SPQR By Mary Beard. This review is by John Cook



‘Winifred Mary Beard OBE FSA FBA is an English Classical scholar. She is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of ancient literature.’

I confess to excitement when I heard that this publication was due. I am a fan a Mary Beard especially after seeing/ hearing her TV productions ‘Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town’ and ‘Meet the Romans’. There are a number of TV presenters today who work in fields of Ancient History (some quite hunky) and most stick close to ‘facts’ with occasional excursions into aspects of daily life. Mary has to be the best and most erudite of the bunch. She can best be described as having an interesting and distinguished appearance and a friendly, welcoming manner. What she does is to combine a deep love knowledge and understanding of her subject with a keen eye for an unromantic analysis of evidence and an excavator’s knowledge and understanding of physical resources. She is very, very readable.

Like many of my age and background, I was raised with stories of Romans in my Primary school readers and ‘Latin roots’ (minds out of the gutter, please) in English. I did my four years of High School Latin (poorly) but always enjoyed a teacher who tried to excite us with stories of Roman life to supplement the fairly bald offerings of Sir Flinders Petrie. Popular in those years were the books of Robert Graves – especially ‘I Claudius’ later made into the excellent TV series (Brian Blessed, Derek Jacobi and Siân Phillips). I did the broad range of Ancient Histories at Uni and have continued to read ever since whenever good offerings were available.

Mary Beard’s credentials are clearly optimal yet never Olympian-remote. Her knack of ‘knocking into shape’ items of history that need perspective is exceptional. Her dismissal of the Battle of Actium is typical while at the same time telling the tale of the bird trainer who when consulted on the outcome of that event had two birds with different outcomes at the ready. This is not simply an entertaining story but an insight into Roman mentality and even social and cultural organization. As she said it was “a rather low-key, slightly tawdry affair … Perhaps more decisive military engagements are low-key and tawdry than we tend to imagine.”

One further example of her work are the illustrations of lead missiles used during the siege of Perugia which involved Fulvia (Mark Antony’s benighted wife). These had messages scratched into them and were hurled over the walls, with one reading “I’m going for Fulvia’s clitoris.”

This book covers the period from the partly mythical foundation of Rome to Caracalla with careful emphasis on examining the development of the Republic and its transition through Caesar and Augustus. The remainder is more lightly covered with greater emphasis on mining the wide spread of physical remnants of that period which cast an understanding light on the ‘Senatus Populusque.

Beard devotes some time to explaining the nature of developing Roman religiosity and its place in everyday life particularly as emerging Christianity generated sheer puzzlement but does not delve deeply into the reasons for its very gradual success though she does debunk those Christians who make their required sacrifices but felt able to maintain their beliefs.

I would heartily recommend this book for both neophyte and well-seasoned reader of Roman history and have included Mary as someone with whom I would love to share a dinner table – like any good Roman.


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