SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015) 2

As I explained in my review of the introduction to SPQR, Beard is a little too academic to be truly popular, yet not scholarly or intellectual enough to be truly challenging.

By ‘not scholarly’ I mean that although she certainly mentions the scholarly debates around key issues from the historiography of ancient Rome, she rarely goes into enough detail to make us really understand what’s at stake (unlike Richard Miles in his history of Carthage who can’t come across a scholarly debate without explaining it at length, accompanied by copious, and often very interesting, footnotes and extensive references).

By ‘not very  intellectual’ I mean her book contains discussions and debates about themes and issues from the period, but nothing truly thought provoking, nothing you wouldn’t expect to find in a book about ancient history (the early years are shrouded in legend, it was a very sexist culture, Roman society was very militaristic) – no surprises, no new slants or opinions, and certainly no overarching conceptual framework for her analysis. Instead, there are lots of interesting bits and bobs about archaeological finds or social history, gossip about well known figures, speculation about the early history, fairly predictable things about Caesar, the civil wars, the rise of Augustus. Ho hum.

What you very much do get a lot of is rhetorical questions. Beard is addicted to asking rhetorical questions, not one rhetorical question, but little clumps of two or three rhetorical questions which all come together like buses on a rainy day. But asking rhetorical questions doesn’t make her an intellectual, it makes her a standard teacher using a standard teaching technique.

How far is it useful to see Roman history in terms of imperial biographies or to divide the story of empire into emperor-sized (or dynasty-sized) chunks? How accurate are the standard images of these rulers that have come down to us? What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make? (p.399)

Asking lots of high-sounding questions gives people the impression you’re brainy without you actually having to do any real thinking.


More important, for me anyway, is the way Beard mentions famous events only to skate over them. Although SPQR is a long book, it is frustratingly superficial. Early on in the narrative I found her account of both the Catiline Conspiracy (63 BC) and the legend of Romulus and Remus (750s BC?) patchy and disconnected. She’s interested in this or that bit of the story, tells a bit in order to illustrate problems with the established narrative or as a pretext to bring in recent archaeological findings – but she rarely gives you a good, simple, clear description of the complete event. I had to look up both the Catiline conspiracy and the story of Romulus and Remus on Wikipedia in order to get a proper, coherent account of both, and in order to fully understand the issues which Beard only patchily explains.

Later on she refers to Pyrrhus, the Greek general who invaded southern Italy, giving rise to what became called the Pyrrhic War (280 to 275 BC). Pyrrhus won several victories but at such a cost in lives and material that they gave rise to the expression ‘Pyrrhic victory’. But Beard says very little about who Pyrrhus was, why he attacked, about the progress of his military campaigns or describe any of the costly victories which gave rise to the saying. To learn more about Pyrrhus and his wars I had, again, to look him up on Wikipedia. Ditto Spartacus, ditto the Jugurtha, ditto the Roman constitution, ditto Scipio Africanus, and so on.

Beard’s account of Hannibal’s invasion of Italy which lasted 15 years and was the core of the Second Punic War (218 to 201 BC) is insultingly brief at barely 2 pages (pages 175 to 176). It almost made me want to throw this book away and reread Richard Miles’s fascinating, long, rich, detailed and subtle account of the same subject.

From the 300s through to the defeat of Carthage in 146 BC Rome was almost continuously at war. Beard mentions some of these wars, and occasionally specific names, such as Mithradates king of Pontus, float to the surface for half a page or so, but many are given the briefest mention, many aren’t mentioned at all, and for none of them, none whatsoever, do you get a proper account of the military campaign. There are no descriptions of battles anywhere in the book.

