Sunday, May 28, 2017

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard (2015)

We recently discovered Mary Beard's most excellent documentaries on You Tube (pirated, I fear); there weren't very many of them (one about Rome itself, one about the Empire, one about Pompeii, and one about Caligula) and we quickly devoured them.  She's truly magnificent; interesting, passionate, earthy, a touch of Magna Mater about her.  I bet her classes are a hoot.

Discovering Mary Beard fit in nicely with my personal quest to read Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization book by book, interspersed with modern books about the same time period, plus a biography and fiction book to top them off.  My journey through Greece was, mostly uneventful; I feel like I learned quite a bit, but I didn't  discover any new authors.  Caesar and Christ , though, led to Mary Beard, and I'm quite giddy.  She's as strong a writer as she is a television presenter.

She's a revisionist, and she's always questioning what we believe to be true about the Romans, and whether that can all be proved or not.  I loved this about her book.  I also loved the fact that she points out many times that the ancient historians did exactly the same thing.  Livy and others were always questioning the origin stories of Rome, trying to poke holes in sacred balloons, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.  But they were not just storytellers or gatherers of facts, or propagandists.  That was something I did not know.

She obviously has a tremendously good sense of humor, and that showed through her writing, such as here, when she is writing about "Boudicca, or Buduica (we do not know exactly how to spell the name, but neither, presumably, did she)."  That clever little aside made me so happy.

Her prologue talks about us "engaging" with the Romans rather than "learning" from them, which I thought was cool; "to learn" is far more passive than engaging, becoming involved in the lives of the Romans.

A small shiver went through me when I read this:  "The month Sextilis, next to Julius Caesar's July, should be named August -- and so Augustus became part of the regular passage of time, as he remains." The Romans are still with us; in major ways.  We still worship the Caesars, whether we want to or not.  I wonder why this wasn't ever changed?  It seems very blasphemous.

The Durants are not dry; neither is Mary Beard, but their styles are definitely different.  The Durants have a more romantic style, flowery without being purple (well... maybe occasionally purple).   Mary Beard definitely is never purple.  The Durants are champagne; Mary Beard is a really, really good beer.

SPQR: A History of Ancient RomeSPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

An exceptional book of history. Mary Beard brings back the Romans from the land of the dead and bored they inhabit in various textbooks and curriculum-driven classroom activities. As she so eloquently writes in her epilogue, the study of the "first millennial Romans" have consumed 50 or so years of her life; you can tell from her passionate and loving writing Rome and all her characters aren't merely marble statues to her, but actual people inhabiting actual places, having lived real lives. She wants us to engage with the Romans as she has engaged with them for so many years, and because of her strong writing, we certainly do are able to do so. She is a revisionist in all the best ways (and points out numerous times how Livy and other ancient historians also questioned their own origin stories and propaganda-as-history). Beard isn't some reverent solemn don either; her book is injected with witty humor. I was never bored; once I started reading this, I never wanted to read anything else; and I never wanted it to end.

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