I really wanted to love this book because I am a huge Mary Beard fan and I love her enthusiastic, passionate and fascinating documentaries about the Romans. As a novice to this topic, I was really craving a book that would educate me and also sustain my interest.
About a decade ago, I waded through another tome of classical history by Robin Lane Fox ‘The Classical World’. However, I couldn’t get through it because I found the style of writing too boring.
I made my way through the first 200 pages of SPQR’s 600 or so pages. Throughout each chapter, Beard focuses heavily on the limitations inherent in historical sources and the myths espoused by the Romans themselves.
There are plenty of insights to be gleaned from this book about the Romans, their lives, how they thought about the world and reconceived their own identity to suit their own ends. And also there are insights into human nature and the world as it currently is today.
I enjoyed that Beard focuses as much as she can on the lost and forever silent parts of Roman society: women, slaves, children and foreigners.
Although I struggled with this book because of the lack of a linear narrative and compelling storytelling about the saga of Roman history. All of the dramatic events and controversial characters who once thundered around on the earth are diluted by Beard’s digressions into the faulty nature of historical sources and what this writer or that writer thought of the Romans, and why they were right or wrong.
I found this distracting and definitely not as interesting as simply reading about the Romans themselves. I understand why this is necessary, because it needs to be underlined and reinforced that history is always being remade and reconceived to serve political and cultural ends. However this oscillating between storytelling and academic reflection was jarring and distracting. Eventually I grew bored of SPQR for this reason.
Don’t let what I say about it put you off though, a lot of people on Good Reads have loved it and found SPQR riveting and enjoyable. Give it a go! Still, I would give it **** because of the immense scholarship of this book and because I am a Beard fan.
6 thoughts on “Book Review: SPQR by Mary Beard”
Although I’m an admirer of Mary Beard I’ve never read any of her books, so it was good to get your take on this one! I think it’s so tricky to get the right balance between engaging storytelling and historiography in these types of books. Sometimes I feel like I want MORE about where the writer is getting their information from (who said that? where did you read that? what sources are missing etc.?) but sounds like in this case there was maybe a bit too much of that! x
I think if you love that part of it you will enjoy this book. dont let me put you off!
For non-academic readers, writers need to keep a decent narrative with historical books like this don’t they. Seems she didn’t quite manage it. I’m interested all the same. I’m still reading a fair amount of stoicism set back then….and am now into homer big time which is kind of in the neighbourhood
Yes you are definitely right. How are you liking Homers epics? some good stories there 🙂
In the words of David Tua, I’ll give them an ‘O for awesome!’
HAHAHA yeah I give this book a solid and massive O for Awesome. Good one haha