If you are looking for a military history of Rome, the most militaristic state in the ancient world which built its empire on phenomenal military success, this is not it. If you’re looking for a diplomatic history of Rome i.e. a description and analysis of the strategic thinking, alliances and manoeuvres behind the wars, how the geopolitical thinking of Rome’s rulers changed and evolved over time, this is definitely not it. Occasional reference is made to the Roman gods, but not much to their attributes or worship. If you’re looking for a book about Roman religion, this isn’t it. There are lots of passages describing recent archaeological discoveries and the light they shed on this or that aspect of early Rome – for example archaeologists’ discovery under the ancient Lapis Niger section of the Forum of a stone block on which a very ancient form of Latin seems to refer to a rex or king. The block is dated to about 570 BC and so would appear to be exciting confirmation that Rome did indeed have kings at exactly the period when tradition says Romulus founded a series of ancient kings. Interesting. But this, like other similar passages, pop up almost at random. If you’re looking for a thorough archaeological history of Rome, this is not it either.

Instead SPQR proceeds by examining issues and problems in Roman historiography, introduced by flurries of rhetorical questions (which all-too-often go unanswered). Overall the text proceeds in broadly chronological order, but Beard jumps around a bit, coming back to the same subjects 20 or 30 pages after you thought we were done with them. She is also very given to repetition – some favourite scenes recur three or four times (Claudius telling the Senate that Gaulish leaders should be allowed to become consuls or the fact that Trajan was from Spain and Septimius Severus from Africa, the notion that Spartacus’s rebellion must have included more than just gladiators to have lasted so long – each of these idées fixes is mentioned four or five times, as are many others).

The result is an often confusing mix of sudden bursts of straight history interspersed with nuggets of recent archaeology, occasional profiles of specific people (for some reason the Gracchi brothers Tiberius and Gaius get extensive treatment, pages 221 to 233) all embedded in a kind of academic tide which keeps rising to a surf of academic questions before setting off onto new issues and investigations. Rather than a chronological account, it’s more like a series of articles or mini essays, arranged in a roughly chronological order.

Social history, sort of

There’s a lot of soft social history, specifically in chapter eight ‘The Home Front’ (pages 297 to 336) about Roman attitudes and customs, traditional ideas and beliefs – though done in a very limp way. I’ve just read a sentence where she adds a parenthesis explaining that the poor in ancient Rome didn’t have as much money as the rich. Maybe this book is targeted at people who need to have it explained to them that the poor, on the whole, by and large, don’t have as much money as the rich.

The specific context is she’s explaining that women in ancient Rome, though subject to umpteen restrictions which we (pretty obviously) would find intolerable, in fact had more independence than women in ancient Greece or the Near East.

The contrast is particularly striking with classical Athens, where women from wealthy families were supposed to live secluded lives, out of the public eye, largely segregated from men and male social life (the poor, needless to say, did not have the cash or space to enforce any such divisions). (p.307)

I suppose this is a useful point to make, but maybe it could have been made in a subtler way, not the rather crude formulation that the poor didn’t have as much cash as the rich. It feels like she’s bolted on the parenthesis not because it says anything useful for the reader, but because Dame Mary wants us to know that she’s really desperately concerned about the poor. Again and again you read things which ought to be interesting but which, through her banal turn of phrase or clunky thinking, are turned to lead.

Feminism, sort of

We know that Beard is a feminist because she tells everyone she meets, mentions it in all her TV shows and media appearances, and in tweets and lectures, and has written a book about Women and Power.  She flourishes her feminist credentials early on with little sequence of huffy points about sexism in ancient Rome:

  • In the middle of the first century BCE, the senate was a body of some 600 members; they were all men who had previously been elected to political office (and I mean all menno woman ever held political office in ancient Rome). (p.32)
  • Catiline’s defeat was nonetheless a notable victory for Cicero; and his supporters dubbed him pater patriae, or ‘father of the fatherland’, one of the most splendid and satisfying titles you could have in a highly patriarchal society, such as Rome. (p.35)
  • The ‘people’ was a much larger and more amorphous body than the senate, made up, in political terms, of all male citizens; the women had no formal political rights. (p.36)
  • The writers of Roman literature were almost exclusively male; or, at least, very few works by women have come down to us…(p.37)

I mock them as ‘huffy not as a sexist jibe but a jokey description of the way they’re such obvious and superficial points to make. Because she doesn’t go any deeper into any of these ideas, these throwaway remarks just come over as cheap shots. Like the reference in brackets to the poor, they don’t seem designed to tell the reader anything useful about ancient Rome so much as to let the reader know that Dame Mary is a feminist, goddamit, and proud of it and nobody is going to shut her up and Down with the patriarchy and Sisters are doing it for themselves. As profound as a t-shirt slogan.

