Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Last updated date: June 18, 2019

DWYM Score
7.7

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We looked at the top 1 History Books and dug through the reviews from 10 of the most popular review sites including Good Reads, New York Journal of Books, NY Books, Patrick T. Reardon, UNRV, National Review, The Scotsman, Danvers Library, Write Out Loud, Bookin With Sunny and more. Through this analysis, we've determined the best History Book you should buy.

Overall Take

In our analysis of 76 expert reviews, the Mary Beard Mary Beard SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome placed 10th when we looked at the top 10 products in the category. For the full ranking, see below.

Editor's Note July 2, 2019:
Checkout The Best History Book for a detailed review of all the top history books.

Expert Summarized Score
7.4
10 expert reviews
User Summarized Score
8.2
843 user reviews
Our Favorite Video Reviews
What experts liked
In the best tradition of Roman prose, the author uses descriptive words to write more image in fewer but more potent ways. SPQR is also printed in a font easy on the reader's eyes. The extensive illustrations compliment this theme of finding meaning not just by reciting history but by exposing meaning by explaining method.
- New York Journal of Books
Yet by an astonishing coincidence two contemporary English authors who write often and well about ancient Rome, Mary Beard and Tom Holland, have simultaneously produced readable histories of Rome. Between them they have done more to promote classical studies than all the professors who try to reach thousands…
- NY Books
SPQR is a book about the warp and woof of Roman society, high and low, and about the roots and evolution of Roman culture. And, it seems to me, Beard chose the title exactly because it doesn’t suggest any of those sensational and scandalous facets that have defined popular ideas of Rome down the centuries.
- Patrick T. Reardon
To say that I loved this book would be an understatement. Mary Beard is a scholar with a common touch. She certainly set an ambitious goal for herself in writing this book to recount the history of Rome's first millennium but as it actually happened, not just as it is written.
- UNRV
Beard’s work is not intended as a straightforward chronicle; it is, rather, a triumph of interpretation. More than with any treatment since, perhaps, Edith Hamilton’s classic The Roman Way (1932), Beard’s readers will understand Rome, but how much they will know about Rome is another question.
- National Review
Beard guides you on an enthralling journey through the Roman world. However well you think you know the country, she gives different views, new aspects. Even those who know a lot about Rome will learn more, and find themselves questioning much of which they were previously certain. SPQR does what history should do.
- The Scotsman
What’s impressive about this book though is even as Beard is calling into question everything we thought we knew about Roman history she still manages to tell a great story. She also draws as much as possible on the day to day life of Romans to tell the story. This is a great book for anyone into Roman history.
- Danvers Library
Mary Beard is exceptionally skilled at the ferreting-out-process. She has the rare ability to present a historical narrative with its ambiguities intact. She lets the reader see her mind at work as she analyzes the various sources concerning a particular event or person.
- Bookin With Sunny
What experts didn't like
The problem with this subject, however, lies in that credible material exists only during certain periods that must somehow stretch to include centuries earlier. That scholarship and science provide too little credible information on this is important.
- New York Journal of Books
Beard does her best to bring to life the often invisible plebeians, women, and slaves of the empire. But the reader will come away with only a basic knowledge of how the Roman army evolved. At the end, a sympathetic reader may well feel what it was like to be Roman but he will have little understanding of how it all came to be.
- National Review
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.
- Write Out Loud
But beware! This book covers 1,000 years of Roman history and no matter howeconomically writtenn it is still substantial. At 800 pages SPQR is a hefty book even in electronic format.
- Bookin With Sunny

From The Manufacturer

A professor of classics at Cambridge University, Mary Beard is the author of the best-selling SPQR and Women & Power and the National Book Critics Circle Award–nominated Confronting the Classics. A popular blogger and television personality, Beard is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books.

