My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Mary Beard writes an engaging, fun and accessible history of Rome from its “founding” in 753 BCE up to 212 CE, the year that the emperor Caracalla made every free inhabitant of the empire a Roman citizen. The prologue drew me in immediately. The book reads like a set of introductory classics lectures by a professor who knows her material and can effectively communicate it to a diverse audience. There is something in this book for everyone. The “Further Reading” section at the end (pp. 537-562) is worth the price of entry by itself.
I enjoy that she sprinkles in Latin with translations throughout the text. She also goes into the etymologies of many words, sometimes clinically (e.g. “candidate”, p. 32), and sometimes with gusto (e.g. aborigine, p. 78). She covers not only the overarching themes or battles, but also delves into the daily life of people throughout the Republic and empire. Rich and poor, powerful and slave, urban and provincial, Latin and Greek, and so on, all make an appearance.
Mary Beard brings history, archaeology, political science, economics, psychology, literary studies, and many other tools to her work and this makes the book very enjoyable and useful. I thoroughly enjoyed her incorporating the works and backgrounds of so many writers of history, literature and poetry. Horace, Virgil, Ovid, Livy, Cicero, both Plinys, and so many more make appearances in the text. One phrase that stuck with me was from Tacitus summing up “the Roman imperial project: ‘they create desolation and call it peace’, ‘solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant’” (p. 516).
Many of the problems that Romans faced are still present today: risks of falling into debt, power focused on small class of wealthy individuals, corruption, manufacturing “the other” and demonizing them, double standards of morality, etc. The Roman project does not provide solutions to these problems but it is good to engage with them to see how humans have addressed them in the past and what we can try to do today.