Rome sweet Rome?

Mary Beard's SPQR is a wonderfully compelling account of the rise of Rome from small town on the Tiber to an empire that spanned Europe and the Middle East even reaching out to Africa and points east. Highly readable, Beard spans nearly a thousand years of history from the foundation myths of Romulus and Remus to Caracalla's declaration in 212 that every man born free in the Roman Empire was officially a Roman.

I thoroughly enjoyed this slice of Roman history. Beard's colloquial style may not be for everyone, but this is a gloriously easy introduction into ancient history. At well over 500 pages it's a pretty hefty tome, but despite that there were still many moments when I wanted her to go deeper into the history - Why, for example, did the Romans build the amazing Cloaca Maxima (the big sewer to you and me), and yet still have problems with people throwing the contents of their chamber pots into the streets? (Juvenal was once nearly brained by an over-eagerly thrown pot). Why did they have a rotten fire-brigade despite being so brilliant in just about every other way?

What I really loved about SPQR (the motto of Rome - Senatus populusque Romanus, the Senate and people of Rome) was the breadth of its narrative. From the everyday (chamber pots and criminals, child birth and celebrations) to the big shots - the Emperors and their bodyguards, the Empire builders, and the Empire changers. The movers and shakers of the ancient world.

My gripe therefore about the surface history is understandable, because there is no way that you can include everything in this volume, even in 500+ pages. What you can do, and what Mary Beard does beautifully, is draw you into the culture and the people. She makes you want to learn more, and read more about this most astonishing of Empires. I love books that make you say "I never knew that before", and make you look at something in a completely different way; and she does this absolutely superbly.

From Syrians living on Hadrian's wall, with British matrons dressed in best Palmyrene wear, to Roman efficiency when  impressing their ships' rams. From the lost legions of Varus to emperors who were not even born in Rome. SPQR is a fascinating account that holds the reader enthralled. Perhaps most importantly it made me want to read the ancient texts that she cites in the (equally enthralling) notes. A book that nourishes, but also leaves you wanting to learn much more - highly recommended.


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