Classicist who blogs in the limelight


WITNESSING A CLASSMATE’S crushing treatment at the hands of a professor who pronounced his essay boring, the young Mary Beard resolved this should never happen to her. A commitment to be as interesting as possible, to entertain, has driven her since, through decades of classical scholarship, advancement to the chair of classics at Cambridge, prolific publication and, most recently, a blog for Times Online. A Don’s Life, as it is named, might appear to roam far from the ancient world, to popular culture, reality TV and politics, but it is always anchored in some parallel with the classical past, writes HELEN MEANY

Judging by the volume of hits and comments it receives, it satisfies an abiding appetite for learning about the cultures of the Greeks and Romans, particularly when it delivers its insights in short, discursive blasts and a chatty style. “Ten things you thought you knew about the Romans but didn’t” is a typical post – it received 80,000 hits. Others vie for attention with headings such as “Pissing on the pyramids”, “Keep Lesbos for the Lesbians” and “Sex on the beach”. Many are serious and searching, bringing open-minded directness to huge questions, such as: “Why didn’t the Athenians give women the vote?” Beard’s capacity to cut through received ideas shines through, and, while this may not quite amount to being “wickedly subversive”, as the blog’s tagline claims, it is undeniably impressive.

Three years into the blog, its success has come as a surprise to Beard, and her enjoyment of writing it even more. As a selection of the best of the blog is published in book form this week, she reflects in its afterword on the unanticipated benefits of communicating online – even compared with publishing articles in the Times Literary Supplement, of which she is classics editor. The range of links she can add to her blog gives it “a distinct advantage over even the most learned article in the most upmarket broadsheet . . . You can put a link not only to background information but to the whole text in Latin, Greek or English. Far from dumbing down, this was raising the game of journalism”.

The other aim is to throw light on a world that can seem, from the outside, to be hermetic. Blog posts such as “A day in the life of a don” set out to demystify academic life and the workings of a Cambridge college. Her dispatches bring us closer to this environment while reminding us of its particularities and eccentricities. “How many academics does it take to buy a coffee-maker?” takes a satirical, if indulgent, view of stereotypical scholarly impracticality.

Much as she might like to dispel the stereotypes they are part of the reason her blog is so popular, and, while she happily mocks the cliches of port and privilege, it’s clear she is immensely proud of her position, her college – Newnham – and her classical training. The jokey blog persona could be an alter ego: talking to her in her tranquil rooms on an October morning, she comes across as quietly authoritative and hardworking.

“In a way the blog is misleading about the life of a don. It seems to be all about conferences and travel and is an inevitably glamorous view of Cambridge. What I don’t write about is solitary nights in the library, the hours spent teaching, marking essays and listening to students who come to talk to me about boyfriend problems or whatever. I don’t want to write about individual students, and abuse their trust, yet they are a huge part of my life.”

Over 30 years ago she was an undergraduate at Newnham herself. “Cambridge was much odder in 1973, partly because only one in 10 students were women. But I was very supported by being at an all-women college. And, as a young academic, there were things to gain as well as lose by the scarcity of women.

“It was certainly tough in the 1970s and 1980s, especially trying to manage the domestic economy, with two young children. [She is married to the art historian Robin Cormack, and they have two daughters.] But what was gained was prominence in all kinds of ways. Women had to exploit their situation and turn it around for themselves. Some didn’t, and got crushed. But we definitely got special attention. And you’ve got to use what you’ve got, even if that means flirting, which I did. I wanted to get my own way, and you can’t fight all the way.”

Her candour has led her into difficulties with the media: in one early blog post about the reputation of a professor who had been a notorious groper of female students she wrote: “One can’t help deploring the abuse of male power. But one also – honestly – can’t help feeling a bit nostalgic for that, now outlawed, erotic dimension to (adult) pedagogy”. This became quoted to suggest that she condoned sexual harassment of students by academics. “Be very careful what you say in the silly season,” she wrote in a later blog.

