Though she here claims that 50 years of training and study have led up to SPQR, Beard wears her learning lightly. As she takes us through the brothels, bars, and back alleys where the populus Romanus left their imprint, one senses, above all, that she is having fun.
...Beard gives her readers a master class in historical analysis, with due attention to the reliability of sources, the corruption of traditions, politically motivated myth-making, and the mysterious process by which perceptions of the past determine the course of subsequent events.
It’s a weakness of SPQR that Ms. Beard seems more eager to tell us what historians don’t know than what they do...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) while maintaining an intimate tone.
Beard makes us reconsider what we think we know about the Romans. Her book is not a seamless narrative of the rise and flourishing of the Roman empire, but a subtle and engaging interrogation of the complex and contradictory textual and material traces of the Roman world.
Beard, a celebrated Cambridge don, makes the Romans seem fresh, strange and up to date, almost our near contemporaries, not ghosts who haunt crumbling ruins. Her Romans speak with a resonant shout, not a muffled whisper.
Surely, history is a messy business, but Beard is a discerning ragpicker. Looking backwards from the end of the book when Rome is eclipsed as a power center in the third century CE, we have followed a fragile and fantastic chain of connections from very deep in antiquity. It makes your hair stand on end.
Moving easily from ancient histories to modern interpretations, from what can be constructed out of the archaeological record to what can only be guessed and surmised, Beard weaves together a highly informative, highly readable history that spans more than a thousand years.