In 2016 I think I bought two books (the rest were either gifts, library books or review books)- this and Greg Jenner’s book. Because I tend to read my review books first- and any library books, of course- ‘my’ books get pushed to the bottom of the pile.
I enjoy Mary Beard’s work a lot. For someone who regrets not taking history past Year 9, I find her books and TV programmes informative and interesting; I have learnt a lot from her. (I will always have a soft spot for Mary because I read a couple of her books of collected columns when D was very, very tiny. They were the perfect length for my brief baths. She was very kind when I would tweet random questions to her in the middle of the night and would often reply quite quickly.) This book, unlike her excellent book about Pompeii- which I read at the time the British Museum had its huge exhibition on artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, covers the birth of Rome up until 400CE. This means that it takes in wars, the career of Cicero, the first fourteen emperors and the lives of those across the Empire.
I did find parts of the book heavy going (teeny-tiny font didn’t help!) and it did take longer than usual for me to read the book as I tried desperately to keep track of wars, generals and feuds- and I say this as someone who watched the accompanying series a while back. Where I did enjoy the book was where Beard moved out of the Republic and into the era of the emperors; it was easier to keep track of and understand. Maybe it’s my own brain that found it easier to understand this. I suspect it is. But where I think she truly excels is in the exploration of the lives of ordinary Romans, bringing to life what the man and the woman on the street might have experienced. This was the part of the book I enjoyed the most and the part that really stood out for me when reading. I suppose it’s easier to identify with those people who just get on with life, regardless of what the political elites are doing.
And, although Beard cautions us against reading too much of the modern world in the Roman one, it does feel like the right time to be reading this book. There was distrust of the elite in Rome, there were similar problems (how do you look after the poor?) and there were politicians using foreigners as scapegoats. All of these things seem familiar in a world where is currently very possible to feel like everything is upside down. Was this book a bit of a brain workout? Yes. Did I learn something? Definitely.