Review Essay

What Rome Can Teach Us Today

Ancient Lessons for 
Modern Politics

In This Review

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome
By Mary Beard
Liveright, 2015, 608 pp. Purchase

Ancient Rome was a village that grew into a world empire. At the peak of its territorial reach, AD 117, it stretched from the British Isles to Mesopotamia and from the Rhine to the Sahara. Its history spans more than a millennium. Before the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the late fifth century, Romans enjoyed a standard of living not seen again in the West until the mid-nineteenth century. They had flush toilets, granite countertops, indoor heating, and even cosmetic dentistry. The government that safeguarded this way of life styled itself Senatus Populusque Romanus, or “the Senate and the People of Rome.” An advertisement for the link between Rome’s citizens and its elected leaders, the abbreviation “SPQR” was proudly displayed everywhere.

Rome’s classical era spanned the last two centuries BC and the first two centuries AD. At the beginning of that period, Rome already commanded a sizable empire, governed by democratic principles. By the end of it, Rome had become increasingly authoritarian but was still at peace internally. Engineering, literature, philosophy, theater, and the arts flowered; with lasting effects, Romans crucified Jesus and destroyed Jerusalem’s Second Temple. The events and personalities that populated this age are Rome’s most famous.

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 SPQR, Mary 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 the Cambridge don 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

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