Mary Beard, SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome.
“SPQR” is an ancient initialism for Senatus PopulusQue Romanus, The Senate and the People of Rome. SPQR, the book, is a sweeping book of about a thousand years of Roman history. The author is an eminent classicist who teaches at Cambridge. She's written more than a dozen books, but all her previous ones seem to be on specialized topics for fellow scholars. This is her first book with this kind of breadth.
“Ancient Rome is important,” Beard begins, and I agree with her. This book isn't mainly about the many aspects of our world today that come from Ancient Rome, although that's occasionally explicit and it's more often implicit in the ways that the ancient controversies and concerns still seem relevant. It's also not a retread of Gibbon; it's not about how or whether Rome fell. It's more in the spirit of the ancient historian Polybius, whom Beard quotes: “Who could be so indifferent or so idle that they did not want to find out how, and under what kind of political organisation, almost the whole of the inhabited world was conquered and fell under the sole power of the Romans in less than fifty-three years, something previously unparalleled?”
Starting and ending points are always arbitrary. Beard chose to go from the (mythical) founding of the city by Romulus and Remus in 753 BCE through the emperor Caracella's grant of citizenship to all free inhabitants of the empire in 212 CE. One of the real strengths of this book is Beard's clarity about what is and isn't known, how we know what we do, to what extent we should be skeptical of things we think we know and should look below the surface for alternative explanations. This is most obvious in the period covering the first few hundred years, when we have little but myths and oral traditions recorded by ancient writers; obviously we can't take them at face value (even many of the ancients were skeptical of Romulus and Remus's birth to a virgin priestess, and debated what it meant that the city began with the murder of a brother and mass rape), but she explores how the content and debate over the myth illustrated the way ancient Rome saw its own history. She points out an instance where a single word on a mostly indecipherable inscription in early Latin changed our understanding of this distant past — RECEI, meaning that the ancient historians were right and there really was a time when pre-Republican Rome was ruled by kings. She explains the painstaking scholarship that allowed us to reconstruct the Twelve Tables, the earliest version of Roman law.
Even in better documented times, times where there is so much surviving literature that no one person could possibly read it all in a lifetime, much is more mysterious or poorly understood or problematic than it seems. We know how Cicero portrayed Catiline and how Caesar portrayed Pompey, but not the reverse. We know very little of the lives of the vast majority of the empire. We know when Hadrian's Wall was built, but not why. (You might think the answer is obvious, as I did; it's not.) How seriously should we take the stories of the individual emperors, for example of Nero as monster? There are at least some indications that Nero wasn't universally hated; perhaps the more important part of the story is the way in which the imperial system maintained continuity for a couple centuries and may not have depended very much on the emperor himself.
I find ancient Rome fascinating, and I've been a fan of Beard's writing for some time (I read her blog regularly, and her articles in the New York Review of Books and elsewhere), so it's unsurprising that I liked this book a lot and learned a lot from it. Even if you're not an enthusiast, I can't think of a better introduction.