SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

by Mary Beard

Hardcover, 2015



Call number



Profile Books (2015)


Ancient Rome was an imposing city even by modern standards, a sprawling imperial metropolis of more than a million inhabitants, a "mixture of luxury and filth, liberty and exploitation, civic pride and murderous civil war" that served as the seat of power for an empire that spanned from Spain to Syria. Yet how did all this emerge from what was once an insignificant village in central Italy? Classicist Mary Beard narrates the unprecedented rise of a civilization that even two thousand years later still shapes many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury, and beauty. From the foundational myth of Romulus and Remus to 212 CE -- nearly a thousand years later -- when the emperor Caracalla gave Roman citizenship to every free inhabitant of the empire, S.P.Q.R. (the abbreviation of "The Senate and People of Rome") examines not just how we think of ancient Rome but challenges the comfortable historical perspectives that have existed for centuries by exploring how the Romans thought of themselves: how they challenged the idea of imperial rule, how they responded to terrorism and revolution, and how they invented a new idea of citizenship and nation. Opening the book in 63 BCE with the famous clash between the populist aristocrat Catiline and Cicero, the renowned politician and orator, Beard animates this "terrorist conspiracy," which was aimed at the very heart of the Republic, demonstrating how this singular event would presage the struggle between democracy and autocracy that would come to define much of Rome's subsequent history. Illustrating how a classical democracy yielded to a self-confident and self-critical empire, S.P.Q.R. reintroduces us to famous and familiar characters -- Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Augustus, and Nero, among others -- while expanding the historical aperture to include those overlooked in traditional histories: the women, the slaves and ex-slaves, conspirators, and those on the losing side of Rome's glorious conquests.… (more)

Media reviews

By the time Beard has finished, she has explored not only archaic, republican, and imperial Rome, but the eastern and western provinces over which it eventually won control. She deploys an immense range of ancient sources, in both Greek and Latin, and an equally wide range of material objects, from
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pots and coins to inscriptions, sculptures, reliefs, and temples. She moves with ease and mastery through archaeology, numismatics, and philology, as well as a mass of written documents on stone and papyrus.
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5 more
"She conveys the thrill of puzzling over texts and events that are bound to be ambiguous, and she complicates received wisdom in the process."
You push past this book’s occasional unventilated corner, however, because Ms. Beard is competent and charming company. In “SPQR” she pulls off the difficult feat of deliberating at length on the largest intellectual and moral issues her subject presents (liberty, beauty, citizenship, power)
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while maintaining an intimate tone.
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"SPQR is pacy, weighty, relevant and iconoclastic. Who knew classics could be so enthralling?"
Beard presents a plausible picture of gradual development from a community of warlords to an urban centre with complex political institutions, institutions which systematically favoured the interests of the upper classes yet allowed scope for the votes of the poor to carry weight. We may think of
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the Greeks as the great originators of western political theory, but Beard emphasises the sophistication of Roman legal thought, already grappling in the late second century BC with the complex ethical issues raised by the government of subject peoples.
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"Beard’s enthusiasm for her subject is infectious and is well-reflected in her clever, thoroughly enjoyable style of writing. Lovers of Roman history will revel in this work, and new students will quickly become devotees."

User reviews

LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
Readers who've studied antiquity formally or read secondary sources in the original might not have much reason to read this one, but for everyone else, "SPQR" is highly recommendable. Beard provides a panoramic view of Roman history here, but what makes it so good is the focus she keeps on a few
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issues that feel vital to her. She digs through ancient Roman history trying to disentangle fact from myth. She describes a historical record that is at once plentiful and full of gaps. And she consistently tries to figure out how the Romans viewed themselves and their empire's project. What she describes is a world that will seem both bizarre and strangely familiar to modern readers -- the same empire that exposed babies at rubbish dumps and rescued them for slave labor also seems to have been the foundation of what we think of as "citizenship." She also seems to take aim, as other historians have, I'm sure, at Hollywood's safely European view of Rome: the Rome that Beard describes was constantly expanding its borders and assimilating people, a Greek/Latin agglomeration that involved everyone from Britain to the Black Sea. Beard presents a Rome that was, in many ways, deeply influenced by its military culture, but I rather enjoyed what she revealed about the day-to-day lives of ordinary Romans, and, frankly, I was amazed at how much historians and archeologists have been able to learn about their lives from the bits of smashed statues and variegated junk that they left behind. Beard mentions inscriptions on game boards, and graves, commercial records and private correspondence. One of the best, and most thrilling, aspects of "SPQR" is that the author takes her readers through a historian's reasoning process, showing them how much knowledge can be gleaned from the little that's been left behind and the much that's disappeared along the way. Beard's command of the material she goes over here is impressive, and has the casual yet precise poise that can only really come from a lifetime studying the Romans and their times. I finished this one and told myself that it's time to start reading more history.
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LibraryThing member japaul22
Mary Beard has put together an intelligent, in depth, and readable book about at ancient Rome. She covers Rome's founding, the changing politics (predominance of the Senate shifting to the Emperors), some of the famous (or infamous!) characters, and also the lives of the middle and lower classes.
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She really gives a good overall picture of the empire - it's people, politics, and how it hung together for so long. I really liked how she didn't get bogged down in any one famous person.

