My classics knowledge is about 12 years old now, and only a first year undergraduate class at that, so it nice to read about it once again.
Mary Beard’s book is excellent in a many ways. Here are a few of my highlights.
Firstly, despite all the history, latin and complicated life and law of the Romans, it is such an easy read. It’s just smooth and entertaining. If you’re afraid of Roman history, I imagine this would be a daunting but rewarding first go (it is 536 pages after all).
Secondly, the analysis! You don’t even realise it’s happening! I think my favourite part of the book was the sceptical approach to the evidence from Roman in informing us what actually happened. Where images are one sided (Nero for example), Beard takes us through where the bias comes from. For example, particular ruthless emperors’ images come from the following emperor, perhaps trying to distance themselves from their predecessor (even though, they’re probably equally as bad in some cases).
Finally, the people. Though they can’t make as big an impact as Cicero, the elder or younger Pliny or the emperors themselves, we get fascinating glimpses into the lives of ordinary Romans or at least those who live in the empire.
One fascinating (and more local example) is Barates, a soldier from Palmyra, stationed at Hadrian’s wall. He had a monument created for his ex-slave wife, Regina. As Beard points out, she was probably his slave to begin with. But there’s aramaic inscriptions on this memorial up in the north of England. How unbelievably awesome.
There are so many fascinating glimpses like Barates throughout the entire book, but that’s all there is. It is still amazing, as Beard points out, that we have so much writing and evidence still left today but it always makes you wish for more.
Anyway, highly recommend this book. I can only hope to ever have the confidence and breadth of scholarship to ever write anything as nuanced and accessible as this book. What a delight.