Having got this off her chest in the opening section, Beard’s feminism largely goes to sleep for the rest of the book. She reverts to telling us the long history of legendary, proto-historical, historical, republican and imperial Rome entirely from a male point of view.

Some feminist historians I’ve read reinterpret history entirely from a female point of view, subjecting the patriarchal structures of power to the intrinsic sexism of the syntax of the language to bracing, deeply thought-through, radical reinterpretations of history which make you stop and reconsider everything you know. There is absolutely none of that in Beard’s account. Beard’s much vaunted feminism feels like a few cherries blu tacked onto a narrative which could have been written by a man about men. Her ‘feminist’ account of women in ancient Rome is a big disappointment. Apart from the occasional moan that everything was run by men, SPQR could have been written fifty years ago.

Early on she points out the (fairly obvious) fact that two of the founding legends of ancient Rome involve rape, being the abduction of the Sabine women and the rape of Lucretia. Some other, less famous turning points in Roman history, wee also marked by accusations of sex crimes. Now there’s obviously something going on here, and I’m sure a half decent feminist theorist could take us deep into the psychological and cultural and political sub-texts and interpretations this is open to. But Beard doesn’t. It’s frustrating.

The only sustained consideration of women in ancient Rome comes when she pauses her (superficial) historical narrative for a chapter about everyday life in Rome at the time of Julius Caesar (Chapter Eight: The Home Front), which kicks off with fifteen or so pages about women (pages 303 to 318). But she manages to make even this sound dull and utterly predictable: Girls were often married off young, girls were forced to make marriages advantageous to their families (p.309). Once married:

The proper role of the woman was to be devoted to her husband, to produce the next generation, to be an adornment, to be a household manager and to contribute to the domestic economy by spinning and weaving. (p.304).

More or less the same as in ancient Persia or India or China or medieval anywhere, then. The only real surprise is the point mentioned above, that women in ancient Rome enjoyed relatively more freedom than in ancient Athens. They could, for example, freely attend mixed dinner parties, which would have been scandalous in Athens (p.307).

In fact the most interesting point in the passage about women in ancient Rome was the casualness of Roman marriage. There could be a big expensive ceremony if you were rich but there didn’t need to be and there was no sense of the Christian sacrament which the last 2,000 years have drummed into us. Instead, if a couple said they were married, they were, and if they said they were divorced, they were (p.303)

That’s interesting but you can see how it’s what you could call a ‘trivial pursuit fact’, quite interesting, but devoid of any theoretical (feminist) underpinning or detail. She gives no history of the evolution or development of Roman marriage. I bet there are entire scholarly books devoted to the subject which make fascinating reading but here there are just a few sentences, an ‘oh that’s interesting’ fact, and then onto the next thing. A bit later, writing about the high infant mortality in ancient Rome, she writes:

Simply to maintain the existing population, each woman on average would have needed to bear five or six children. In practice, that rises to something closer to nine when other factors, such as sterility and widowhood, are taken into account. It was hardly a recipe for widespread women’s liberation. (p.317)

I see what she’s getting at, but it just seems a really crass and wholly inadequate conclusion to the train of facts she’s been listing.

A lot of the text consists of pulling out facts like this at the expense of a continuous narrative – chapter eight includes a couple of pages describing how a wealthy man’s Roman house was more a vehicle for public display and business meetings than what we’d call a home:

On the atrium wall, a painted family tree was one standard feature, and the spoils a man had taken in battle, the ultimate mark of Roman achievement, might also be pinned up for admiration. (p.324)

This is kind of interesting in the way the rest of the book is, ho hum, kind of interesting, no big revelations. A bit of this, a bit of that, padded out with feminist tutting and hundreds of rhetorical questions.

