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Mary Beard's SPQR

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
This book by Mary Beard is a very ambitious work in that its content covers the entire span of Roman history from the founding of Rome, the founding of the Roman Republic, the advent of the Imperial Empire, to the “end-game”. The Roman Senate, during the Republic, often was symbolized by the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and the symbolic letters SPQR (Senatus Populus QueRomanus). Over the course of centuries, the interpretations of the authors moved in the direction of attempting to describe the ways in which the power of the Roman Senate expanded until it became the most powerful of all Roman institutions. The power of the Senate was the driving force behind the establishment of the Roman Empire. In addition, the Senate shaped those governmental policies that evolved into a unique form of Roman imperialism. The uniqueness of Roman imperialism was established through those innovations related to an ever-expanding control of an ever-growing territorial domain. The willingness of the Senate to incorporate other peoples (Latins and Italians) into an unusually flexible and expanding political system was crucial to the building of the Roman Empire. In addition, the granting of some form of Roman citizenship was akin to discovering the key element in Roman expansion and securing a civil stability in the form of a Pax Romana.
Beard also explains, that after centuries, the effective expansion and the potency of the Republican system began to collapse from within. The collapse of the Republic was a result of a cultural incorporation (assimilation and diffusion), the flow into Rome in the form of excess amounts of wealth, and the reshaping of traditional Roman culture by foreign cultural influences. These trends gave rise to competition between “the great men” (commanders of multiple legions) who virtually nullified the power of the Senate. The Senate continued to exist, but in a greatly weakened form, as its influence was muted and under the rule of Octavian (Augustus), when the Roman government was transformed into a dictatorship. During the Roman Empire and under the absolute control of the Caesars a phony form of a republic government limped on, but the heirs of Augustus’ political and military power were men of generally lessor quality.

In part, the thrust of Beard’s work is to demonstrate the ever-shifting interpretation of Roman history and the efforts to seek reality in a sea of myths, legends, misinterpretations, and fabrications. In the writing of her narrative, Beard has departed from the usual chronological listing of events and outcomes, and instead, she has attempted to produce an historical narrative in the form of a dramatic story in which history provides the backdrop for a fascinating tale that might reflect something of a Shakespearean-type of narrative. For an opener (the first chapter), Beard describes the dramatic tale of Cicero and his noble challenges to one of the greatest evils of his day, and her style continues to follow the same narrative formula throughout the remainder of the book.

The structure of the book is both traditional and innovative, as was described above. Besides the dramatic telling of some very descriptive events, the author follows the basic structure of Roman history. But at the same time, Dr. Beard does not glorify Roman history, but treats it realistically, leaving it up to the reader to come to his or her own conclusions regarding the virtues and the foibles of the Roman people and their leaders. As a result, one comes away from a reading of this book with a good understanding of the great pillars of Roman republican and imperial history. In addition, one comes to realize that, like all cultures, the Romans could be cruel beyond belief, and yet their genius was their skill at organization, which made them exceptionally gifted in many ways. Roman leadership, especially under the Republic, was in the hands of a very capable aristocratic and religious aristocracy. The genius of the Senate was reflected in military organization, infrastructure engineering advancements, and the evolution of western legal institutions, but also in redefining the tenants of ancient citizenship.
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