An Overview On History Books

  • You’ll likely choose a history book based on an event you simply want to learn more about. If you’re fascinated with the history of man, Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” will appeal to you. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” focuses on 500 specific men, covering Operation Halyard, which was part of World War II. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” homes in on American history, tossing out the history taught in schools with the goal of teaching the unvarnished truth about our country. Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” tells the fascinating story of nine experienced hikers who died mysteriously after inexplicably exiting their tent during a camping trip.
  • Readability is huge with a history book, especially if you prefer a more casual, laid-back approach to storytelling. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” reads like a suspense novel, taking you along on the adventure. Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” is also immensely readable, retelling an already riveting story based on years of research. Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” on the other hand, is 464 pages and does tend to read a bit like a textbook.
  • The best history books go beyond merely telling a story, instead conveying a theme that can serve as a mirror of what humanity is going through today. Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” poses questions that make readers think. The author explores the reasons behind humans building large populations, compared to other primates that keep things small.
  • Some historical novels are worth reading simply because they tell a story that’s long overdue to be told. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” brings to light the men who had to fight hard to get back to their families, also acknowledging those who died for their right to do so.
  • Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is not objective, but that’s part of the book’s charm. With passion, the author tells the stories of the Americans often forgotten in history books — namely women and people of color, as well as factory workers and immigrant laborers.
  • Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain” tells the well-known Dyatlov Pass mystery, which has yet been solved. Although Eichar does detail the facts leading up to the hikers’ mysterious sudden departure from their tent into the blustery cold, snowy night, the rest is his own theory into what happened. He does pull as many facts as possible into making those statements, and his theory is better than most of the others that have been proposed in this case.
  • As valuable as all the other factors are, if the historical novel you’re reading isn’t accurate, it isn’t worth reading. Even when a book is accurate, though, you’ll usually find the author has no choice but to occasionally inject a personal opinion or two. In Yuval Noah Harari’s “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind,” for instance, the author structures an argument that the agricultural revolution was one of the biggest mistakes in history. Gregory A. Freeman’s “The Forgotten 500” shows a bias toward Draza Mihailovich, who was a Yugoslav Serb and friend of the U.S. during World War II. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” does assert heavily that the ruling class’s oppression of a part of the population is to blame for everything that has happened in America. In Donnie Eichar’s “Dead Mountain,” the author offers a scientific, weather phenomenon-related explanation for nine people rushing from a tent, separating and later being found dead in various conditions.

DYWM Fun Fact

There have been many theories about the Dyatlov Pass Incident since it happened in 1959. The tent had been cut open from the inside, and there were eight to nine sets of footprints leading to the edge of the nearby woods. What caused the hikers to cut a hole in the tent and run? All nine had died from hypothermia, but why they ran, and why they couldn’t make their way back to the tent later, remains a mystery. Some experts have theorized an avalanche, but there were no signs that an avalanche had happened. Experts have explored the possibility that the team stumbled into a radioactive weapons testing area and were forced out of their tent due to that. More recent theories have dismissed those, using what science knows today to provide a more plausible explanation for what happened there.

The History Book Buying Guide

Writer and philosopher George Santayana once wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” But before you can remember the past, you first must know about it. History class probably taught you all the basics, but it’s up to you, as an adult, to take a deep dive into various events.

The history section of a bookstore is as diverse as any other genre. It captures a span of centuries and events, covering everything from mysterious happenings to war heroes. As you browse, you’ll likely be drawn to the type of subject matter that best suits your interest. But more goes into a good historical novel than the topic it’s covering.

With any historical telling, you’re getting one person’s perspective on the events. A good author will conduct thorough research and even conduct numerous interviews in order to present all the facts to the reader. But many historical books are written with at least a little bias, as the author can’t possibly provide every single perspective. Make sure before you read that you’re going to get as accurate a portrayal as possible, rather than simply reading an author’s thoughts on what happened.

That said, there are some history books that require a bit of speculation. Even historical experts sometimes contribute their thoughts to these books. If you’re reading about a war, for instance, you may only get one side’s perspective, requiring you to pick up another book to get the full picture.

In the end, though, whether a history book is enjoyable or not will have a lot to do with how it’s written. Some history books are very straightforward, like a textbook, but many others inject humor or the author’s unique voice into the writing to keep you turning the page. Read a few pages of the book before you buy to make sure the writing suits your own personal tastes.