Christopher Allen reviews 'SPQR' by Mary Beard

Christopher Allen reviews 'SPQR' by Mary Beard

SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

by Mary Beard

Profile (Allen & Unwin), $49.99 hb, 544 pp, 9781846683800

At the very bottom of Hell, Dante represents Satan with three mouths, each of which endlessly devours a figure personifying treachery and rebellion against God. One of these, predictably enough, is Judas. What may be surprising to the modern reader is that the other two are Brutus and Cassius, the assassins of Julius Caesar. In the medieval vision of the universe and of human history, however, there was a direct equivalence between these individuals: one betrayed the Son of God, the other two attempted to frustrate His plan for the institution destined to govern the temporal life of humanity, namely the Roman Empire.

This remarkable passage helps us to understand why Rome has always possessed such authority and symbolic resonance within Western culture. Its institutions, for all their often tumultuous history, proved the most durable ever devised by a human society, especially if we consider that the eastern empire in Constantinople survived the fall of Rome for a thousand years. When order was re-established under Charlemagne after centuries of barbarian invasion, his new state was framed as a restoration of the Empire; under Charlemagne's Ottonian successors, after another interval of barbarian savagery, the Carolingian Empire became the Holy Roman Empire, enduring throughout the middle ages – for Dante it was the living successor of ancient Rome – and in effect until the Congress of Vienna two hundred years ago. Even after that, kaisers and tsars continued to use the name of Caesar as their title; and the Roman talent for administration lives on today in the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church.

Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in March 2016, no. 379
Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen

Christopher Allen is currently Senior Master in Academic Extension at Sydney Grammar School. He is the national art critic for The Australian.

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.