[Plutarch’s Parallel Lives] were a concerted attempt to evaluate the great men (and they were all men) of Greece and Rome against each other…(p.501)

(There ought to be a term in rhetoric for the tag which so many feminist writers and columnists add to everything they wrote – ‘(and they were all men)’ – as if adding it to any sentence about almost any period of history anywhere in the world up till about 50 years ago, really comes as much surprise to anyone or changes anything. The ‘all men’ tag, maybe. To dress it smartly in Latin, the omnes homines tag.)

Is SPQR too full of rhetorical questions?

One irritating aspect of her approach is Beard’s fondness for writing little clumps of rhetorical questions of exactly the type which work well in a TV documentary or maybe a lecture hall but feel like padding in a written text:

How did Cicero and his contemporaries reconstruct the early years of the city? Why were their origins important to them? What does it mean to ask ‘where does Rome begin’? How much can we, or could they, really know of earliest Rome? (p.52)

But if there is no surviving literature from the founding period and we cannot rely on the legends, how can we access any information about the origins of Rome? Is there any way of throwing light on the early years of the little town by the Tiber that grew into a world empire? (p.79)

Is it possible to link our investigations into the earliest history of Rome with the stories that the Romans themselves told, or with their elaborate speculations on the city’s origins? Can we perhaps find a little more history in the myth? (p.86)

Did someone called Ancus Marcus once exist but not do any of the things attributed to him? Were those things the work of some person or persons other than Ancus but of unknown name? (p.95)

Whose liberty was at stake? How was it most effectively defended? How could conflicting versions of the liberty of the Roman citizen be reconciled? (p.129)

What kind of model of fatherhood was this? Who was most at fault? Did high principles need to come at such a terrible cost? (p.150)

Why and how did the Romans come to dominate so much of the Mediterranean in such a short time? What was distinctive about the Roman political system? (p.173)

How influential was the popular voice in Roman Republican politics? Who controlled Rome? How should we characterise this Roman political system? (p.189)

If this was the kind of thing that came from Rome’s ancestral home, what did that imply about what it meant to be Roman? (p.207)

Clumps of rhetorical questions like these crop up throughout the text, to be precise on pages 52, 62, 65, 70, 77, 79, 80, 86, 95, 99, 110, 115, 129, 131, 137, 146, 150, 151, 153, 166, 173, 180, 182, 188, 189, 205, 207, 212, 225, 226, 234, 241, 244, 251, 255, 256, 266, 277, 281, 291, 293, 299, 301, 312, 326, 330, 331, 332, 333, 336, 341, 346, 352, 354, 358, 377, 384, 389, 395, 399, 412, 414, 415, 426, 440, 480, 510, 517 and 520.

I suppose this is a standard teaching technique. I imagine a Cambridge Professor of Classics, whether in a classroom or lecture hall, often proceeds by putting rhetorical questions to her students and then setting out to answer them. Maybe it’s a common device in other factual books. But not quite to this extent, not so many clumps of so many questions. It begins to feel as if history exists mainly to provide professors of history with the opportunity of asking lots of rhetorical questions. After a while it gets pretty irritating, especially when the questions often aren’t even answered but left hanging in your mind…

What kind of act had he been playing all those years?… Where was the real Augustus? And who wrote these lines? These questions remain. (p.384)

Banal ‘ideas’

When she proudly presents us with so-called ‘ideas’ they are often disappointingly obvious and banal. I’ve mentioned above the point she makes that the poor don’t have as much money as the rich. Elsewhere she remarks that:

Civil war had its seedy side too. (p.300)


Hypocrisy is a common weapon of power. (p.358)

Well, yes, I kind of suspected as much. Here’s another Beardesque remark:

There is often a fuzzy boundary between myth and history (p.71)

It’s not untrue, it’s just limp. Quite a massive amount more could be made of this point by someone with brains and insight but not in this book. As it happens the same phrase recurs 400 pages later:

There was always a fuzzy zone where Roman control faded gradually into non-Roman territory (p.484)

And this echo made me realise that this, like other similar statements throughout the book, are not  really ‘ideas’ at all. They’re not the conclusions of a train of thought, they’re the axioms she starts out with – and my God, aren’t they boring?

