Confronting the Classics, by Mary Beard
Her enthusiasm – and a contrarian streak – make Britain’s most visible classicist an ideal advocate for her subject
Confronting the Classics
Mary Beard has been the most visible classicist in Britain for some years, with a large following for her blog, A Don’s Life, a string of popular books to her credit, and a BBC series, Meet the Romans .
She first made a public name as a reviewer, especially in the Times Literary Supplement , where she has been classics editor for more than two decades. It’s good news that she has now collected 31 of her reviews for the TLS , London Review of Books and New York Review of Books ; she prefaces them with a lecture delivered at the New York Public Library (“Do Classics Have a Future?”), and she closes with a fine essay on the craft of reviewing.
Any lay reader of this book is going to come away with an impression of classics as a lively, dynamic and engaged part of the world of ideas; perhaps with an impression of classics as a rather more lively, dynamic and engaged part of the world of ideas than it actually is.
Beard’s range is impressive, from Minoan Greece to the biographies of classical scholars she knew in person. Although the charismatic figures of Sappho, Thucydides and Alexander the Great make their appearances, her main focus is on the distinctly less glamorous Romans, who have occupied the great bulk of her scholarly work and who are a much harder sell to the general public than the athletic, musical and primal culture of the Greeks.
Scholars have always been happy enough to pat the Romans on the back for their commendable civil engineering, listing off the technological benefits they bestowed, more or less in the spirit of the People’s Front of Judea in Monty Python’s Life of Brian (“aqueduct, sanitation, roads . . .”). But Beard’s Romans are sophisticated and self-aware agents, not hobbled by any cultural cringe in the face of the Greeks in the way so many modern students of the Romans are hobbled before the grand paradigms of scholars who study the Greeks.
She is intrigued by that world of theirs, so unlike ours in so many ways, and her penetrating curiosity comes through again and again. She responds in a flash to the telling detail, the snippet of information that suddenly gives access to the intimacy of their lives. In one of these pieces, for example, she has a discussion of the Oracles of Astrampsychus, a little-known collection that generates answers to questions about sex, illness, debt, the usual things. But then she picks out one question that is less expected, with an even less expected answer: to the question “Am I going to see a death?”, the answer, seven times out of 10, will be “Yes”. As she says, this “tells us something of the realities of ancient life, for everyone”.
A key preoccupation throughout all these reviews is the problem of what can actually be known about the experience of the Greeks and Romans, so that readers are not just being entertained and informed but also getting an education in method. On the one hand, Beard rightly reminds us that an amazing amount of writing and other material has survived from that so thoroughly wrecked world; on the other hand, she is always pointing out the limits of our evidence, often in the context of the problems of writing a biography of a person from ancient history.
For a Greek or a Roman, we simply lack the evidence necessary to write the kind of internal and psychological biography that modern tastes enjoy and that modern evidence can do something to satisfy. In fact, as Beard points out in reviewing a life of the emperor Hadrian, even our modern idea of the shape of a life, the idea that a person has a life story, is not something we can securely project back on to them.
Another constant preoccupation of Beard’s is the need to be on our guard against received wisdom and canards of all kinds; she is always urging us to scrutinise the biases of our sources and the inertia of scholarly tradition. She is not often caught out herself. One rare example of her taking the ancient tradition too much at face value is in her account of the exploits of Hannibal. The Roman sources were so discomfited by Hannibal’s annihilation of two Roman armies in succession in 217 BC and 216 BC that they pinned the blame on two generals who were not out of the top drawer. Beard follows this line too easily, blaming Rome’s defeats on “a series of rash and inexperienced generals who insisted on engaging the Carthaginians head on”.
But the Romans at Cannae in 216 BC were commanded by men who inherited an astoundingly long tradition of victory through pitched battle: before Hannibal’s invasion, the last time the Romans had lost a major land engagement was back in 255 BC, when Regulus’s army was rubbed out in Africa, and they had not lost a battle on Italian soil since the battle of Asculum in 279 BC, when King Pyrrhus won his second “Pyrrhic” victory. The Roman commanders at Cannae thought they knew what they were doing as they led their legions into the maw of the Carthaginian army. It was bad luck that the opposing commander was in a different league from their usual adversaries.
Beard has a contrarian streak. She caught a fair amount of flak when she originally published some remarks on the way the Corpus Christi professor of latin at Oxford, Eduard Fraenkel, used to grope female undergraduates. For someone of her generation, she said then, while feeling outrage at the abuse, “it is also hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy – which had flourished, after all, since Plato – was firmly stamped out”. So it took some chutzpah to choose this piece for republication. I can only say that this observation seems as daft to me as ever.
Beard has an amazingly wide range of interest and enthusiasm, so it is diverting to note that she has a few blind spots. She really doesn’t like Livy, the monumental Latin historian of Augustus’s time whose stocks have been booming in professional circles for 20 years. She raps him over the knuckles for a single Greek translation error, maybe a hard standard for a time without dictionaries or Penguin Classics. But this frank expression of taste is all part of the zeal and commitment that make this energetic collection such a pleasure to read.
For professionals and lay readers alike, this volume is worth reading cover to cover. Classicists are lucky to have Mary Beard as an advocate for their subject. More importantly, the reading public are lucky to have her as an ambassador from the world of classics.
Denis Feeney is Giger professor of Latin at Princeton University. He is finishing a book on why there is a literature in the Latin language.