Once upon a time I cut my teeth reading historians like Scullard, Cary and Gibbon. They were good chaps, in their own way, but their time is beginning to wane. We might well say when Byron falls, Rome falls and when Rome falls—the world, but the stuffy old professor approach to classics is finally making way for something newer, and in my opinion better. Cue Mary Beard and her modern insights into ancient history.
When my high school history teacher started teaching my class about Caesar, she did her best to skip over the fine details of who killed who to paint the picture as a broader one of social and political upheaval that transcended any one individual involved. My mates and I were furious. We wanted to know every fine detail, every name on the proscription lists. What we didn’t realise is that my teacher was conveying the very point historians like Scullard make in From the Gracchi to Nero that through the fine detail you see the trend, and in history it’s the trends that are so often the most important thing. I get her point now and so when Beard does a similar thing in SPQR, I get it, I celebrate it and I, like the times, move on. For those of us who still want the fine details, we can always go and read Plutarch.
Rather than retelling a story you already know but with extra detail along the way, Beard focuses on the stories you probably don’t know but should if you want to grow in your understanding of Rome. Ever heard of the Cataline Conspiracy? It doesn’t matter if you don’t know anything about it or if you’ve already read both Sallust and Cicero’s accounts, Beard walks you through it in a perfect balancing act. She manages to inform unfamiliar readers of what’s it’s all about while still offering highly insightful opinions along the way to make fellow classicists sit and ponder. An amazing feat.
Another amazing feat was how Beard structured the book in the first place. Not only does it largely flow chronologically from early Rome to late Rome, but each chapter is also topical in a way that resonates more easily with modern readers and yet also delves deep into the historical evidence from the time. It reads part narrative history, part topical snapshot and part cutting edge analysis of written and archaeological evidence—each aspect complementing the other and somehow all working at the same time. It doesn’t matter what most interests you about Rome, her triumvirate will meet you were you’re at, captivate you and keep you reading from beginning to end.
What will the critics say? Perhaps they’ll say it sounds like a first year Uni course. And you know what? They’re kind of right. Beard’s been a lecturer for a long time now and it shows. She has her fingertips on the latest research and she knows how to make Rome relatable and interesting to people regardless of how much they knew about it beforehand. Though Beard might see herself as continuing in the line of the giants who came before, I think it’s fair to say quo usque tandem will we let go of the historians of the past to make way for the historians of the future?