Monday, January 25, 2016

Book Review: SPQR

After some dailliances with "mere fiction" recently, I seem to be solidly back on a History kick at the moment. This is partly due to some of the books I got for Xmas, which included some cheery looking tomes on the Ardennes Offensive of 1944 and the Stalinist Purges  of 1937, happy reminders of what a great time the 20th Century was. But that is something to look forward to, as whats really kicked off this run is Mary Beards' excellent SPQR, which covers the Roman Empire from what I found to be a novel and interesting perspective. 

Beard's book is a lose history of the Roman Republic and Empire from it's semi-mythical founding to the 3rd century and the official ruling at all people living in the Empire would be full and equal citizens. The books charts the shifting and changing definition of what it meant to be Roman over the period, analysing it in particular through the lens of what the Romans thought of themselves, and those that they lived alongside. In some ways it's a story of Romans created history, as much as Roman Reality, which is an interesting theme that sits alongside the citizenship story. 

History is, in a lot of ways, the stories we tell outselves to make sense of our past. Things happened to get us where we are now, but History is complicated and messy and fragmented. Beard makes the observation that whilst Roman history lacks any sense of the lives of normal people - women, slaves, traders, soldiers - it's a small miracle that so much has survived at all to tell us the lives of the movers and shakers. She's keen to take these accounts under advisement too; first hand accounts can be marvellously subjective, and later histories pursuing an agenda more relevant to their contemporary time. It's fascinating to read a history that is, in part, an analysis of the histories about Roman, by Romans. 

Along the way she also brings in many of the tools that modern historians have overlaid onto earlier works, such as environmental and economic analysis. She uses this to try and read-in the day-to-day lives of people in the periods she focuses in on (the late Republic being an obvious choice) and she is a smart enough writer to do this whilst staying aware enough to avoid any big leaps into the unknown. The central plank of the book - that the expansion of Citizenship was core the expanding Empire's success - is well laid out and pretty convincing. 

I'm not sure that SPQR is a good beginners book on the Roman Empire though. It's freindly, and clearly written, but by it's nature expects you to keep up through the faster bits and have at least a passing knowledge of the characters in the slower bits. I really enjoyed it, however, and would recommend it anyone with an interesting Roman History.