I think this is one of those books that, while I won't remember all the specific details, it will inform my awareness of all things Roman. I really didn't know much going in, so it was great to get a better picture of this long-lasting and influential empire.

Definitely recommended.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
“SPQR” is the abbreviation used by the ancient Romans for “the Senate and People of Rome.” SPQR is Mary Beard’s recounting of the foundation and growth of the Roman Empire up to the year 212 C.E., when Emperor Caracalla made a full Roman citizen of every free inhabitant of the territory
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ruled by the Empire. This was a revolutionary step, she avers, since it “removed at a stroke the legal difference between the rulers and the ruled . . .” Overnight, more than 30 million became legal Roman citizens! Nevertheless, she writes, Caracalla is remembered most as the sponsor of the largest set of public baths then built in Rome. In any event, his decree “changed the Roman world forever,” and this is why the author chose to end her story at that point.

Beard’s book is almost as much historiography as history, as she repeatedly relates the nature and limitations of our actual knowledge of the ancient world. For example, we know virtually nothing other than mythology about the founding of the city of Rome. And while we know a great deal about the politics of the Empire in the late first century B.C.E through the voluminous letters of Cicero, that detailed knowledge is one-sided, as seen through the eyes of only one of the participants. Beard is a skeptical analyst, and takes Cicero’s judgments with a practiced historian’s grain of salt. Moreover, many of the perceptions of classical historians have been supplemented or even altered by the discoveries of modern archeology, since many Romans wrote on stone or bronze as well as papyrus.

Beard asserts that the motivation that lay behind Rome’s early military expansionism, which ultimately subjugated the entire Mediterranean basin, was not clear, there being no plan to “conquer the world.” The Romans’ opponents generally were not peace-loving farmers, but were constantly at war with one another. Beard attributes much of the Romans’ success to their ability to incorporate and absorb their former enemies into the Roman polity. Each conquest brought not only booty, but also a source of new soldiers. Beard argues that the Romans expanded by outnumbering their opponents rather than through superior tactics or weaponry.

A persistent theme running through the book and through Roman history is the question of how the liberty of a Roman citizen was to be defined. Beard writes, “That was a controversial question in Roman political culture for … 800 years, through the Republic and into the one man rule of the Roman Empire….” There never was a Roman constitution, but Polybius, one of Rome’s most astute historians, “saw in Rome a perfect example in practice of an old Greek philosophical ideal: the ‘mixed constitution,’ which combined the best aspects of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy.” The secret of the Roman Republic (before the rule of emperors) was in the delicate checks and balances between consuls, the senate, and the people, so that neither monarchy nor aristocracy nor democracy prevailed. Of course, all that came to an abrupt end once Julius Caesar became “Dictator for Life,” and was succeeded by his very able nephew, Octavian.

Interestingly, the Romans were very wary of “kings.” Although they allowed potentates of allied or subject powers to hold the title “king,” no Roman dared take it. Octavian had the foresight to call himself merely “Augustus,” roughly translatable as “very important person,” rather than “king.” In time, his title evolved into one that was even more august (pun intended) than king.

A number of modern ideas and institutions can be traced directly to the Romans: the legal systems of many Western European countries are quite similar to theirs. According to Beard, one of the most significant but often overlooked Roman institutions used today was their calendar, established by Julius Caesar, which served Europe well for more than a millennium until it was modified by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

One failure of the Roman Empire was that it never developed a cogent, universally accepted method of succession to the office of Emperor. As a result, many emperors were assassinated, and the threat of civil war loomed throughout the history of the Empire.

Beard does not merely chronicle the succession of various emperors and their conquests; she also explores the relationships among the various classes of society, with special attention to slaves. Slavery was common in Rome, but it was often as not usually temporary for individual slaves.

