I came to this book with a fair amount of reading on the Roman empire beneath my belt, non of it academic, but still.
I read Suetonius at some point, which for all it’s gossip is entertaining but it isn’t really accurate historically. I read Rubicon by Tom Hollander which was fine, but it’s all about Julius Caesar. The Memoirs of Hadrian is fiction but incredibly well research such. I’ve read a few works in swedish, seen documentaries and listened to podcasts. It’s a period in time that I’m fascinated by,like many, since it still effects us today, in vital ways.
If you are someone you likes to read about the glorious battles of the Roman army and how they conquered lands then this is not the book for you. If you are a bit of a policy wonk who is interested in how Augustus changed the pension plan for soldiers, making them not having to rely on whims of their commanders(and making them more loyal to the state in the process(clever chap,brutal AF but clever)) and how they dealt with the citizenship of the people in the land occupied then Mary Beard will cater to your interests.
This book starts trying to discern the actual beginning of Rome; the legend of Romus and Remulus is often told but is there any truth to it? Beard is a professor of classical languages and that is one of the strengths of this book I think; so much of what we know of the romans comes to us through text but understanding words isn’t the same as deciphering meaning. Insight into how romans communicated is important for understanding how they lived, but a clue about their lives is necessary for getting the point of what they said and wrote. Beard is very honest about what we don’t know, and what researchers have changed their minds about. She clear up misunderstandings and factoids(the kind of thing that everyone “knows” to be true which in fact isn’t true: like Julius Caesar saying “Et tu,Brutus?” when he was stabbed-Shakespeare invented that).
That agile mind of hers also jots back and forth in history to put things into a relatable context, deepen understanding and shine some light on our own time. History isn’t static and acknowledging that makes this book better I think; in many ways enough has been written about the punic wars, the constant assassinations of politicians and the big men of the republic. The wealth of Rome was built on the backs of slaves; how did they live? What was the situation for women? Children? And what is the deal with all these adaptions?
The writing is like a long lecture; all these little chapters with Beard acting like a guide. If this hasn’t been turned into a TV-series it should; in parts this is already a script. Which isn’t a complaint, more a testament of facts. Beard likes to almost talk to her reader and in a very friendly tone with the understated dry humour of the British.
All in all: a brilliant book I think. A fresh look at old times, from different angles and with a healthy dose of disrespect and humility alike.