There’s so much out there about the “Decline and Fall” of the Roman Empire, it’s kind of refreshing to have a book about the very origins. Most of it isn’t new to me, though the boundaries between fact and imperial fiction can be; I have a GCSE and an A Level in Classics, so I was aware of the foundation myths of Rome, the rape of the Sabine Women, the seven kings, etc. It was nice to get more context for that, to know more about the actual grounding in fact — and to learn about Rome as a Republic, before the emperors, and to what extent it was ever democratic.
And of course, instead of focusing on why the Roman Empire fell, Beard focuses here on why it became great (while never glossing over the defeats and setbacks they suffered, which people can be prone to do). It was a hugely successful empire, beginning even before it was an empire, and Beard goes into a great deal of detail on why, how, who. Sometimes the details might be overwhelming, if you’re not that interested; it’s hard for me to judge, since I am interested.
The layout of the book is perhaps not intuitive, and people will wonder why Beard stops at Caracalla, when there was still life in the Roman Empire. But really, Beard isn’t writing just about the Empire, but about the Roman people, and what Rome meant to the world. What it still means; there are things we can learn even now about getting along. (Like absorbing each others’ religious beliefs, self-governance, becoming a citizen of the wider world as well as of our own countries…) Beard chooses to examine how Rome grew, how it became an empire; she stops before the decline, at the moment when Roman citizenship spreads across the empire.
Which is not to say that Beard thinks or states that the Romans were amazing or unproblematic or anything like that. There’s plenty of examination of the downsides and the faultlines; it’s just that Beard chooses to approach it differently to the typical post-Gibbon understanding, and is more interested in why it worked for so long than how it failed in the end.