  • Cultural identity is always a slippery notion…(p.205)
  • Elites everywhere tend to worry about places where the lower classes congregate… (p.456)

They’re not quite truisms but they are pretty obvious. I wish I’d noticed them earlier and made a collection because the ones I read in the final stretch of the book have the amusing tone of a schoolmistress lecturing rather dim children. It was like being back at infants school. For example, she tells us how early legends of Romulus claim he didn’t die but was covered by a cloud and disappeared:

crossing the boundary between human and divine in a way that Rome’s polytheistic religious system sometimes allowed (even if it seems faintly silly to us) (p.73)

I enjoyed that sensibly dismissive tone of voice – ‘seems faintly silly to us’. I imagine sentences like this being read in the voice of Joyce Grenfell, a no-nonsense, jolly hockeysticks, 1950s schoolteacher telling us how frightfully silly these old Romans could be! At other moments you can hear her telling the children to pay attention because she’s about to make a jolly important point which she wants us all to write down and remember:

It is a fallacy to imagine that only the poor write on walls. (p.470)

Yes, Miss.

Contrived comparisons

Beard has made ten or so TV documentaries and written the accompanying coffee table books and I can well imagine how she was encouraged at every step to insert ‘contemporary comparisons’ for events or aspects of life in ancient Rome in order to make them more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ to the average viewer. Maybe this kind of thing does work for some people, but there are at least three risks with this approach:

1. Contemporary comparisons date

What are initially ‘contemporary’ comparisons quickly go out of date. Time moves on at a relentless pace (it’s odd having to point this out to a professor of a historical subject) so what were once surprising and illuminating comparisons between events in the ancient world and bang up-to-date contemporary events quickly lose their relevance. In my last review I mentioned her reference to the 1990s TV show Gladiators or the 2000 movie Gladiator which, far from shedding light on her subject, now themselves require a footnote to explain to younger readers what she’s on about. I think something similar applies to many of her other ‘cool’ and edgy comparisons (she uses the word ‘edgy’ at one point).

(Incidentally, if you wanted to learn anything about gladiators in ancient Rome, forget it, once again this isn’t the book for you. Spartacus is mentioned a couple of times in passing (pages 217 to 218 and 248 to 250) but always folded into a bigger, vaguer academic discussion of the class wars which racked Italy. Beard isn’t at all interested in gladiators’ lives or training or the battles fought during the uprising. Instead she uses it to explain the modern theory that Spartacus didn’t lead gladiators alone but rallied a lot of the rural poor and lower middle class to his cause. Gladiators fighting beasts to the death in the colosseum are mentioned half a dozen times but always in passing, in the context or urban planning or urban pastimes etc.)

Beard opens the narrative with a description of the Catiline conspiracy to overthrow the Roman state in the 60s BC. She tries to make this more relevant or accessible by mentioning ‘homeland security’ and ‘terrorism’ a lot.

Over the centuries the rights and wrongs of the conspiracy, the respective faults and virtues of Catiline and Cicero, and the conflicts between homeland security and civil liberties have been fiercely debated…(p.49)

But the US Homeland Security Act was passed in 2002 and, although terrorism will be with us forever, the distinctive atmosphere of paranoid fear of Islamic terrorism which was very widespread in the 2000s seems, to me, nowadays, to have virtually disappeared. Far more important for the era we live in now, in 2022, was the financial crash of 2008 which led governments around the Western world to implement a decade of ‘austerity’ policies which bore down hardest on the most vulnerable in society, leading to widespread resentment. It was arguably this resentment which found an outlet in the 2016 Brexit vote in the UK and the election of Donald Trump in the US, decisions which dominated British and American politics for the following 4 years. And then, of course, everything was superseded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Obviously Brexit, Trump and Covid are not mentioned in a book published in 2015. But that means that the book itself, and what were once bang up-to-date ‘modern’ comparisons, are already starting to have a faded, dated quality. Time marches on and comparisons which might have seemed useful in connecting ancient history to contemporary events inevitably age and date, become irrelevant and, eventually, themselves become obscure historical references which need explaining. I smiled when I read the following:

The [Catiline] ‘conspiracy’ will always be a prime example of the classic interpretative dilemma: were there really ‘reds under the bed’ or was the crisis, partly at least, a conservative invention? (p.48)

‘Reds under the bed’? See what I mean by dated? Apparently this phrase originated in the United States as far back as 1924 although it only became common parlance during the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the late 1940s. It’s a phrase Beard might have picked up when she was young in the 1970s, certainly before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but this ‘contemporary’ reference, included in a bid to make the story more ‘accessible’, nowadays itself requires explaining to anyone under the age of 30.