Similarly, her contribution to the London Review of Booksin the immediate aftermath of the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11th, 2001, caused enormous offence. She wrote that some people felt, “however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think”. Recalling the incident now, she says it taught her to be very careful. “I said ‘many people think’, not ‘I think’, but somehow that detail got lost.”

But none of this deters her from media appearances, and she is heard regularly on BBC Radio 4, on both cultural and current-affairs programmes. “Having intelligent people who are not politicians speak on the radio opens up the debate. I think, as a classicist, I have a different perspective.”

The possibilities for lateral thinking that classics offered gradually dawned on her as a school student, eager to escape from home in Shrewsbury. Initially drawn by the excitement of discovery on archaeological digs in school holidays, she soon realised that she had a gift for the classical languages. Her attraction towards the Romans rather than the Greeks came partly because of a facility for Latin. “I found Latin easier to read. Greek has greater mystique, and it’s more difficult. Learning it after Latin, I never quite grasped parts of the grammar,” she says, laughing. True or not, it’s a very reassuring remark.

“More seriously, the questions the Romans were interested in and wrote about interested me more. How do you deal with religious change, oppression, multiculturalism, the place of the citizen in the polity, in the empire, how do you engage with cultures older than yourself? These are the questions they grappled with and that still absorb us today.

“I was quickly taught here at Cambridge that it was crude to stereotype the Romans as brutish, and, the more I read, it became clear that all of the critiques of the Romans were made by themselves. Their culture created its own critiques and dissent. Oppressive cultures are interesting, not admirable, but they create fault lines and oppositions. And, I suppose, I got tired of the glorification of fifth-century Athens. But I’m not implying a value judgment here. The inheritance of Greece, of Athenian democracy, is hugely important for this country, especially in the electoral reforms of the 1840s. But it’s easy to forget that in the early 19th century Athenian democracy was regarded by scholars here as an example of mob rule.”

This interest in how the classical legacy has been interpreted and reinvented over the centuries, in different cultures and art forms, is a burgeoning field of academic research. Classical-reception studies is the growth area in the discipline, giving it a vogue that it certainly did not enjoy in the 1980s. Then, classics was often viewed as obscure and insular, not to mention politically and culturally conservative. The Oldest Dead White European Men looked as if they hadn’t much of a future.

“The perilous, embattled status of the subject actually helped,” Beard says. “Classics had to look at itself. We were being clobbered, and it was a chance to reflect. One great thing was that this forged an alliance between academics and school teachers of the subject, and that remains. We were all in this together, being told that the subject was not relevant. So we had to decide how we would sell it, and we did, and completely turned it around.”

What the growth of reception studies does reflect is that, unlike 19th-century scholars, who were fascinated by origins, we now seem more interested in the way cultural ideas are appropriated and reinvented over time, and in their fluctuating relationship to each other. An emphasis on uncertainty seems to chime with current intellectual and artistic predilections for reflexivity and process rather than originality and completion. Beard’s second-last book, The Roman Triumph, emphasises this ambivalent impulse, to brilliant effect. In its constant questioning of evidence and methodology it reveals the thought processes of an ancient historian who wants to show how she arrives at conclusions rather than simply presenting the result of her deliberations. “I wanted to convey a sense of what it is like to think about the ancient world, and what ancient research is like now.”

Similarly, in her role as classics editor at the TLS she aims to showcase “good arguments about the classical world, to show what people in the field are writing and thinking about”. Her next project is a television documentary based on her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, which won the 2008 Wolfson History Prize. Plenty of blog material there, from brothels to graffiti and the shortage of toilets, but mainly it will be an opportunity for her to expand on what, with typical scepticism, she calls the “Pompeii paradox: that we simultaneously know a huge amount and very little about ancient life there”.

It’s a Don’s Lifeis published by Profile Books, £8.99.