I’ve always been into the fun parts of British history, you know the ones? Celts, Romans, Vikings, Tudors. Anything that happened before, after or between those (up until about WWI) is just a blur. I was a big Horrible Histories reader as a child, and my only wish is that they’d started the fantastic TV programme when I was young enough to be able to watch after-school TV instead of having to work like a loser. I did Latin to GCSE because it was just my type of nerdery, and though I’ve forgotten most of it now, I don’t think you can ever forget the Cambridge Latin Course or the moment you start reading actual primary sources and realise that the Romans were really just normal people.
We had SPQR hanging around the house, begging me to read it, and since I’m still in worldbuilding mode, I thought I’d plunder the Roman world for whatever I could loot from it, basically.
Warning: Mary Beard totally demolishes some of those facts I learned from the Horrible Histories. Theory moves on!
If you’re in any way interested in Roman history*, then this book is for you. It just is. It’s fantastically comprehensive and ridiculously easy to follow, despite the abundance of ground to cover. Beard writes clearly but not simplistically – she takes into account a variety of schools of thought and backs up her own opinions convincingly. The book’s chapters are arranged by theme, in a loose chronological order that darts around as required. I have no idea how she even began to approach writing this book, but she succeeded pretty amazingly.
My favourite thing about it is that she doesn’t just engage in dialogue with other scholars and historians, building on their theories and research, but she engages in dialogue with the Romans themselves, picking at the intentions and biases behind the writing they left behind. Talking about “bringing them to life” and “humanising” the Romans seems not only cliché but slightly offensive (they were, of course, people) but how else to describe that feeling of being able to just reach across the years? Their petty concerns (running houses, marrying off relatives, spreading gossip, writing bad poetry) are fascinating, but what was even more fascinating to me were their arguments, the big ones. The Romans were always defining themselves, as we are, and trying to perfect a system that was constantly in motion, expanding, evolving. Shoring up one pillar here even as another was being undermined.
The evolution of the Roman political system and seeing the gradual erosion of certain rights and liberties, never to be regained, (and the granting of others) is almost an awe-inspiring thing. Everyone knows it’s easier to destroy than to build, and so it ever was. Societies are long, slow battles.
Beard is clever enough to anticipate easy comparisons to the present and heads them off – granting citizenship to all the people of the Roman Empire is not the same as granting citizenship would be today, and resulted in various other problems to take the place of the old citizen/non-citizen issue – but it’s still hard to read about these Romans and not try to bring them with us into the present, or feel as though they might have something to say (albeit in Latin). And why not? They were people.
The only really similar experience I’ve had to reading something like this was Ian Morris’s Why The West Rules… For Now. It had the same sense of scope, the same reassuring hugeness. I really, really enjoyed it, and you might too.
*From the founding of the city of Rome up to the Edict of Caracalla in 212, anyway!