Monday, October 23, 2023

Review of SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

This book review was written by Eugene Kernes   

Book can be found in: 
Book Club Event = Book List (07/13/2024)
Intriguing Connections = 1) Get To Know The Peoples Of The World (Roman Empire), 

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“Electioneering at Rome could be a costly business.  By the first century BCE it required the kind of lavish generosity that is not always easy to distinguish from bribery.  The stakes were high.  The men who were successful in the elections had the chance to recoup their outlay, legally or illegally, with some of the perks of office.  The failures – and, like military defeats, there were many more of those in Rome than is usually acknowledged – fell ever more deeply into debt.” – Mary Beard, Chapter One: Cicero’s Finest Hour, Page 28

“Edgy in a different way was the idea of the asylum, and the welcome, that Romulus gave to all comers – foreigners, criminals and runaways – in finding citizens for his new town.  There were positive aspects to this.  In particular, it reflected Roman political culture’s extraordinary openness and willingness to incorporate outsiders, which set it apart from every other ancient Western society that we know.” – Mary Beard, Chapter Two: In The Beginning, Pages 66-67

“For this system of alliances became an effective mechanism for converting Rome’s defeated enemies into part of its growing military machine; and at the same time it gave those allies a stake in the Roman enterprise, thanks to the booty and glory that were shared in the event of victory.  Once the Romans’ military success started, they managed to make it self-sustaining, in a way that no other ancient city had ever systematically done.” – Mary Beard, Chapter, Page 164


Is This An Overview?

SPQR refers to The Senate and People of Rome.  With this book showing the political and social aspects of Rome.  How the politicians and people influenced Rome, and lived their lives.  Roman culture was very inclusive.  Willing to incorporate outsiders.  Anyone could become a citizen of Rome.  Even the senate became multicultural.  Rome developed the values of the Republic over time, and became less tolerant of those with too much power.  Although only those with financial means could become politicians, they could not get into power without the people.  It was the people who elected politicians, and made laws. 

Even in their mythological history, Rome has a political culture of civil conflict.  Transferring power over violence and death.  As Rome expanded, Rome relied more on individual’s power.  Producing rivalries that threatened the Republic.  Gradually turning violence more against Rome than a foreign power.  Eroding peaceful politics.  The political and social unrest incentivized powerful individuals to move the public political process, into their private decision making.  Ending the Republican government, values of liberty, which facilitated the rise of the emperors.  Emperors did provide a stable structure, but they also changed how politics and society affected each other. 

SPQR stands for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, which means The Senate and People of Rome. 


How Much Of Roman History Is Known?

Much of Roman history is shrouded in mystery and uncertainty.  Mythology bridges the gap between the unknown and what Romans perceived to be the past.  A past composed of their own interpretations.  History becomes a reflection of how the Roman people perceived themselves, and explained their contemporary behavior.  Sources that do exist are limited, for they provide their own biases and interpretations. 

Detailed information begins to be documented during the 1st century BCE.  During this era, the Romans started to systematically study their history and culture.  Much of what is known about the past, even before the 1st century, comes from the Romans during the 1st century. 

The author challenges many of the claims being made, and shows the variety of explanations.  Showing the different sides to a narrative.


How Did Rome Expand?

There is uncertainty about the motivations of Roman expansion and conquest.  Later Romans consider it their obligation to expand, but those were not the original claims.  Rome was claimed to have expanded unintentionally.  Romans insisted that the expansion came from a series of just wars.  Wars that the gods supported, were in self-defense or defense of an ally, or for those who asked for Rome’s help.  That the wars were not due to aggression.

Rome has faced various dangers and defeats.  Opponents foreign and domestic.  Rome has generally been involved in conflict.  Rarely was there a time of peace.  Enormous resources were used for war, and paid for with a lot of human life for even victorious conflicts.  Wars were not paid just by public funds, but by private funds.  Rather than accept defeat, they used citizens and allied powers to continue fighting wars.  The more powerful Rome became, or perceived to be, the more various warring states sought Rome as an ally and for influence.

War had made Rome the richest region of the known world by mid-2nd century BCE.  Captives became slave labor which could then be exploited to fuel economic growth.

The people conquered by the Romans were not necessarily innocent people living in peaceable harmony.  Although the viciousness of Roman conquest was recognized even by the contemporaries. 

Those who came under Roman control, were required to provide troops for the Roman army.  There were no occupying forces, or a Roman-imposed government.  This tactic was used, in part, because it was the least labor intensive.  This system of alliances enabled defeated enemies to be part of the Roman military machine, while also giving them a share of the Roman enterprise as the booty and glory was shared in a victory.


Who Could Become A Roman Citizen?

Rome was a welcoming place even from their mythological origins.  Rome was an asylum and welcome to all, no matter if they were foreigners, criminals, or runaways.  Rome was willingness to incorporate outsiders.  All could become citizens.  People of the conquered territories were gradually given Roman citizenship with all the rights and protections associated.  Roman senate also gradually became a multicultural body. 

Slaves were not given a life sentence, and could even be given their freedom or they themselves could buy their freedom.  At which point they became Roman citizens, without any disadvantage of their previous status.

Roman power made Roman culture aspirational to others.  This enabled inclusion of Roman values to other people, and fostered stable Roman rule. 


What Defined The Roman Politician During The Republic Era?

Senate could decree, but did not have the force of law.  They advised the consuls.  The influence of the people is not fully known, but only the people could elect political officials, and the people made law. 

It was expensive to become a dominant politician, to obtain the consulship.  Requiring generosity that is not readily distinguished from bribery.  The successful politician could recoup their costs with legal or illegal perks of office.  The failures fell further into debt. 

The rich could have united to determine results without the poor, but the rich were rarely united, and the elections were competitive.  Political culture required the popular voice.  The wealthy sought office which depended on popular election, on obtaining votes from people who did not have the financial means to stand for themselves.

