SPQR, an abbreviation of the latin phrase Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, roughly translates to ‘The Senate and People of Rome’. This book is an ambitious endeavour to cover nearly one thousand years of early Roman history, from the founding of Rome in 753 BCE by the twin brothers Romulus and Remus, until 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla decreed that all free inhabitants of the empire would be granted citizenship. This is by no means an easy feat to accomplish in just over 600 pages.
From her fifty years of experience on the topic, Mary Beard explores the stories left behind by well known literary figures from the time, including the likes of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Juvenal, Pliny the Elder and Younger, and many more, as well as knowledge revealed from artefacts uncovered by archaeological examination and modern science.
Rather than focussing on the destruction of an empire, which many historians tend to do, Beard shows us how Rome was built over time. In doing so, she questions what we think we know, and what historians have lead us to believe, acknowledging that much of what we understand about early Rome was written hundreds of years after the fact. Many of the tales are merely myth and legend, lacking any factual information or solid evidence (i.e. twin brothers being raised by a conveniently lactating wolf, to name an obvious one…), or have strong correlations between events happening at the time the history was written, which indicates that these stories might have been heavily influenced by events unfolding at the time.
Regardless of this, these founding myths of Rome heavily influenced Roman culture for at least the next thousand years, and raised the question of ‘what it meant to be Roman’. By examining some of the most famous stories of ancient Rome, from the era of the Roman Republic, the Punic Wars, Hannibal and the destruction of Carthage and Corinth, to the rule of the emperors, where she deals with the tales of Julius Caesar, Augustus, Mark Antony and Cleopatra, Nero, Vespasian, Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius, and many more, we are able see how an empire with its roots stemming from stories of fratricide, treason and rape continues to have these recurring themes throughout its history.
Beard builds on this idea of ‘what it meant to be Roman’, by exploring matters such as citizenship, enslavement and social hierarchy, as well as the far reach of the empire, which encompassed a range of cultures, gods and languages (with artefacts from India found at Pompeii to Hadrian’s Wall in the north of England), and how it was not as well organised or united as we might think. Despite having limited sources of information, which are usually inherently bias due to them being written by the victors and the upper echelons of Roman society, Beard courageously attempts to reconstruct what life might have looked like for the lower classes of society (Plebeians and slaves), who left almost no written texts or grand buildings behind, yet made up 99% of the empires populace. She also explores the power struggles between the upper class property owners (Patricians and Equestrians), Senators and Emperors, who often sought to erase their defeated enemies from existence or besmirch their names, which has created unreliable accounts of what actually occurred. As other authors on the topic often do, Beard’s account of ancient Rome doesn’t dwell on the battle strategies and romanticised atrocities committed against the people by the ruling elite, and between power hungry Senators, but instead touches on them briefly. At the same time, she illustrates that even the most idolised emperors, such as Augustus - who was deified after his death, along with others - were tyrants, rather than just pointing the finger at the likes of Nero who supposedly played his fiddle while Rome burned, made an effort to execute Christians in cruel manners, and allegedly murdered his own mother, Agrippina.
Beard also brings to light a number of quirky facts, such as the origin of the nickname of the third Roman emperor, Caligula, which meant 'little caligae,' a type of military boot. This nickname, which effectively translated to ‘Bootikin’s’, was given by his father's soldiers during their campaign in Germania when he was a young child. More absurdly, Caligula’s real name was Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, which features a number of names taken from his predecessors; a common tradition amongst the Roman emperors. These light-hearted facts, accompanied with Beard’s conversational writing style, makes this dense history of early Rome easily digestible.
Finally, Beard acknowledges we do not have ‘much to learn directly from the Romans’, and should certainly not idolise them, but ‘have an enormous amount to learn - as much about ourselves as about the past - by engaging with the history of the Romans, their poetry and prose, their controversies and arguments’.