Rome began with a bloody beginning: Mars raped the king’s sister, who gave birth to twins. Since the king had deposed his brother, he ordered the babies drowned in the river to get rid of the heirs, but the man did not do it. Conveniently, a lactating she-wolf nursed the twins (lupa was also slang for “prostitute”), and when they grew up, the deposed king recognized them. They helped him back to his throne, and then went off to found their own city. Romulus killed Remus over a quarrel about where to locate the city, and then had to invite outlaws to populate his city. Finally, they stole the daughters of the Latines and Sabines for wives. Some Roman writers wondered if the civil wars were because Rome was founded on violence, and whether the difficulties in marriage were because the first marriage was rape. The origin story also sets the foundation for inviting foreigners into Rome; Rome was always fairly welcoming of foreigners, much more so than the rest of the ancient world.
Archeological evidence shows that people were living in Rome by 800 BC, and that it was much like the other small towns around. The seven Roman “kings” would have ruled over 10 or 20 thousand people, more like what we would call chieftains. Beginning a pattern, some of the kings were foreigners (Etruscans) and one was a slave; most had a bloody end. One of them created the system of centuries, which provided men armed according to their wealth (more wealth required better armament); this later became the voting categories. The last straw was when the princes argued over whose wife was more beautiful, so they went to look at them all, with one prince being taken with the one whose wife was acclaimed most beautiful and asked her to sleep with him. She refused, he said he would do it in a way that would frame her, so she acquiesced, then told her husband and killed herself to maintain her honor.
Roman writers saw the first two hundred years after the kings as a struggle by the plebians for inclusion in the political process. By means of a series of strikes the plebians gained the right to elect tribunes to represent their interests. Gradually they won the tribunes' laws being binding over all citizens of Rome, the right to not be sold into slavery for debts, the right for laws to be made public, and for political offices and priesthoods to be open to plebians. By 367 BC Rome seems to have become a Republic. Before that date many of the titles recorded for the consuls sound like a temporary dictator, but that does not happen afterwards. Also, a dictionary records that before that time the Senate was the consuls’ advisors, but after that it became a permanent body with a lifetime membership to everyone who had been elected Quaestor or higher.
About 400 BC Rome made the decision that probably was most responsible for their eventual conquering of the Mediterranean. Prior to that the nearby cities all raided each other regularly. Rome did two things differently. First, conquered cities kept their own government, which reduced the amount of manpower required to govern. Second, all they were required to do was provide fighting men at their own expense. This ensured that Rome had a bigger army. So Rome could lose battles but keep sending out legions until they won.
The expansion of Rome was largely not the result of a master plan, but happened on its own. Family culture strongly encouraged sons to live up to the glory of their forebears, and one way to do that was to win victories and bring back plunder. Defeating Carthage also substantially increased Roman power. And eastern kingdoms would frequently lobby Rome to intervene on their behalf. It probably helped that Rome generally ruled with a light hand; imperium initially meant “the ability to give orders that are obeyed” rather than “we tell you how to live your life”, so conquered regions mostly governed themselves. Polybius in his history of 246 BC - 146 BC attributes Roman success to the stability of the government due to the consuls acting as the monarchy, the Senate as the aristocracy, and the tribunes representing the people (the people also elected the consuls).
Beard asserts that the empire is what created the emperors. Eventually things got big enough that their system could not adequately govern, so they tended to elect people who got the job done, and since autocracy is efficient, they tended to elect authoritarians. The patricians did not welcome outsiders, so they had a shortage of available talent. Starting in 146 BC, the political system broke down, with violence becoming the way to settle political differences. The Gracchus brothers attempted populist reforms, which ended in their bloody death by their opponents. Some military crises led to generals exercising power, either directly or indirectly, including Pompey who could arguably be the first emperor. Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus formed a triumvirate to advance their interests together. Caesar’s interest was military victories, and he spent 10 years killing one million Gauls, and adding western Europe to the empire. After his campaign ended, he would need to step back into civilian life where he could be prosecuted for alleged crimes while in office. Since no one, including Pompey, offered him any assurance of support, he decided to “roll the dice and see what happens” and marched on Rome. Caesar made the mistake of looking like a king: he was made dictator for life, and allowed to wear the same costume Jupiter wore in his temple (supposedly Caesar liked to wear the laurel wreath because it covered his bald spots). This latter represented Jupiter’s actions through the general, and was worn only by the general during his triumphal procession; the right to wear it suggested divinity. Brutus and several dozen other conspirators stabbed Caesar to death (incompetently) after asking to present a petition as he left the Senate. Their goal was liberty—of Senators—any such liberty might have had little effect on the lives of plebians or slaves. However, Brutus’ liberty was shown to be fairly autocratic when he started minting currency using his own head (also a sign of divinity) while ruler in his province in the east later on.