Something similar happens when, later in the book, she tries to make the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius seem more relevant and contemporary by excitedly pointing out that one of his big fans is Bill Clinton (p.399). When I ask my kids who Bill Clinton is they look at me with blank faces; after all, his second term as US president ended in 2001.

Same again when she casually refers to the (often bloody) transition from rule by one emperor to the next one as ‘regime change’ (pages 403 and 414), a phrase which, I believe, was popularised at the time of the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003, almost twenty years ago.

In Beard’s mind these might be useful comparisons which make the text more ‘accessible’, but all they do for the reader in 2022 is reveal how dated and ageing her entire frame of references is, here and throughout the text, in multiple ways.

2. Patronising

Carefully inserting comparisons to ‘contemporary’ events or culture in order to try and make ancient history more understandable, relatable and relevant runs the risk of sounding patronising and Beard sometimes does sound condescending. She frequently addresses the reader as if we’ve never read any history or know anything about the ancient world (or life in general: carefully explaining that poor people don’t have as much money as rich people, or that not everyone who writes graffiti on walls is poor).

I won’t go so far as to call her attitude ‘insulting’ but you can see why the general attitude betrayed in casual comparisons, asides and parentheses put me off. By contrast, Richard Miles in his book about ancient Carthage, Carthage Must Be Destroyed, treats his readers like adults, in fact more than adults because he takes you right into the heart of scholarly debates about the events he’s describing, giving extensive notes and making countless references to scholarly articles on the subject, which all make quite a lot of demands on the average reader.

But I’d rather read something which asks me to strain my faculties, which requires me to master the detail of conflicting scholarly interpretations of historical facts, I’d rather feel that I’m being stretched than, as with Beard, be subject to a succession of rhetorical questions, staged discussions, dated comparisons all larded with rather obvious truisms and banal comments.

3. Strained

In my first review I mentioned special pleading. What I was trying to express is the way Beard never knowingly neglects an opportunity to throw in a reference to modern life or use a modern phrase (homeland security, domestic abuse, people trafficking) to try and link whatever bit of ancient Rome she’s describing to modern headlines and issues. I’ve described how these comparisons can be both dated and patronising, but they can also come over as strained and contrived, missing the point of modern example and confusing our understanding of the ancient event.

So when Cicero turns up at a poll with an armed guard and wearing a military breastplate under his toga, this breach of etiquette was:

rather as if a modern politician were to enter the legislature in a business suit with a machine gun slung over his shoulder’ (p.29).

For some reason the phrase ‘machine gun’ made me think of Tintin in 1930s Chicago and cartoon gangsters. Maybe it’s a useful comparison, but there’s also something cartoonish and childish about it and – my real beef – nifty comparisons like this often mask the way Beard doesn’t explain things properly. Although she spends quite a few pages on it, and compares it to modern concerns about terrorism and ‘homeland security’ and ‘regime change’, Beard never really properly, clearly explains what the Catiline Conspiracy actually was. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to get a full sense of it. Too often she’s more interested in rhetorical questions and cartoon comparisons and then in rushing off to discuss the issues this or that event raises, than in actually, clearly, lucidly explaining the thing she’s meant to be telling us.

In 63 BC the Senate issued a law allowing Cicero to do whatever was necessary to secure the state (which meant rounding up and executing the Catiline conspirators). But in case we didn’t understand what this means, Beard explains that this was:

roughly the ancient equivalent of a modern ’emergency powers’ or ‘prevention of terrorism’ act (p.30)

Maybe this helps some readers but, like so much of what she writes, a detailed understanding of the thing itself, the event in the ancient world, its precedents and meanings, are sacrificed for a flashy modern comparison.

