For the 1,900 years between Tacitus’s Annals and Robert Graves’s I, Claudius, accounts of Roman history have most often focused on its emperors and conquerors, and above all on Julius Caesar, founder of a line of autocrats who took his name and the title princeps civitatis, “first citizen” of Rome. These Caesars, to paraphrase Shakespeare, bestride recent depictions of Roman life like colossi. However, as Mary Beard boldly asserts in her new history of the era, SPQR, “The qualities and characters of individual emperors did not matter very much to most inhabitants of the empire, or to the essential structure of Roman history.” Beard’s sweeping historical survey rejects the “great man” approach that divides the story of ancient Rome into “emperor-sized” chunks, focusing instead on the Senatus Populus que Romanus, the Senate and People of Rome, with a distinct tilt toward the latter.

Beard, who teaches classics at Cambridge, is a perennial champion of Rome’s underrepresented and oppressed, both in her scholarly writings and in her frequent contributions to critical journals and online media. The ruins of Pompeii, where the life of the common Roman man and woman is more recoverable than anywhere else, have always fascinated her; they furnished the subject both of a celebrated 2008 book, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, and a subsequent BBC documentary. She explored jokes and humor, the most demotic of cultural forms, in her Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, published in 2014. Lately she has been focusing on tombstone inscriptions, the sole literary record the average Roman left behind. In her recent Anthony Hecht Lectures, delivered at Bard and New York’s Morgan Library, she used these to allow the ancient dead to speak engagingly in their own voices.

In SPQR, Beard draws again on tombstones, along with a host of other objects and ephemera, to reconstruct the lives of everyday Romans. Inscriptions on slingshot bullets attest to the laddishness of the Roman legionnaire: “I’m going for Fulvia’s clitoris,” reads one projectile that was fired at the forces of Mark Antony, Fulvia’s husband. (Beard, as expert in philology as she is in material culture, dutifully notes that this is the earliest known use of the anatomical term landica). The epitaph of an overworked ex-slave named Ancarenus Nothus, a man who was often behind on his rent, proclaims, “I’m enjoying free board and lodging for all eternity.” The ruins of a bar in Ostia, Rome’s salty harbor town, contain a cartoon of the great Greek philosophers soberly dispensing advice on flatulence and bowel movements.

Like any History of Ancient Rome, as its subtitle proclaims it to be, SPQR follows the evolution of culture over time, but its chronology is differently weighted than in other such volumes. Beard moves slowly and carefully through the first five centuries of Roman history, between the legendary feral children Romulus and Remus, dated by the Romans to the mid-eighth century B.C., and the wars with Carthage that began in the mid-third. It was during this era when Roman identity was forged, the Roman system of government took shape, and the expansionist drive that would eventually create an “empire without limit” (the phrase is Virgil’s) gathered momentum. Beard makes all she can here of what little early evidence can be found; then, paradoxically, she picks up speed as she reaches the imperial era, starting around 31 B.C., where surviving records are much fuller. She gives a detailed account of Augustus, the first in the imperial line, but then whizzes through his 14 successors, spanning the first two centuries of the Christian era, in a single chapter. Caligula, Nero, and Marcus Aurelius come and go in a flash.

It isn’t just that Beard mistrusts the ancient evidence about these men, though mistrust she does—they simply don’t interest her very much. The problem of power they dealt with, as each in turn explored the licenses that the new office of princeps conferred, is not a story she wants to tell, though the success of recent cinematic treatments and imperial biographies shows how many modern readers want to hear it. “Emperors fix in people’s mind a version of Roman culture,” Beard recently told an interviewer for The Guardian. “They were crueler and more lusty than us. So one role Rome has is to be larger than life.” Both that version and that role, Beard implies, are deeply misguided.

Beard in fact rejects the heroizing tendencies of the “great man” approach to history, whether in the ancient or modern worlds. Was Spartacus, the former gladiatorial slave who became leader of a slave army, a champion of freedom and abolition? “That is next to impossible,” Beard objects, fearlessly sticking her pin into the myth spawned by Stanley Kubrick’s great film. Was Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who invaded Italy and almost finished Rome at the Battle of Cannae, a brilliant military mind? “Despite the almost mystical admiration for Hannibal’s battle plans at Cannae … they amounted to little more than a clever version of going round the back of the enemy.” Indeed, Beard casts a jaundiced glance on nearly all attempts to lionize Roman leaders or their achievements. An astute political observer, she is ever alert to the ways that greatness can be manufactured, manipulated, or superimposed on an enemy to justify military escalations.