Cicero advised the Senate to convene immediately after Caesar’s, but they did not. As a result Caesar’s great-nephew, and heir, Octavion, rushed back to Rome on hearing of Caesar’s death, and gained political power in a sort of coup, eventually winning the ensuing civil war. Octavion had a rather bloody reputation, and he changed his name to Augustus, which was not a real word but had the flavor of “glory”. He made a point of refusing to be made dictator; rather he was given the power of the tribunes (but was not one) and the rights of a consul (but was not one). There were still elections, but he exercised such control that his candidate always won. The Senate remained, and started becoming more administrative than legislative. He was called princeps (“first citizen”), not “emperor”, and he still lived in a relatively normal patrician house. His wife still spun wool. He also made at least 250 statues of himself—all in an idealized style—so that the empire had a visible ruler. His own words summing up his rule were: he brought military victory (e.g. over “foreigners” like Cleopatra, even though Egypt was already within the Roman sphere); he spent lots of money on the people: hosting gladitorial events once a year, as well as some cash handouts; and he built many magnificent public buildings. These three things were the template of a “good emperor” for the next 200 years.
Dividing emperors into “good” and “bad”, however, is not very helpful, because the evaluations that have come down to us were one-sided. Roman politics tended to demonize one’s enemy, and so the stories about various disgraced emperors may be propaganda. Austerity was a key Roman moral virtue, so in the Republican period the eastern rulers were seen as decadent and morally weak as a result of their lavish lifestyle. Corruption, amassing political power to become a king, sexual profligacy, and other moral failings were frequently written about enemies. For instance, despite the accusations that Nero set Rome on fire to build his decided un-austere palace—with revolving dinning room floor!—even his enemies admitted that he gave substantial money to families displaced by the fire, which tends to lessen the strength of the idea that he was a harsh dictator burning the city to build his palace.
We get limited pictures of what daily Roman life is like, and what is written is from the patrician perspective, with archaeology supplying the rest. We get a lot of information from Cicero’s letters, like that his house on the Palatine Hill cost 3 million sesterces. (It is unclear how all that money was transferred; presumably not in actual coin!) Generally the wealthy and the poor lived right next to each other; the poor lived on the outside of the block and the wealthy had their house more on the interior, further away (but not entirely removed from) from the noise of the street. The poor lived in tenements called insula, which were not good places to live; Cicero said of one of his insula that the rats had fled it. The better and more spacious rooms were on the lower floors, with the rooms getting smaller the higher you went. They also got less safe: the upper rooms were harder to exit safely in case of the occasional fire. Restaurants and bars were cheap and plentiful, so most people spent their time out of their flat, although the wealthy would cook their own food in the privacy of their home. Judging from the artwork on the bars, including scatological puns based on seven Greek sages’ philosophies, and the clever poetry on some gaming boards, people had a fairly wide level of basic literacy and basic cultural education—the philosophical puns are not very funny if you do not know the sages’ philosophy. There was no police, and the courts were expensive, so most people had to resort to buying curses at the temple to get justice.
About 20% of the empire were slaves. One might become a slave to pay debts, because you were captured in war, or because pirates captured and sold you. However a large amount of slaves were eventually freed (if the master was a Roman citizen, the slave also became one), and slaves could buy their freedom as well. Slaves could also run away to a part of the empire that did not recognize them and claim to be free. Generally the lot of a slave was hard—that idea that slaves deserved to be whipped was fairly endemic, in addition to the fact that most masters were not living very well themselves—although slaves in a patrician house might live better than free men. In the imperial times, the emperor’s several thousand slaves were the administration of the empire (under patrician direction).
