Book Review: SPQR, by Mary Beard - Surprisingly Negative History

Late last year, a friend showed off his Goodreads app. Like a good little sheep, I copied him and got it for myself soon afterwards (you can see my profile here). 

The main reason I did so was as a way to track what I’d been reading. I don’t review everything I read, and just popping onto the app and dishing out a star rating is easier than keeping a spreadsheet. 

I don’t give ‘ratings’ in the reviews on this site, and a part of me bristles at the very concept. The authors aren’t children and we the teachers, after all, to give grades based on how we think they did. ‘Dostoevsky, Fyodor… B- … Must Do Better’. 

Nobody’s forcing me to give ratings on Goodreads either, of course, but… I’ve actually found it quite an interesting challenge. 

If the ratings were out of 100, for example, or even 10, there would be some room for nuance. As it is, you’ve only got five stars to give. 

It would be harsh indeed to give only one, and I’d struggle to think of any book I’ve ever read which would have deserved it. Five stars implies that the book is more or less perfect, or at least a flawed masterpiece, and such high praise must be reserved for few works indeed. 

So, that basically leaves us with two, three, and four stars out of five. There’s a big difference between two and three stars, and – since I’m loath to give a book only two stars, never mind one – I find myself most often struggling to decide between three and four. 

And that’s precisely the conundrum with which I found myself presented as I read SPQR. It’s clear that a huge amount of effort has gone into it. Mary Beard has read dozens upon dozens of books on the Romans (perhaps more), and estimates it to be the result of around 50 years (on and off, obviously) of her life’s work. 

And yet, and yet… 

Simply because lots of work has gone into the book, doesn’t necessarily make it great. I wanted this to be great, in part because I’ve enjoyed Beard in TV shows, podcasts, and other media for a while now; in part, too, simply due to the colossal amount of work she’s put in here. 

I wanted it to be great, but I’m afraid it’s only good. To be enormously reductive, it’s a three star book, not a four star book. 

The Problems

My main issues with SPQR are twofold. 

Firstly, I found it to be a frustrating read; particularly the first part. Rather than focusing on the Decline and Fall, SPQR is concerned with the origins of Rome up until 212 AD, when Roman citizenship was given to every member of the empire (more on that shortly). 

‘Oh good’, you might think. ‘I know all the Caesar stuff, and about Rome being an empire, but how did the Romans actually strike it big in the first place?’

Well, you won’t find out here! 

In fairness, that’s because nobody does. There are the (somewhat conflicting) foundation myths of Romulus and Aeneas, then the kings who later followed them, then the move from monarchy to republic. We don’t really know, however, how Rome went from village to dominant Italian power.


Which is all fine, except that – after reading this – you won’t even know what you thought you knew. 

The whole first part of the book here is largely concerned with Beard going through every story about Rome’s foundation and subsequent growth, and debunking each one in turn. This isn’t ‘You thought it went like this, but actually it went like this’. This is ‘What you thought was wrong… but we don’t actually know the truth’. 

In essence, you’re not actually learning anything; only unlearning what you might already have known. 

The evidence mounts as time passes though, until we’re on firmer historical ground (although there’s still a whole lot of debunking going on, usually because new evidence has replaced old, or the sources are too partisan to be at all relied upon). 

Unfortunately, we then arrive at the second main problem: the structuring. 

This book is all over the place. Most history books are told in fairly straightforward chronological order, and for good reason. Here Beard starts in the first century BC, moves all the way back to the beginnings of Rome, occasionally whips forward a couple of centuries at a time, then jumps back again to analyse one of the events she mentioned in passing previously, before racing forward again, and so on, and so forth. 

The latter, post-Augustus section of the book (14 – 212 AD) – which is more or less the entire second half – largely does away with chronology entirely. Sometimes she will talk about the emperors in order, but – for the most part – the sections are organised by theme instead, with our focus once again bouncing around from emperor to emperor and year to year. 

In part, this is deliberate. Beard convincingly emphasises several times how the actual importance of who was in charge at any one time has been severely overrated, for almost all of the actual Roman people. It can still feel disorientating though, just as the first half does, albeit for different reasons. 

That Being Said… 

This isn’t a hit piece. I didn’t ‘hate’ SPQR, by any means. 

Unsurprisingly, if you’ve ever heard Beard talk, the writing itself is eloquent. It certainly could have been edited significantly, but it’s still straightforward enough to read. The book is also broken down into nice, small, almost bite-size segments, which – while I didn’t like the actual order of them – do make this an easy book to dip in and out of. 

mary beard

Elsewhere, while all the debunking simply feels frustrating early on, there are still benefits to the more… cynical approach Beard adopts. She reminds us effectively that most ancient sources (including Cicero’s famous letters, referenced frequently here) should at best be taken with a massive pinch of salt, and often discounted almost entirely. 

Beard also makes an admirable effort to include the non-super rich people in her Roman history (an almost impossible feat, since there are almost no sources aside from a few tombs). She extends her analysis, too, across the length and breadth of the empire, rather than just focusing on Rome or the other Mediterranean metropolises. 

The Takeaway

During Mary Beard’s appearance on the excellent Rest Is History podcast (free to listen to here), it was mentioned that two subjects continue to demolish all the others when it comes to sales of history books. World War II is comfortably in first place, and Ancient Rome remains second. 

Like myself, you may well be bemused every time you go to Waterstones, or browse the Books section of your preferred news site, and see yet another newly-published book on World War II or the Romans. How can people possibly – we ignoramuses might wonder – still be learning enough new stuff, or having enough original theories – to justify so very many volumes on the same basic subject? 

Every book on such well-worn topics automatically faces a question over its very existence. In the case of SPQR, I’m not sure there’s a good answer. 

Sometimes, I’ll finish a history book – Peter Frankopan’s excellent The Silk Roads, for example – and really feel like I’ve gained some serious knowledge. Perhaps it was a slog, but it was worth it. 

In this case, despite being over 600 pages long, I simply don’t believe that I learned a lot. If anything, the larger emphasis seems to be unlearning stuff. 

Considering the wonder and enthusiasm Beard can evoke on television in particular, this was surprisingly ‘negative’ history. This is true from the beginning – where every myth surrounding Rome’s foundation is dismissed systematically – right up until the end. 

Early on, Beard clarifies that she’ll be ending her book – not with the fall of Rome, for example, or the conversion to Christianity – but with the aforementioned provision of Roman citizenship to all the empire’s inhabitants. 

When we get to that part in the book… Beard turns around and clarifies that it wasn’t actually as big of a deal as it’s made out to be: the Romans just found other ways to divide themselves, making citizenship meaningless. So… why did you choose it as your end point? Simply to bust one last myth? 

Unfortunately, this basically sums up the whole book: informative, certainly, but frequently confusing and – most often – outright frustrating. 

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *