All Roads Lead to Mary Beard: On the History Book We Should All Be Reading Now

Mary Beard

I read this book for pure pleasure, which is to say I didn’t mean to write about it. SPQR, by Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, promised pure nerdy pleasure: a general history of Rome from its origins (traditionally 753 BCE, though the truth is both older and hazier) to the reign of Caracalla, when, in 212 CE, Roman citizenship was extended to all free men living within the bounds of the empire. This was a pleasure too nerdy, I suspected, to be able to share. I found exactly what I was looking for, but I also found a book whose delights were so persuasive that I couldn’t bear to let it go by unremarked. I could not put this book down.
As much history as historiography, Beard grapples not only with Rome itself but also with two thousand years (give or take) worth of other people’s opinions, readings, retellings. And it’s when she takes a shining needle to millennia-old inflated stories (Agrippina’s sinking boat was more probably an accident than an assassination-attempt by collapsible yacht—there are easier ways to kill people!) or reanimates scenes long cast in stone (Caesar’s assassination was likely much clumsier than Shakespeare’s version) that Beard is at her best. She pays persistent, deliberate attention to people and places in Rome that often went under- or unrecorded: illuminating and important work. Her critical, hedging voice is vital. Everything is more complicated than it seems.
Beard is a prolific, and celebrated, historian: author of many books, host of several BBC history programs, blogger and classics editor for the Times Literary Supplement, a member of the Order of the British Empire, and more recently a vocal critic of how women are treated online. (Several profiles—one by Rebecca Mead in the New Yorker in 2014 and another this month in the New York Times—valorize her work on that front.) In our emails, Beard appropriately wrote in all caps, like a Roman inscription.
This is the big question–one I am sure you get all the time. Why Rome? To break that down a little bit: Why is the study of Roman history relevant to us today? What attracts you to Rome in particular?
That’s simple really. Rome is one of the main cultures that underpins, for better or worse, Western culture today (happily, maybe, it is not the only one…but very important). It is from Rome that we have learned to think about (and challenge) ourselves and our values. We can’t ignore Rome. That all sounds a bit virtuous, but Rome is also a fascinating and surprising culture too, well worth spending time on.
Is there a moment in Roman history you feel is particularly educational or illustrative of an aspect of events in the world today? Or rather, is there anything on the news right now that reminds you of an episode in SPQR?
The episode with which I start the book is my favorite: the stand-off in 63 BCE between Cicero and the alleged terrorist, Catiline. It raises so many issues that we think are important, e.g. how do you weigh up the rights of the citizen versus the obligation of the state to protect itself? Every time we imprison someone without trial, my thoughts go back to Catiline.
You’ve written many books that focus on more particular aspects of Roman life and history. What are the benefits of a big-picture, general history like SPQR? What drew you to write this book now?
I was in my late fifties. You do it now or never at that age. But there’s more than that. I have taught Roman history for almost 40 years now, and I thought I had something to say about Rome, which I (rather grandly!) wanted to share.
Much of SPQR verges on historiography—teasing apart the ancient sources and reexamining what we think we know and why. Who is your favorite Roman historian?
Tacitus without a doubt. I have always said that the Romans themselves were the sharpest critics of their empire, and Tacitus (writing in the 2nd century CE) more than anyone else. My favorite quote—he’s talking about the conquest of Britain—is “they make a desert and call it peace.” How many times have we made a desert and called it peace?
You are, in addition to being a famous historian, a famous feminist. What does it mean to be both? How do those roles inform each other? Do they ever conflict?
Not sure how famous I am, but I am a proud feminist. I don’t think the roles conflict. There is a sense in which the history of Rome (and Greece) is a history of misogyny, but a feminist eye helps to prise those cultures apart—positively as well as negatively.
In the United States at least, so many of our film representations of Rome are populated by British actors, plummy English accents. I’m wondering what you make of this connection. For me it looks like a reflection of Britain’s one-time imperial ambitions retroactively cast into the past, whether done consciously or unconsciously. How often do you think of the British empire when you research and write about the Roman one? What does it mean to be a British historian of Rome?
It is clear that the British empire was in an odd sort of dialogue with the Roman. I am acutely aware that the British used to see themselves as new Romans…I am also acutely aware that we should resist any such simple equivalence.
What has surprised you most in your decades-long study of Rome?
How much you can still learn about the ordinary people. I was taught to think that we could only access the rich, but the more you keep your eyes open, the more you see the people like us too: the teachers, the traders, and of course the slaves and ex-slaves.

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