Beard devotes a few pages to the rise of Christianity, which did not become very influential until after the end of her book in 212 C.E. For the first two centuries of existence, Christianity “is hard to pin down.” Beard estimates that by 200 C.E. there were only about 200,000 Christians in a population of 50-60 million. Christianity did not assimilate well in the empire because it insisted on its own god as the only one, whereas the Romans usually treated foreign gods like it treated peoples: it incorporated them into its own society. Because they resisted this incorporation, Christians were systematically persecuted in the second century. But as Beard observes, “The irony is that the only religion that the Romans ever attempted to eradicate was the one whose success their empire made possible and which grew up entirely within the Roman world.”

Beard concludes by saying that we may not have much to learn directly from the Romans, who “were as divided about how they thought the world worked, or should work, as we are.” Nevertheless, there is much to be gained from engaging with the history of Rome because “many of our most fundamental assumptions about power, citizenship, responsibility, political violence, empire, luxury and beauty have been formed, and tested, in dialog with the Romans and their writing.”

The book concludes with recommendations for “Further Reading” for each chapter, a timeline, list of illustrations (of which there are many) and an index.

Evaluation: The author, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge University, knows how to appeal to hoi polloi as well as academics. This is an engaging and worthwhile book.

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LibraryThing member annbury
Delightful, and instructive --- This is a masterful, and very enjoyable, explorationof Roman history, but readers should be warned. It's not your standard chronological recital of who did what to whom. Instead of who, what and when, it focusses more on the whys and hows of Roman history -- why were
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the Romans unique? how did they see themselves, and what did they value? And how can we draw inferences from a sparse historical record, or from a too generous one? A further warning, this book deals only with the first 1000 years of Roman history, the period during which the Senate and people of Rome were a meaningful idea. Ms. Beard argues that after 212, when Roman citizenship was extended to all free male inhabitants of the Empire, and as Christianity started moving out of the fringes and toward the center of public life. This seems to me an eminently reasonable way of bookending an era, but some will doubtless object.

OK, so much for the warnings, what about the reasons to read the book? First of all, Ms. Beard's wide angle view of Roman history opens up all sorts of compelling insights, and arguments. For example, she stresses again and again the inclusiveness of Roman identity, from the very earliest founding myths to the end of her story. This, she argues, is why Rome was able to extend its power so far and so fast, and to maintain it so successfully -- converting defeated enemies into current citizens is a great way of burying the hachet. Second, she is brilliant at choosing particularly vivid -- and instructive -- situations on which to focus. These include the rape (or abduction, or whatever), of the Sabine women, the impact of overseas victories in the second century BC, Cicero vs. Cataline, the world vs. Caligula (a discussion in which Ms. Beard observes that assassinated emperors -- except of course Julius -- were generally painted as monsters, justifying the assassination). Third, she tells us a lot about how historians know what they know about Rome, how they use archaeology, how they find and evaluate contemporary sources. how they guess -- a fascinating and illuminating accompaniment to the main theme.

Finally, this book is a delight to read. Ms. Beard's scholarly qualifications are of the highest, but she writes like an engaging essayist telling us about something really interesting, not like someone writing for other scholars. Her language is brisk, vivid, and admirably concise. There are no footnotes, but there is an extensive "further reading section at the end".

As someone who has read a lot of Roman history, I tend to think that this book is most valuable when you come to it with some knowledge of the field -- Ms. Beard's insights gain further force in the context of broader reading. On the other hand, I would not warn off those who don't know much about Rome. It is so interesting, so informative, and so enjoyable that anyone with interest should give it a go.
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LibraryThing member Schmerguls
The author is clearly an expert and has studied Rome deeply and has written a history which covers Roman history from its founding (753 B.C., traditionally) up to 212 A.D--the date the emperor of Rome extended Roman citizenship to all free men living in the Roman Empire. The story is not told in
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the traditional Chronological way that older folk have become used to, and that made the book not as interesting to me as history usually is. But there are lots of interesting facts set out, and all the things we are familiar with in Roman history during that period are referred to even though we usually learn that some of what we have heard is not likely to be true in the way we heard of it. But one can learn a lot from the book, even if some of the reading is not full of interest.
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LibraryThing member pierthinker
All Western civilisations trace some or all of their history to Ancient Rome, whether that be political, cultural, military or geographic. The Rome that existed for 2,000 years from the 700's BCE to the 1400's CE shaped almost every aspect of European life and provided foundations that still
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support our societies today. Mary Beard, a classicist and world expert on Roman history and civilisation, has produced a masterful history of the first 1,000 years of the Roman experience. In this book she clearly lays out what we do and do not know (as well as what we could or could not know) about Rome debunking many myths. More than a chronology of events, Beard gives us her view of what lay behind the growth and success of Rome - why it grew, why it became so successful and how its people lived and its institutions worked.

Clearly written in a confident style, I took from this book a more intimate understanding of the Roman people and how they lived and worked. Thoroughly recommended.
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LibraryThing member rivkat
A history of Rome, exploring its founding myths and realities, to the extent they’re knowable from the evidence. History is always about the present; Beard’s Rome is notable because it made conquered subjects into Roman citizens, with Roman citizens’ rights (although such rights could be hard
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to exercise from far away), and because many important figures from Roman history were immigrants, or near descendants of immigrants: Rome as melting pot. There are some repeating tics, like “it was more complicated than that,” but overall I enjoyed it as a history of people (almost all men, since that’s who left the records) scheming and fighting and doing the best they could to govern.
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LibraryThing member octafoil40
This 606 page book is the only book you need to read to understand the workings of the Roman Empire. To appreciate the level of detail the author provides I now quote from the book as follows: “Roman laundry work and textile processing (a combination conventionly known as “fulling”, which had
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as a staple ingredients: human urine.)” Pg. 454.

I highly recommend this book!
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LibraryThing member AssaphMehr
This is book I wanted to read for a while, and finally got down to sit and read it. Beard is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, and this novel is the culmination of 50 years of love and research into Roman culture.

What to expect

A review of the first millennium of Roman history. From the sketchy
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beginnings till the 3rd century, Beard covers many aspects of Rome’s development.

The book deals with how much we know, and more importantly don’t know, about the early beginnings. How much of Rome’s early history is actually dubious myths, and how much is reconstructed by historians for fragmentary evidence.

It covers the transformation from Republic to empire, as well as daily lives , so that we can glean from what it was like to be “Roman”.

What I liked

Trying to put everything in a larger context. Examining the surviving evidence (archaeological and literary), and critiquing it. The writing style itself, which is flowing and lets Beard passion for Roman history shine through.

What to be aware of

This is probably not the first book about Rome’s history you should read. Beard covers a thousand years of history, and necessarily somethings are left out. A working knowledge of the commonly accepted timeline and general events will make following the book easier.

I also wish Beard would have gone into further depth at a few points, but again this is probably more than a single, non-technical book can cover.


If you want to take your knowledge of Rome to the next level, and before you delve into original sources and academic papers, this is the book for you.

Assaph Mehr, author of Murder In Absentia: a story of Togas, Dagger, and Magic - for lovers of Ancient Rome, Urban Fantasy, and Detective mysteries.
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LibraryThing member janerawoof
Fascinating. Not strictly chronological--starts with Cicero and Catiline: how Cicero "saved" Rome, then Roman history from its beginnings--two founding stories: Romulus and Remus & Aeneas up through Caracalla, who in 212 AD made every freeborn Roman automatically a citizen. Beard shatters many of
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our misconceptions. I enjoyed most the section on Pliny the Younger and on the "haves and have-nots"--rich and poor. Over half covered early Rome through the Republic, then why the Republic fell and Emperors. The author has incorporated some of the latest research. A big plus were the color plates and illustrations. Beard feels we can't so much learn from the Romans as respect and dialogue with them. Very readable.

Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member datrappert
SPQR is a highly readable, fascinating history of Rome--or perhaps I should say a history of the history of Rome. For that reason, it will appeal more to the reader who has already read a few books about Rome, including some of the ancient works such as Suetonius, Tacitus, Livy, and others. Because
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what Ms. Beard does so well in this book is to question how much we really know about Rome and to explore some of the ways modern discoveries have changed our thinking. We always knew, for example, that Rome certainly wasn't founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who were suckled by a wolf. Nor, in an alternate founding history that Romans celebrated, was it founded by Aeneas, a Trojan warrior from Homer's Iliad. Ms. Beard spends considerable time looking at those founding myths and what they tell us about the Romans. Likewise, she focuses on a few other points in history, such as Cicero and the Catiline Conspiracy, and the reign of Augustus. This is not a linear, complete book on Roman history, but one that focuses on a few eras such as those to make her larger points and to give the reader a deeper understanding of Rome and Romans than a more plodding year-by-year history could achieve.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Despite the amount of information and ideas conveyed, it is a joy to read. (I saw an article in the NY Times today where they called it a "doorstop" history. This is ridiculous. The exhaustive notes start at page 537, which means the main part of this book is a lot shorter than most bestselling novels these days. And a whole lot more dramatic and entertaining.
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LibraryThing member thorold
Very interesting - where books about the Romans normally seem to focus on military matters, technology, and juicy stories about debauched emperors, Beard takes her title literally and concentrates on the relationship between politics and ordinary life, in the process revealing how much less we
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really know about either than we thought we did. When we look at it closely, despite all we have from texts and achaeology, so much of our knowledge - especially for the early history of Rome - depends on the accounts of classical authors writing long after the event and with their own agendas. If you want the juicy anecdotes, stick to Suetonius and Robert Graves, but if you know them all already, then this book will be a useful sanity check.
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LibraryThing member michaelbartley
a good and interesting history of ancient rome. there were two eras in roman history, the republic and the empire. the republic lasted for about 600 years. the senate ruled but it was no democracy! to get into senate required wealth and family. however it did response to social pressures. then came
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the empire one person rule. an interesting aspect of rome was the rights of women. women had more rights and protect under the law than a woman in 19th century england.
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LibraryThing member encephalical
Perhaps more intriguing for a glimpse into how a contemporary classicist constructs their own image of Rome.
LibraryThing member TommyElf
Ok...it took nearly all of the trip to finish Mary Beard's "SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome". My rating? 2 out of 5. It is a revisionist history of Rome, starting in the height of Cicero. She draws off of scholarly material, and then tries to enhance it by pulling information on daily life from
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other sources - including pottery shards. All worthy aspects, but her revisionist history is merely adding suppositions of what daily life may have been like to already established material and fact about Roman history. While her material was much more lively than say, Gibbons...it was just not enthralling enough to keep my attention for long periods of time, thus the lengthy amount of time it took me to read it.
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LibraryThing member JHemlock
SPQR.......What a brilliant book. Beard goes so deep into the dynamics of Rome. From the ruling upper class to the using of urine for laundry. Her closing remarks on the book are fantastic and eye opening. What an amazing piece of work.
LibraryThing member annbury
Great book,
LibraryThing member vguy
Her new tome “SPQR”, very fine. She really gets into chucking the history around: is this true? is this likely? how do we know? is this like us? what was it really like for them? I was able to keep pace with the factual side of it (the one damn thing after another, which she skimps and skirts)
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because i did a pile of reading to help Zoe through her Classics Higher exam in her last year at school- already nearly 6 years ago, my God, tempus don’t 'arf fugit.
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LibraryThing member mbmackay
This is a great read. Mary Beard knows her stuff, and presents it in a style that is absolutely engaging. She often tells the story of a particular period, pleasingly similar to the general story that we have all absorbed, but then goes on to tell you why that may not be the whole story, or even
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the story at all. She has the knowledge and the research and the writing style to bring this off successfully, and not sounding like a twat.
I read this just before a trip to Rome - it made the reading and the travel that much more enjoyable.
Read August 2016.
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LibraryThing member Trotsky731
Excellent! A great mix of academic and popular history. Well written with many interesting insights. It provides a general framework of the period from Rome's founding to the end of the second century CE.
LibraryThing member meandmybooks
Fantastic! Mary Beard's history of the first thousand years or so of ancient Rome never flags, maintaining a brisk, engaging tone and offering a level of detail just right for a general audience. If you've previously read a bit about Rome, Beard's book probably won't offer much new information, but
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she has a knack for posing interesting questions, suggesting fresh juxtapositions, and presenting seemingly familiar stories in thought-provoking ways. I listened to the audio version of this, published by Recorded Books and read by Phyllida Nash, with the physical book on hand for reference (the illustrations are certainly not necessary, but are nice to have), and enjoyed it tremendously.
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LibraryThing member adzebill
Superb work, a valid replacement for the standard undergraduate texts that plod along in strict chronology. Beard is not afraid to look at the overall shape of Roman history, how much or little we know about some areas, and what our biases might be. It's told in a reasonably sprightly way, and
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debunks several standard accounts I remember accepting without question as a young student.
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LibraryThing member barlow304
An excellent review of Roman history from 753 BS to 212 AD.
LibraryThing member robeik
This is no standard history text, but a theme-based approach to the Roman Republic and it's replacement. The author makes it clear that many common assumptions are incorrect. She reminds us that we have little evidence of what happened in those days; the sources were invariably biased and/or
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written well after the event. Entertaining reading.
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LibraryThing member m_k_m
By its nature a broad overview of Ancient Rome, but Beard does a good job of putting what is popularly known about the subject into context and order. An excellent introduction before you get stuck into the greater detail of Rome.


LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — History — 2015)
National Book Critics Circle Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 2015)
The British Book Industry Awards (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2016)
Cundill History Prize (Longlist — 2016)
Books Are My Bag Readers Award (Shortlist — Non-Fiction — 2016)
Waterstones Book of the Year (Shortlist — 2015)
PEN Hessell-Tiltman Prize (Shortlist — 2016)
Chicago Public Library Best of the Best: Adults (Selection — Nonfiction — 2015)


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

9.45 inches


1846683807 / 9781846683800


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