, oh yeah, that’s Caligula… that kind of thing just makes you sound like a smartass, Mary.

[Bolding mine]

Yeah, that bugged me, too and did stand out as an academic being lofty.

I am not formally educated about Rome so won’t look to discuss whether it provides a “Big Picture.” Question: if it did provide a better big picture, what might it include?

From my perspective, I got a sense for how Rome emerged from its “peer” communities in Italy and abroad; what likely played out in the age from Kings to Republic; a sense of the Locke-ian (my wording) balance they achieved and other forces that led to their “empire model” being the most successful in the Ancient Western world/Asia Minor.

Well, I dunno. Lots of stuff. How big do you want your picture to be? I guess it depends on what kind of book you’re writing.

As I said, I think this book started out as being about Roman citizenship. If you’re writing that book, then you’re including and leaving out stuff for good reasons, because you actually have a theme. Like, to stay with Mary Beard, her book on the Roman triumph. And if citizenship is your theme, then you also have a good reason for ending with the Edict of Caracalla, as opposed to it being just a weird place to stop. But if the book is trying to be, as I saw one review put it, everything that Mary Beard knows about Roman history that she can fit into five hundred pages (which it certainly isn’t, but anyway), or even a general history of the Republic and its transition to the Principate, then it’s different. Then things are being skipped over more at random. For instance, you’ll learn about Gaius Gracchus (I certainly learned stuff, it was great). Or she’ll get into Cicero or Augustus, in a “from scratch” sort of way. On the other hand, Marius is barely mentioned (just to take one example). So, what is the assumption here, Mary Beard? Are you assuming that I already know about Marius? If so, then it’s safe to assume that I know about Cicero and Augustus, too, so why go over that again? But if you’re assuming that I don’t, then why tell me about one and not the other? It becomes arbitrary.

Now, I don’t really want to dump on Mary Beard, especially since the book is actually full of good stuff, and I certainly learned quite a bit (not that I think she cares anyway, as I’m just some layman asshole on a message board, while she’s an expert on the subject with knowledge coming out the wazoo). Other writers in the genre, like Adrian Goldsworthy or Tom Holland, seem to have the same problem (Goldsworthy, especially, has it bad… not that I should really be dumping on him either). It is a real problem. Do you assume that the reader already knows Roman history, in a general sort of way? If so, what you need to talk about is just the specialist stuff, and then who is buying that book? You might as well publish in an academic journal. Or do you assume no prior knowledge at all? In that case, you really should explain everything, and then you’re in a rabbit hole that never ends, and you’ll never even get to what you actually want to talk about. It’s a nut to crack, for sure.

Now, the nut has been cracked once, sort of. If you actually want the big picture, OP, I think (speaking as a reader and a layman only) that you’ll want the above-mentioned History of Rome podcast. Mike Duncan doesn’t discriminate, he’ll just tell you about everything, including stuff that no one else ever goes into, in a no-nonsense sort of way, up to 476 AD. It’s not the whole picture, but it’s a certainly a comprehensive picture, without big holes anywhere. Then you can come back and read your Mary Beard, Adrian Goldsworthy or Tom Holland, and know where things fit in the grand scheme of things.

Really, everyone should check out the History of Rome podcast. Or at least it’s an approach that seems to work for me. :wink:

And yes, I know that I’m recommending that every five minutes around here. I’ll keep doing it. And yes, I also know that podcasts are for the lazy, and real men read books. If there was a book that did the same thing, I would recommend that. But I don’t know of any.