Book Review: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Flying in the face of other reviews for this book, I can honestly say I lost precious hours reading this book that I will never get back. Possibly the worst book I’ve read on Roman history; certainly the most boring.

I know, I know, Mary Beard is hailed as the best, most exciting and most praised Roman historian in living history. ‘SPQR’ was an instant bestseller. The book is reasonably(ish) easy to read which makes it welcoming to the newcomer to the Greco-Roman world. I shouldn’t be giving less than 4/5 stars at the very least, surely?

Sorry, but for me the book missed the spot. I love this period of history and I’ve taught it to pre-GCSE students many times. That doesn’t make me any kind of expert, of course, but I am, at least, reasonably informed. There was nothing new in this huge volume. No new information, no revelations, no new interpretation of old data, no new way to think of how Romans lived and worked. I’m sure there were tweaks here and there from Beard but there wasn’t a single page where I found myself thinking ‘Oh! I didn’t know that before’. Contrast with Peter Frankopan’s superb ‘Silk Roads’ history book – so many pages have turned down edges so I can come back to fascinating insights that hardly any were left undamaged! A history book should grab you and say something fresh – otherwise there’s no point writing one when the market is already saturated with the topic.

Beard doesn’t even give us a chronological version of events, despite purporting to do so. It’s all over the place! I couldn’t keep track of what time frame we were in nor who was leading Rome at the time from one section to another. The author takes a kind of ‘country lane stroll’ through Roman history; loosely making progress but regularly looking backwards and glancing further ahead so that you’re not entirely sure where on the path you’ve reached any longer. She doesn’t even kick off the book at the beginning – fairly obviously with the myths of Romulus and Remus. No, she sets off randomly (she tries to justify it but, honestly, it’s just random) in 63BCE and we have to wait more than 50 pages to get to chapter two and actually start with the founding of Rome. To say this was dissatisfying is an understatement.

While it is clear that Beard is very learned and her writing style is clear enough and not unpleasant, there just didn’t seem to be any real purpose to the book. It’s not even a complete history, ending (again, fairly arbitrarily) before we get anywhere near the Christian era. She rushes through this part in her end words instead. I really wanted to know what she thought about the death of Rome and how she interpreted that; what the battles and skirmishes which ultimately brought the Romans back out of Britain really meant to the politics and culture of the time and what was the effect on the British. There was so much I would have loved to learn here. Instead, I got an insipid regurgitation of the story ‘as known’.

In short, buy almost any other book on Roman history you like rather than this one – even the Horrible Histories ones for children! In the main because any other book is bound to be shorter and more interesting than Beard’s contribution; but also in part because you’re unlikely to find anything in her book which isn’t available elsewhere. Save yourself time and money, walk away from this one.

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Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Ken has two new books coming out soon – don’t miss them!

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Ken writes for a number of publications around the world. Past reviewer for Paste magazine, The Doughnut, E2D and United Airways,  and currently reviews for Lancashire Life magazine.


6 thoughts on “Book Review: SPQR – A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

  1. Excellent review! I’ve not read SPQR but everything I’ve heard about it makes it sound like a bit of a cash-in offering, as you say here, nothing new. Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, by contrast, sounds more fascinating and essential every time I read about it: a genuinely new way of understanding history. I think on the strength of your endorsement here I’m going to get myself a copy, finally!


    1. I absolutely wouldn’t hesitate to buy Frankopan’s book. The whole re-centring of world history around Asia is a superb antidote to traditional euro-centric histories. In particular, when he comes to the discovery of oil in Persia I found the whole reading of 20th Century history utterly mind-blowing. Mary Beard, by contrast, as I say, nothing new at all. Very disappointing.


    1. I’m glad you were entertained – that’s more than Mary Beard’s book did for me! I think your points about her I’ve already acknowledged but that’s the crux of the problem. Such is her knowledge and expertise that I expected a book which wasn’t simply run of the mill (and that in a disordered and mangled way). It feels rather like a sell out if I’m honest. If she had nothing new to bring to the table, why write the book at all?


      1. Yes, I actually think her platform has become the tv rather than the bookshop… which may explain the problem. I still think she is wonderful and hope for better in the future.


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