Even to a cynical commentator, however, some leaders are greater than others. Beard seems to cherish Cicero, the first-century B.C. orator and senate leader, a man who was himself deeply flawed and who, in many of his surviving letters, picks out the flaws of his contemporaries or deflates their pretensions. Indeed, Beard disrupts chronology so as to open SPQR with the episode of Cicero’s handling of a conspiracy against the state, his “finest hour” as she terms it—though it ended with questionable legal tactics and summary executions. She deftly traces the ways in which the orotund opening of Cicero’s senate speech denouncing Catiline (quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra, or, “How long, Catiline, will you try our patience?”) has become a cry of political outrage in many modern conclaves and protests. In future editions of SPQR, she will no doubt add the example of Senator Ted Cruz, who, in a speech on the Senate floor last November, attacked President Obama’s steps on immigration by parroting whole paragraphs of Cicero’s speech, inserting contemporary names and terms with an effect that was widely judged at the time to be ridiculous. 

SPQR charts the rise of Rome, but ignores its decline and fall; it ends with the reign of Caracalla in the third century A.D., when the western empire still had a good quarter of a millennium left to run. The focus on expansion and growth naturally leads to a search for explanations. How was it that a small city-state, for centuries no bigger than a modern college campus, came to control half of the known world? The Romans themselves touted their national character—embodied in the myth of Romulus and Remus, who were sired by Mars, god of war, and suckled by a she-wolf—as the reason for their success. But Beard rejects such essentialist thinking: “The Romans were not by nature more belligerent than their neighbors and contemporaries, any more than they were naturally better at building roads and bridges,” she asserts.

SPQR instead looks for answers in a model of citizenship, unprecedented in the ancient world, that allowed all the peoples of Italy, then much of Western Europe, and finally tens of millions of people in all corners of the empire to call themselves Romans. “In extending citizenship to people who had no direct territorial connections with the city of Rome, [the Romans] broke the link, which most people in the classical world took for granted, between citizenship and a single city,” Beard writes. Athens, at one time the leading city of the Greek world, had become more restrictive of its rights and privileges as it grew in power, granting full citizenship only to the children of two citizen parents. Its arrogant exclusion of subjects from the benefits of empire often prompted them to unite against it. Rome, by contrast, grew ever more inclusive as it increased its power and territorial reach, a process that culminated in 212 A.D.—significantly, the endpoint of SPQR’s narrative—with the universal grant of citizenship to all nonslaves within Roman borders.

Beard must have written SPQR well before the start of the current influx of Middle Eastern migrants into Europe, but I’m sure she would welcome efforts to apply her analyses to modern struggles over citizenship, identity, and inclusion. Though she holds off from drawing policy lessons, she sprinkles her writing with terminology that suggests where parallels might be traced. In her opening pages, for example, we find Cicero taking charge of “homeland security” and using “sting operations” to unmask the “terrorist plot” of a usurper named Catiline. This might seem heavy-handed—“terrorist” and “terrorism” don’t really fit Catiline, who was seeking to control the state, not merely undermine it—but the mild electric charge of the anachronisms carries a valuable message. What we are about to read is not mere “ancient history,” a phrase that, much to the horror of classicists, has come to denote irrelevance, but a national saga that compares, in complex ways, with our own.

Beard strives to articulate that complexity in her closing pages. While Roman history may help us to think through modern problems, it teaches no lessons. “There is no simple Roman model to follow. If only things were that easy,” she writes. But that does not mean that Cicero’s denunciation of Catiline, spoken in the Roman Senate over two millennia ago, should be out of bounds in contemporary debate. “We do not want to follow Cicero’s example, but his clash with the bankrupt aristocrat … still underlies our views of the rights of citizens and still provides a language for political dissent.”

Beard ends on an engagingly personal note: “For me, as for anyone else, the Romans are a subject not just of history and inquiry but also of imagination and fantasy, horror, and fun.” That last word is not one that Cambridge dons often use of their research, but it helps define what sets Beard apart as commentator and what sets SPQR apart from other histories of Rome. Though she here claims that 50 years of training and study have led up to SPQR, Beard wears her learning lightly. As she takes us through the brothels, bars, and back alleys where the populus Romanus left their imprint, one senses, above all, that she is having fun.