Professor Mary Beard talks about her new history of ancient Rome book

Historians in the News
tags: mary beard



Mary Beard’s informality has disarmed me since we first met at a party at her publisher’s office in Clerkenwell four years ago, when we ended up sitting on a communal staircase, chatting like a couple of students. Since then, she has answered all manner of journalistic questions from me, silly and serious, with either a rapid-fire thought-provoking response or, over the past year or so, something more like “bugger off, I’m finishing my book”. Now SPQR, her history of ancient Rome, is done and, one Friday afternoon in late September, I’m invited over for tea in the kitchen to talk about it. With a conspiratorial look, she promises me a glass of wine when the “tutorial” is over. 

Beard’s grand title, awarded 11 years ago, is Professor of Classics at Cambridge. Donnish she is not. Indeed, when we do get down to discussing her credentials, she describes 40 years in classics as being a “jobbing teacher on ancient history”.  

This book, which covers from the birth of Rome to AD212, when all in the Empire are granted citizenship, pitches itself firmly to the non-classicist. “People say ‘aren’t your Cambridge students different?’ First-years know no more about Roman history than anybody who might pick it up.” But this isn’t an A-level book: it is a distillation of 40 years of scholarship told by someone who has managed to strip away the patina of deference that has attached itself to classical studies. The over-arching values and absolutes of Rome are gone, so too the long slog through multiple Latin names and the blood and guts of wars. SPQR – the brand standing for Senatus Populus Que Romanus, the senate and the people of Rome – is a tussle of ideas. It wakes up the once-greatest city in the world again by asking: “Well, was it so great?”

There’s a gasp of exasperation in Mary Beard’s voice when it comes to talking about Cicero, the orator, consul, and compulsive letter writer, and staple for Latin students, who has become the template for Roman values. 

“He has so taken over. We see the republic through his eyes,” says Beard. “All the time, when writing this, you have to ask, ‘what does it look like from the other side?’.” ...




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