Summary: history that the victors would not want you to read
It is axiomatic that history is written by the winners. But, as far as Mary Beard is concerned, that’s no reason to take every tale they spin at face value.
SPQR is, perhaps, more of a histiography of the Roman Empire than a traditional narrative history. Each story of Empire she presents, from Romulus and Remus to Cicero and Caesar, she interrogates with great rigour, testing both it’s internal logic and it’s consistency with other available evidence, particularly the available archeological findings.
Hence it is a sustained lesson in critical thinking as well as classical history. Consequently Beard is no respecter of received wisdoms or conventional understandings. She thinks anew about this subject and demands her readers do too.
Sometimes this iconoclasm can go a bit far. For example, she dismisses Hannibal’s sanguinary victory at Cannae, one that has inspired generations of commanders, with the conclusion that all he really did was sneak around behind the Romans… which is true. But this does seem rather to underestimate all that this involved when outnumbered by thousands of armed and angry Italians.
Elsewhere she notes with approval the comment of a Roman writer that the real skill required to be a general is that of being able to organise a good dinner party. Again perhaps not wholly fair, but an eminently healthy attitude in any society, like Rome, like much of the contemporary world, which lionises the military – or the paramilitary – and turns a blind eye to their atrocities.
For all Beard’s remarkable communication skills SPQR is perhaps not a book that I would recommend as an introduction to ancient Roman history. But it is a vital one for anyone who wishes to get beyond the more simplistic narratives of that empire and to learn how to think more carefully about our own times and the false narratives and propaganda our own leaders still try to force down our throats.