Political ancestry carried weight.  Reputation and fame depended on word of mouth and publicity.  Many used artists to write tributes, such as poems. 

For the Roman Republic, king was a loathing term, even thought many defining institutions were borne during the regal period.

As Rome became more republican, the privileges of the elite, the patricians were eroded.  Strikes and mass violence gradually equalized their status, and the major offices were opened up to the lower class, the plebeians. 


What Turned The Republic Into An Empire?

A major dilemma for Roman political culture was balancing individual achievement with how the elites shared power.  As Rome expanded, Rome relied on individuals whose power and rivalries threatened the Republic’s political values.  Over time, conflict turned against other Romans rather than foreign enemies.  It was a gradual destruction of peaceful politics.  To gain political power, violence replaced the ballot box.   

Pompey was a major figure who can claim to be the first emperor, given the independent power that Pompey wielded.  Along with honors and status given to Pompey. 

Against increasing political and social disorder, three politicians made an informal deal.  Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Licinius Crassus.  They took public policy and turned them into private decisions.  They chose the consulship, military commands, and other key decisions.  It is claimed that the Republican government fell not when Caesar and Pompey became enemies, but when they became allies.  A political process that was determined behind the public was seen as worse than the open violence of before.  When the civil war began with Pompey and Caesar on opposing sides, the choice was not between a freedom fighter and autocrat.  As both were autocratic.  No matter which side won, meant slavery for Rome. 

Caesar pardoned rather than punished enemies, which was against Republican tradition.  This provoked opposition rather than gratitude.  The ability to show mercy was a monarchical one.  Only those with power can exercise mercy.  For Rome, this was against liberty.  Removing the tyrant Caesar did not dispose of tyranny.


What Happened When Rome Became An Empire?

Majority of Romans preferred Caesar’s reforms which supported the poor, over the ideas of liberty which were seen as an excuse for elite self-interest to continue exploiting the underclass.

Under Augustus regime, Augustus influence reduced the value of the popular democratic process.  Augustus does not appear to have abolished anything.  The governing class remained the same, and the senate was enhanced.  Augustus appeared to be very generous, which shifted people’s relationship with power.  People began to see the emperor as their patron, a protector and benefactor. 

Augustus ensured that no private army could be raised.  Augustus monopolized the military force, but the regime was not a military dictatorship.  Augustus army pension reform severed the dependence and personal loyalty between army and individual commanders.  Army employment terms and conditions were standardized, with the public paying the expense.  This created its own problems, for the armies were expensive to maintain. 

Free elections meant that politicians were dependent on the people.  But with an emperor, politicians needed to gain approval of the emperor rather than the people.  Politicians no longer needed to attract the support of the people.  Decisional hierarchy was made clear with an emperor.  The emperor needed to approve matters even in the provinces.  Even minute details needed the emperor’s attention.

Emperors provided a stable structure.  A stable set of problems and tensions.  Focused less on conquest and expansion, and more on management and taxes. 



The focus of the book is on the uncertainty about Roman history, not what is known.  The reader can get lost in what is and is not known about the Roman people.  The different views and interpretations of the events provide for an understanding of how the Roman people defined themselves, but lack the specific reasons for events.

This book covers a long period of time.  Sometimes covering a few events, their uncertainty, and different interpretations.  Sometimes covering a lot of events with brief descriptions.  

Questions to Consider while Reading the Book

•What is the raison d’etre of the book?  For what purpose did the author write the book?  Why do people read this book?
•What are some limitations of the book?
•To whom would you suggest this book?
•What does SPQR stand for?
•What were characteristics of Roman culture?
•What were the values under the Republic era?
•Who could become a politician? 
•How did Rome expand?
•How did Rome’s expansion effect the political process? 
•How much of Roman history is known?  What are the sources for Roman history? 
•How was the Roman army used? 
•For what reasons did Roman’s fight wars? 
•How were the conquered people treated?
•Who could become a Roman citizen? 
•Who was Pompey?
•Why did Pompey, Julius Caesar, and Marcus Licinius Crassus create a partnership?
•When did the Republic government fall?
•How did Augustus change Rome?
•How have the Romans influenced contemporary society? 
•What is the relationship between Greece and Rome? 
•Why was there a conflict between Cicero and Catiline? 
•How did Cicero rule as consul? 
•What were the Roman punishment options? 
•How did information about Rome survive time? 
•What is the story of Romulus and Remus? 
•What does the name Romulus mean?  
•When was Rome founded? 
•What is the regal period of Rome? 
•How did Rome count the years?
•When did Rome become a Republic? 
•What happened to Carthage? 
•What did Lucius Cornelius Sulla do? 
•Why did Caesar cross the Rubicon? 
•What were the reforms of Gaius Gracchus? 
•What was the Social War? 
•What did the supporters of Spartacus want?  
•What was the role of women?
•What were the features of a Roman marriage? 
•How did Augustus explain the war against Antony and Cleopatra? 
•Who became heir after Augustus? 
•What were the characteristics of the emperors after Augustus? 
•What did Romans think of adoption?
•What was the succession plan for emperors? 
•What was the social status of people living in storied buildings? 
•What was work to the average Roman person? 
•Did the Romans have a childhood?
•What was the point of a Roman bar? 
•What was the point of Hadrian’s Wall? 
•Who was Boudicca (or Buduica)? 
•How did Rome influence Christianity and vice versa? 
•What was the effect of social programs? 

Book Details
Publisher:               Liveright Publishing Corporation [W. W. Norton & Company]
Edition ISBN:         9781631492228
Pages to read:          522
Publication:             2016
1st Edition:              2015
Format:                    Paperback 

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    5
Content          5
Overall          5