By Mary Beard

History, especially when it takes the form of a large-scale history attempting to cover the centuries-long rise of Rome, is a story of cause and effect. It’s not so much interested in what happened and when as why it happened and how.

So . . . why Rome? How did a muddy village on the Tiber go on to create such a dominant and long-lived civilization?

Taking the long view, explanations for cause and effect tend to become larger. The historical analysis becomes less interested in colourful personalities and random, contingent factors, no matter how consequential they turn out to be. The drivers of history in the longue durée are vast, impersonal forces, bigger even than the patterns of economic development so beloved of earlier macro-historians. Big History has a more extensive view, dealing with things like climatic changes taking place over thousands of years, and demographic booms and busts.

So, to the question of why the Roman Empire fell (a matter Mary Beard doesn’t cover in this volume, which only takes the story up to 212 CE when the Constitutio Antoniniana of the Emperor Caracalla made all free men living within the empire Roman citizens), many modern historians point to a population collapse within the empire, brought about by a series of plagues. That’s not as glamorous as the story Gibbon tells, but it may be the best answer.

At the start of the story, similar forces were at work. How did Rome succeed? By sheer weight of numbers. As Beard writes: “the single most significant factor behind victory at this period [the initial growth of the Republic] was not tactics, equipment, skill or motivation. It was how many men you could deploy.” As the saying went, Rome could be defeated in battle – even spectacularly destroyed, as at Cannae – but couldn’t lose a war simply because there were too many Romans and their allies.

A similar appeal to larger forces lies behind Beard’s take on Rome’s rulers, who are seen as less actors than acted upon: “the empire created the emperors – not the other way around.” Dictators didn’t so much seize power in the waning years of the Republic as assemblies of the people gave it to them. The biographies of Caesar and the Caesars have provided fodder for generations of historians but Beard asks “What exactly did the emperor’s character explain? How much difference, and to whom, did the qualities of the man on the throne make?” Her answer: Not a whole lot. Augustus is still the one indispensable man (Beard singles out his reform of the army pension system, making ex-legionaries dependent on the state – that is, Augustus – and not their generals, as transformative), but “the qualities and characters of the individual emperors did not matter much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history and its major developments.”

With this being the general framework, Beard fills in the details in a lively and informed way, careful to register the limits of our actual knowledge. The emptiness of the archaeological and historical record for the early days of Rome in particular makes any kind of reconstruction mostly guess work. Even during the Empire, however, what we know has to be carefully weighed. The barbarians didn’t write their own history, for example, and as Beard points out the critiques we have of Roman imperialism come from members of the Roman elite like Tacitus, as they were the only ones capable of writing or reading history. Most citizens of the empire were illiterate peasants working hard at some form of manual labour from the cradle (or at least early childhood) to the grave.

It all makes for an excellent overview and guide, though it ends on a somewhat confusing note. Beard insists that we don’t learn from the Romans but instead engage with their history, entering into a conversation with them. I’m not sure this is a distinction that means anything. Perhaps it’s a nod to some sort of active, seminar-style teaching method. In any event, SPQR is a book that adds something both to our understanding of the past and of ourselves.

Review first published online January 25, 2016.

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