Trivial pursuit facts

Obviously Beard is hugely knowledgeable about her chosen subject, I’m not denying that for a minute. And so the book does contain a wealth of information, if you can bite your tongue and ignore the patronising tone, the banal generalisations and the limp ‘ideas’. Some examples from the first half of the book include:

– The first century BC is the best documented period of human history before Renaissance Florence, in the sense that we have a wealth of documents written by leading players giving us insights into their lives and thoughts (p.22).

– The towering figure is Cicero, not in terms of military achievement (in this warlike society he was not a warrior, he was a lawyer and orator) or political achievement (he took the losing side in the civil war between Caesar and Pompey and met a wretched fate) but because so many of his writings have survived. It is possible to get to know him better than anyone else in the whole of the ancient world (pages 26 and 299). This explains why Cicero crops up throughout the book, since he wrote so copiously and so widely about earlier Roman history, customs, religion and so on. It explains why the chapter about social life and the Roman house depends heavily on Cicero – because we have lots of detail about his buying and selling of properties, loans and rents, even down the details of him buying statues and furniture to decorate them.

Julius Caesar had a healthy appetite because he followed a course of emetics, a popular form of detoxification among rich Romans which involved regular vomiting (p.302).

The traditional colour for brides in ancient Rome was yellow (p.303).

Some random Latin words

The Romans referred to themselves as gens togata meaning ‘the people who wear the toga’ (p.32).

The English word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means whitened and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns (p.32) (compare our use of the English word candid which comes from the same root).

The Latin word for female wolf, lupa, was also a slang term for prostitute. So could it be that the old tale about Romulus and Remus being suckled by a she-wolf actually referred to a female sex worker? (Nice suggestion. Probably not.)

The English word palace derives from the early 13th century French word palais, from the Medieval Latin palacium (source of the Spanish palacio, Italian palazzo) which all stem from the Latin palatium, which derives from from Mons Palatinus, ‘the Palatine Hill’, one of the seven hills of ancient Rome, where Augustus Caesar’s house stood (the original ‘palace’) and was later the site of the splendid residence built by Nero (pages 59 and 418).

Lots of political bodies in countries round the world are called senates, copying the Roman word and idea. The word Senate derives from the Latin senex meaning old man. The original idea, developed in the 3rd century BC, was that everyone who had held a public office (as consul, magistrate, quaestor and so on) at the end of their term went to sit in the Senate where they could use their experience of public life to judge new laws or directives issuing from the Assemblies or consuls.

Crime and punishment

Custodial sentences were not the penalties of choice in the ancient world. Fines, exile and death made up the usual repertoire of Roman punishment (p.35).

Later writers thought the rot set in with the defeat of Carthage 146 BC

In the 40s BC Gaius Sallustius Crispus, known as Sallust, wrote an essay about the Cataline conspiracy in which he claimed the conspiracy was symptomatic of Rome’s moral decline. He claimed the moral fibre of Roman culture had been destroyed by the city’s success and by the wealth, greed and lust for power that followed its successful crushing of all its rivals. Specifically, he mentions the final destruction of its old rival Carthage in 146 BC and the emergence of Rome as the paramount power in the Mediterranean as the moment when the rot started to set in (page 38 and 516).

Slavery (pages 328 to 333)

All slaves are enemies – Roman proverb

In the mid first-century BC there were between 1.5 and 2 million slaves in Italy, about a fifth of the population. There was a huge variety of slaves, of functions and origins. Slaves could be enemy soldiers or populations captured in war, the children of established slaves, or even abandoned babies rescued from the municipal rubbish dump. Some slaves wore rags and were worked to death in silver mines, some wore fine clothes and acted as secretaries to rich Romans like Cicero. In wealthy households the line between an educated, well treated slave and other staff was often paper thin. The Latin word familia referred to the entire household, including both the non-free and free members (p.330).

