Like all literate middle-aged white guys, the percentage of my reading that involves the Roman Empire or World War II goes up a little bit every year. By the time we hit 60 or so, it's All Rommel, All The Time. But, for now, Rome still gets a book or two of my attention every year.
I know enough about Roman history to where I don't go for the general pop histories or pop biographies much at this point; I've got the background down as well as any non-specialist can. That said, I'm also a firm believer in revisiting my assumptions every decade or so, and this book has been garnering high praise from all corners, so I figured it'd be a worthy entry into this year's book run and a nice way to refresh what I think I know about Rome's founding, the Republic and the Empire to its height.
That, by the way, is the time period which this book covers; the rise, the peak, but not the fall. I rather enjoyed Beard's disclaimer that the fall of Rome is a topic for another book by another author (the "fall" of Rome has been getting some major revisioning over the last twenty years or so; see Peter Heather's The Fall of the Roman Empire for a fantastic overview of the current prevailing theories written for a general audience). So, be aware: this isn't a history of the ENTIRE range of time the "Roman Kingdom/Empire/Republic" existed; It's Rome from the mysts of pre-history to 212CE when the Emperor Carracala extended Roman citizenship to every freeman in the Empire. That's a nice stopping point (Roman history offers many) if you wish to focus on what us moderns consider "Roman" to mean; after that point, the nature of the Empire fundamentally changed, Christianity became a thing, and everything went to hell more often than not... like the author rightly notes; that's a different story, better handled on its own, separately.
While sort-of chronological in its telling, Beard skips around a bit, starting in the age of Cicero and, specifically, the Cataline Conspiracy as a way to introduce the reader into thinking about what the Romans themselves, at the time, thought "Rome" and "being Roman" meant. This is the running theme throughout her book, and it serves well as a spine to grow the body of a narrative around.
Rather than sticking to the strictly chronological, Beard organizes the book more or less around big themes, and proceeds to examine them based on what we know now and, more importantly, how contemporary Romans viewed those topics. Always being careful to mention what evidentiary constraints she's working with, the author takes us through what it meant to be an ancient Roman king, an interesting topic particularly because we have next to no contemporary evidence for that but a fair amount from _later_ Romans who were already viewing the Kingship era as history themselves. Likewise, she presents an in-depth discussion of what it meant to be a Roman emperor; did they _really_ think that they were gods? What did that mean in the context of Roman religion, where some gods were apparently more god-y than others? Did some emperors just take the piss on the entire idea (entertainingly: yes)?
It's fun stuff, and she carries this approach through to all of the topics presented here. In common with the current trend in history of trying to discern more about how the common folk lived as compared to the exhaustively researched lives of the ruling and rich classes, Beard gives us what she can on the P in SPQR. There's actually a fair bit of archaeological evidence to play with regarding the lives of regular people, and, thanks to the pretty high level of literacy (for an ancient society), even a good amount of written records to call upon as well. She pulls all of this evidence together coherently, giving us as much of a look into how we would've been likely to live back then (regardless of what your fortune-teller tells you, you were much MUCH more likely to have been a peasant than a prince in a past life. Sorry) as is possible with the current state of primary evidence available.
Also entertaining is her brief discussion of the Christians who, in the timeframe of this book, were a small, annoying cult as opposed to the Official And Only Religion of Rome that they became later. Reading from the letters of a harassed Roman governor from what is now Turkey writing to Rome for guidance on what to DO with these twits is amusing. Less amusing but still interesting is the Emperor's response of "don't concern yourself overmuch with them if they're just being annoying. If they get seriously unruly, though, kill them".
Maybe it's just because I spent my actual educational years reading about Great Men and Great Battles to the point of utter exhaustion, but I really, REALLY appreciate authors like Beard and the books they produce. I want much more work done on the grand themes of a given historical era and/or society as they impacted ALL levels of society. I'm really beyond done with books that solely concern themselves with the king and his direct minions (this may be why I've never cottoned to historical biographies at all; the stories of Important Figures are, er, important, but I also want to know, if at all possible, what the people who had these stories inflicted on them without any input felt about things).
So, in the end, SQPR is a fantastically written exploration of Rome from its beginnings to its peak, organized in a modern fashion around big themes and great concepts moreso than great people, which is welcome. Pair it with the work by Heathers I mention early on in this review and you'll be nicely up to date on the current state of the historiography of the entire Roman Era.