Historians usually justify the decision to write a new account of familiar events by emphasizing the discovery of sources that challenge or clarify the conventional understanding. That is not the case with Beard’s retelling of Roman history from its origins through the end of the classical period. What makes Beard’s effort so compelling nonetheless is the contemporary, politically charged idiom in which she recasts an old story. SPQR is a translation of Roman history into the English of today—into the phrases and patterns of thought that we absorb from mass media and that bring order and meaning to our lives—and Beard’s genius is in using this idiom alone, rather than outright comparison, to suggest ancient parallels with the politics and controversies of the twenty-first century. Her book thus offers insights into not only Rome’s history but also the challenges of the present. There is in fact plenty to learn from the Romans—if we have the courage to entertain the possibility. Viewed in this light, SPQR is a broad introduction to the best thousand years of Roman history that proves why, as Beard writes on its first page, “Rome is important”—and reminds us why it is particularly important now. Read the full review.
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