The acclaimed classicist delivers a massive history of ancient Rome, which “continues to underpin Western culture and politics, what we write and how we see the world, and our place in it.”
Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, 2014, etc.) writes fascinatingly about how Rome grew and sustained its position. More importantly, she sorts the many myths from history. As in her previous illuminating works, she is no myth builder; she is a scholar who reaches down-to-earth conclusions based on her years of dedication to her subject. This is no simple chronological biography of rulers. The author provides a broad overview of how events from the rape of Lucretia to Caracalla’s granting of citizenship to everyone (except slaves) strengthened and eventually weakened the empire. The rulers of Rome never planned a land grab to build an empire. As the author points out, they didn’t even have maps. However, they continued to conquer peoples, took slaves and bounty, and made their men part of the army and, eventually, citizens. Beard writes of the reformers who fed the people and instituted laws of compensation for abuse. What they failed to do was establish a policy of succession, instead leaving it to luck, improvisation, plots, and, usually, violence. Because the author is such an expert linguist who is exceedingly comfortable in her field, she is able to step back to see the entire Roman world. Throughout the narrative, Beard refers to works by Polybius, Livy, Suetonius, and Tacitus, as well as the prodigious correspondence of Cicero and Pliny the Younger. She shows us how to engage with the history, culture, and controversies that made Rome—and why it still matters.
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.