I did Latin at the little Co Sligo secondary school I attended. Fifty years ago it was fairly widely taught but not for some time now. However, the perception that the Classics are in decline is nothing new. What was the Renaissance but “a desperate last-ditch attempt to save the fleeting and fragile traces … from oblivion”? The upside of this sense of imminent loss, Mary Beard believes, is that it gives them “the energy and edginess” they still have.
By updating 31 reviews and essays that appeared in various publications, Beard takes a chronological approach to ancient Greece and Rome, aiming to cover some of their most compelling chapters and some of their most memorable characters. In doing so she confronts a number of issues, some obvious, some less so. One obvious one is “How great was Alexander?” (not very, it seems). A less obvious one is “What made the Greeks laugh?” (the things we laugh at haven’t changed much in two millennia).
Some insights into ancient Rome are the “spinning” around Caesar’s murder by proponents and opponents alike; the fact that Augustus was an emperor who could take – and make – a joke; and most of what we think we know about Cleopatra is actually a myth thanks to Augustus’s scribes, who demonised her.
Although Beard gives central Greek figures their due, she focuses much more on the Romans, probably because more of her scholarly work has been on them. Traditionally there’s been a greater sporting and cultural allure about the Greeks, while the Romans have tended to be lauded for their practical side – their engineering and technological achievements. To redress the balance, Beard tends to present the Romans as cultivated and self-assured and in no way inferior to the Greeks.
A point she emphasises again and again is how limits in the evidence we have curtail how much we can know about the period. This presents a major challenge, particularly when writing a biography of someone of the ancient world where creating a complete, “psychological” picture is impossible.
It’s a fascinating, enjoyable read, even for non-Classics buffs.