Marriage was a fairly simple affair. You were married if both people said they were, and not if one or both of them said otherwise. A girl’s first marriage was generally around age 16, with men marrying in the early twenties. Patrician families often married to cement relationships, such as when Pompey married Caesar’s daughter. Multiple marriages were not uncommon for men and women; Cicero got married twice, and his daughter Tullia was married three times. If a man got unmarried, though, he had to return the dowry. A virtuous wife was one who had children (to keep the population steady required an average of nine children per woman), was faithful to her husband, kept the home, and spun wool.
The structure Augustus created worked well, but after 200 years its flaws started creating problems. The relationship between the emperor and Senate was never really resolved; in theory the Senate had its own authority, but obviously that conflicted with the emperor having ultimate authority. As the emperors spent more time in the east there was no longer the personal interaction between emperor and Senate to keep peace. Another problem was that the emperor claimed to be divine, but clearly he was not in the same league as the real pantheon (and had to be ratified as a god by the Senate after his death), leading to some awkward contradictions. Finally, Augustus had tried to remove the army from deciding his successors by stationing them at the edges of the empire, away from Rome, and by promising them a plot of land after twenty years of service. But paying the army was very expensive, and the private guard was still in Rome. Successful succession required careful political alliances and the physical presence of the successor at time of death. By the time the book ends, in 212 AD when Caracalla made everyone in the empire a citizen, the system had started to break down. The first 200 years had 14 emperors; the next 100 years had 80. By that time things had changed to be a very different state.
Beard summarizes 1000 years of history in 600 pages or so, which is a daunting task. SPQR gives a high-level overview of the important events and personalities in Roman history, the structural forces behind the events, and a feel for what it was like to live in the Roman empire. She livens up the history with relevant personal vignettes, which also serve to illustrate the points she makes. She also brings a wide range of archeological information, including from digs she participated in, to inform daily life, as well as to interpret Roman writers who were frequently loose with the facts. I found the daily life sections most interesting, as they were completely new to me, and covered the basics in a way that I can imagine what life is like.
The difficulties with such an enormous summary is that it is necessarily high-level. If you are looking for a detailed chronology of the history of Rome you will be disappointed. There are actually plenty of details, but only about selected events. However, missing events are made up in the accessible length of the book, but more importantly in discussion of more fundamental forces. She answers why it was Rome of all the cities in Italy that conquered the world. She offers an answer to why the Republic fell apart and became an Empire. She discusses how Augustus managed to be a king without getting himself killed like Caesar did.
One thing that drove me nuts, especially in the early period of Rome where the source information is fairly scanty, is that Beard frequently says “of course, what [this Roman writer says] cannot possibly be what actually happened”. One problem is that often she does not say why she thinks this. The second problem is that it is really arrogant of us moderns to think that we know better than they do, even though we are over two millennia farther away from the event. Maybe they are, in fact, wrong. But modern historians have a history of saying things like “of course the Illiad cannot possibly have happened” and then we dig up Troy, or “of course the Bible’s mention of Pontius Pilate must be made up because we have not found anything referencing this guy” and then we dig up a monument with his name on it. I can understand why you would have limited trust in ancient sources, but the fact is, they are the most reliable source you have. It seems like you should have a pretty solid reason why the ancient sources are wrong about their own history that happened within several lifetimes of the writer.
But that is a minor annoyance. Beard has written a great overview of the Roman empire. She covers the essential information, and discusses the essential questions. In so doing she gives a foundation for the reader to know what to research further, since ancient Rome is much too big a topic to cover in one book. At the same time, she gives many details about the specific situation, so that you know that she is condensing from a lifetime’s worth of source material. As much as I wished for more details, I also realized that to get them would require reading thousands of pages of Roman writers. Beard has done a great job of distilling the essences of the Roman empire and its history.