I am fortunate enough to have visited, and fallen in love with, Rome. It isn’t called The Eternal City for nothing; it’s layers upon layers of history, untold secrets still hiding underneath every building that stands there, where every turn could lead you to something ancient. The Pantheon is my favourite example, as you walk along twisty streets until suddenly, you stand in a plaza with an architectural feat looming above you. Actually magical. So worth a visit, and I find myself often longing for a repeat so I can walk those streets again.
Anyway, huge history nerd that I am, I couldn’t resist SPQR for long. When I don’t know much about a time period, one of my favourite ways to get into it is by reading a mammoth work of history first, then narrowing down into areas that specifically interest me. I feel like everyone must know bits and pieces about Rome, but putting it together in a coherent story is what’s beyond me. Mary Beard’s colossal new work on Rome is probably one of the best of this type that I’ve read. It focuses on just ancient Rome, and of course when I say “just”, it fails to encompass the enormous amount of information that Beard had to draw upon and cover, as parts of this period in history are better documented than others. It looks the period from the rise of Rome, and examines those founding myths, up to the republic and then the rise of imperial Rome, ending in 212 AD.
Beard looks at the history of ancient Rome in three ways; first, by drawing upon sources and telling us what happened, then by questioning what “traditional” sources and later interpretations have told us, and finally by analysing how people outside fame and records might have lived. I love this approach because it’s still narratively interesting, taking us mostly chronologically through Roman history, but it questions and toys with the sources that exist rather than presenting history as fact. History isn’t fact, and it shouldn’t be presented as such; so much of what we have especially in this period comes from a single source somewhere, and often a biased one, and which has been changed and misinterpreted as time goes by. Too much popular history (that I’ve read, anyway) simply tells a narrative without thinking about the sources behind that narrative and whether we can trust them or not. Beard clears away these cobwebs, as much as she can anyway, and gives us a great picture of what the republic of Rome might have been like. She’s impartial, she’s clear, she’s compelling, whether she’s discussing Nero or women in Rome or terrorism (because yes, Romans had terrorism too).
This is absolutely a book I’d recommend to anyone who is seeking to learn a little bit more about this period in history.