I was a bit cautious in picking this up – Mary Beard is great on TV, interviews and in the other books I’ve read; but a 500 page general history of Rome … I’m no academic, but I’ve read a bit. Would I be beyond this? Thankfully no! The familiar narrative comes up, but the greater part of the book (in both senses) has Beard questioning our knowledge and interpretation of Rome.
The narrative sections are fine: it’s not quite the storytelling flow of Tom Holland, but that’s not Beard’s style. She is chatty and opinionated, but constantly keen to present other sides of the story, other “ways of seeing” to use a phrase that came up in her recent series Civilizations.
The story begins with the founding of Rome and ends with Caracalla, just before the crisis of the third century – possibly beyond the high point, but before the decline really hits. Is the book about the unstoppable rise of Rome and the associated imperial conquests? Not exactly. Mary Beard would see their conquests as brutal, but of their time. She would see its rise as impressive, but not inevitable.
In the end, she doesn’t look for lessons in Rome: what they did right (and they did plenty) or what they did wrong (and they did plenty of that too). She just looks for a humanity, a real human experience that connects their world to ours; and as far as can be done, she succeeds in bringing it to life.