  • servus – Latin for slave
  • libertus – Latin for freed slave

Beard refers to slavery for half a page on page 68 and then devotes five pages in chapter eight. The facts she relates are interesting enough – it’s interesting to be told about the great variety of types and statuses of slave in ancient Rome, how some were considered members of the family, how easy it was to free them (although the authorities introduced a tax which had to be paid when you did so).

How the Roman policy of freeing slaves (manumission to use the English word derived from the Latin term) who could then go on to acquire full civic rights was unique in the ancient world.

That in Ancient Rome, a slave was freed in a ceremony in which a praetor touched the slave with a rod called a vindicta and pronounced him or her to be free. The slave’s head was shaved and a special kind of hat, the pileus or liberty cap, was placed on it. Both the vindicta and the cap were considered symbols of Libertas, the goddess representing liberty.

It’s interesting to think that the sheer rate at which Romans freed slaves who originally came from faraway places as defeated soldiers or captives, over the long term contributed to Rome becoming one of the most ethnically diverse places in the ancient world (p.330)

That the Greek island of Delos was one of the great commercial hubs of its day which was inextricably linked with it also being a centre of the Mediterranean slave trade.

But five and a half pages are hardly enough to cover such an engrained, scandalous and essential part of Roman history and culture. Like so much else in the book, the facts she gives are interesting enough but, ultimately, all a bit…well…meh.


SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard was published in 2015 by Profile Books. All references are to the 2016 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Leave a comment


  1. carol

     /  January 31, 2022

    Hello, just wanted to let you know that I’ve really enjoyed your reviews of Mary Beard and Evelyn Waugh. I’ve never read either of them but would have a go at Waugh now. Not so sure about Mary Beard though. From your quotes, her style sounds so irritating as it assumes that the reader knows nothing and she is dispensing some pearl of wisdom. Sometimes I take a break from your blog but I always return and have learned a lot. Thanks! PS Do you do anything else apart from reading and going to art galleries?

    • Hi Carol. Thanks for your comment. If you’re going to read one Evelyn Waugh it should probably be ‘Scoop’ which is his most purely funny novel. If you think you might try several you might as well start at the beginning with ‘Decline and Fall’ because characters in it recur in the later novels, which gain a kind of depth and resonance as a result. Also you can watch his handling of the novel form and confidence grow with each new one. I probably shouldn’t be slating Mary Beard so hard but it’s irritating when you fork out £11 on a heavily promoted, glowingly reviewed book and it turns out to be pants. Apart from reading and going to art galleries I try to hold down a full time job working on a government website. I’m really pleased that you say you’ve learned things from my blog. I don’t intend to teach or preach, but my conscious aim is to present enough of the book, its subject, structure, strong and weak points, and enough of the author’s own words, to allow readers to make up their own minds. I always try to show the evidence which has led me to my opinion. Best wishes, Simon.

  2. Typo might be confusing: “The Latin for female wold, lupa,” – female wolf.

    • Thanks HB. Always happy to take corrections, from the smallest typo to the biggest facts. Best wishes, Simon

  3. Caro Clarke

     /  February 2, 2022

    Simon, thank you for your reply. I will follow your advice on Waugh. As for this further essay on Beard, well, I like a neatly done bloodbath. I see no problem in taking down superficial and shoddy work. I know universities like celebrity eggheads, and anyone trying to take Beard aside and suggest she raises her game would be accused of sour grapes, but honestly, she does not add to Cambridge’s lustre. I learned more about Rome from Lindsey Davis’s first five Falco novels (six onward to be avoided), where she shows from interesting angles the lives of poor and rich women (and their constraints) as well as rich and poor men, politics, war, the economy, slavery etc. I have just received my copy of Richard Miles’ book on Carthage and look forward to reading it. I too ran websites (in the City) until just last year. Can we flatter ourselves that it hones the mind? Well, maybe not.

    • Hi Caro – God, I hope Miles justifies my recommendation – he’s quite tough going, but is a lot smarter than Beard and gives a lot more detail, specifically around the Punic Wars, and I’ll be interested to see what you make of his obsession with Melqart/Heracles. I was toying with reading Robert Harris’s Cicero trilogy at some point, maybe I’ll give Lindsey Davis a try instead on your recommendation. Best wishes.


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