SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, Mary Beard

SPQR: Senatus Populusque Que Romanus. Quite simply: Senate, Populous, and Romans, although the term may simply refer to “The Roman Government and People.” I took a Roman Civilization class last year. I thought it was very thoughtful and intriguing to learn about this ancient civilization. Like all young boys who see the movie Gladiator (are you not entertained?), the allure of both fantasy and the realism of the Roman Empire engage a sort of boyish case of wonderment and imagination. But there are very practical aspects of studying the Roman Empire as well. For example, much of our present culture, including our language, has roots in Roman culture. Further, the Roman Empire was the ruling entity during the time of Christ and early Christianity largely springs from Ancient Rome. In these aspects and more, Roman Civilization is not only worthy to study, but also necessary in some cases.

Mary Beard focuses on a much smaller scope of the Empire than most historians. Instead of a complete start to finish history, she deals with just the first millennium. This encompasses anywhere from about 500 B.C. to 200 A.D. I really enjoyed the introduction to the book because in it, Beard poses the question: why study Roman history, or even more engaging, why write yet another book on Roman Civilization? The answer, as she puts it, is that in some ways, we know more about Roman Civilization than the Romans did. One example she uses is a cesspool found untouched in Pompeii that became so during the eruption of the volcano Vesuvius. Archeologists unearthed this incredible find and analyzed the excrement to understand what the typical Roman diet might have looked like (no matter how disgusting that might sound). I also think there is a lot to learn about the Romans that can apply to us today. The storylines of good Emperors and bad ones in addition to the lust of power and the corruption of society are all too tantalizing to not learn about and can help us from making the same mistakes.

There is too much material to give even a brief synopsis of this book. Beard’s history is deconstructive, meaning that she analyzes modern data to ascertain new meanings to things we thought we knew already. The Roman historians, Livy, Cicero, Catiline and the rest, saw Rome through the perspective of the upper class and what is included neglects the biggest portion of Roman citizens: slaves and the lower class. New archaeological finds give us some insight on these people: how they lived, what they ate and drank, what they did in their off time. Some things she challenges are the status quo, including the renowned historian Edward Gibbon and his “The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.” We can only glean so much from these authors, and yet we often build most of our history of the Romans (even that which is obviously apocryphal) on the shoulders of these historians. Take for example the story of Romulus and Remus. Obviously it is hard to believe that these two twins were weaned by a wolf. But there is more to the story than this; while that tale might be myth, there may be some truth to it when looking at the language and not the myth.

The Roman Empire, I hope, will continue to be relevant in our modern society. Much of our own culture has ties to Roman culture, including one of the most important things in our daily lives: the calendar. But as I have often said, sometimes history is a great indicator of where we are going and how we can be different. History gives us a wonderful glimpse into the past that includes both fortunes and failures. Understanding both of these in tandem should help us avoid the failures and capitalize on the successes.

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