Book review: Mary Beard pieces together a meticulous picture of the machinery of ancient Rome

Chuck Twardy

Four stars

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome By Mary Beard, $35.

If you want an empire, you’re going to need an emperor. That’s a key takeaway from Mary Beard’s lively and enlightening SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. As Beard notes, the Latin word imperium at first meant power to give orders. By the time of Augustus, near the end of the 1st century BCE, it signified the state’s power to rule colonies. But Rome had been giving orders to other lands for several centuries by then.

At the end of the 6th century BCE, the Romans embraced libertas when they overthrew the last of seven kings—the first, supposedly, was fratricidal founder Romulus. Afterward, they elected two consuls who had to share power and supervise the election of their replacements each year. The consuls appointed members of the senate and, along with other elected magistrates, joined it when their terms of office ended. The senate controlled the purse and policy, while consuls and magistrates ran civic government and the military legions.

As the republic subdued Italy and other nearby lands, it did so by blending martial power and shrewd diplomacy. Rome, Beard writes, “made it possible not just to become Roman but also to be a citizen of two places at once: one’s hometown and Rome,” a novel concept. But the expanding empire strained the legal and political apparatus of a city. The conquering legions were raised and led by strongmen, eventually including Julius Caesar and Pompey. Decades of civil war culminated in Caesar’s adopted son Octavius, later Augustus, becoming the first emperor.

Thenceforth, the emperor ruled the legions, and the senate mostly administered. But Augustus and later emperors sustained the basic machinery of the republic, including consuls. Imperial succession, and the role the legions played in it, would provide plenty of drama long after the first 14 emperors whose reigns Beard chronicles.

Although she covers nearly a millennium of history, Beard starts, like an epic poet, en medias res, in the middle of things, relying on the letters of Cicero to detail the decades of strife in the 1st century BCE that served as the hinge between republic and empire. Later, she turns to the letters of Pliny the Younger, a consul, senator and envoy of Trajan, to examine how a talented soul navigated imperial service. And throughout, she takes care to consider how history’s turns affected women, slaves, conquered peoples and millions of unheralded and powerless Romans.

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