Published on - Lotte Poté

Mary Beard: Classicist with no hangups

In conversation with Annelies Beck

On 13 December, our Henry Le Bœuf Hall will play host to the monument that is Mary Beard: Professor at the University of Cambridge, television personality and author of numerous popularising but erudite books on antiquity. We spoke about Beard with Annelies Beck, who will be interviewing her.

The talk with Mary Beard will be postponed due to the new Covid-19 measures and will take place on 7 April 2022. 

Hello Annelies, in two weeks' time, you will be talking to Mary Beard, today one of the most prominent voices in the world of classical antiquity. Why is she so significant?

First of all, she is a great scholar, a specialist in the field of Classical Antiquity and Ancient Rome. She often makes the link to today. In her most recent book Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, for example, she considers 12 Roman emperors and how we've continued to use their images over the centuries. But she's also someone who opens up the Classical world to the general public. She's averse to any notion that Classical studies are elitist. In fact, she argues that history helps us gain a better understanding of what is going on today without the need to trace absolutely everything back to it. Through popular channels like television and Twitter, she tries to reach as wide an audience as possible.

She's indeed a very public figure. How did she come to assume that role? Why is she so popular?

She remains primarily a scholar of Classical Antiquity, but with an absolute commitment to the world here and now. She's been making TV programmes for a very long time. First of all, she's very good at what she does and secondly, she's an unconventional character. She's a woman who speaks about a field that has been occupied by men for a very long time, she is an 'older' woman and she does not dress the way the polished female TV characters invariably do. She always wear her long hair loose, she hardly wears any make-up and wears the clothes she likes. In short, what you see is what you get.

And she also steers clear from the clichéd image of the '(stuffy) professor'...

Yeah, and that's why she makes it all so accessible. There's a very nice example of that gift she has. Jamie Oliver created a series, Dream School, where he put all sorts of specialists in front of a class in a 'challenging school'. Beard stood there in front of a class that had never been taught Latin before and were prejudiced against it. By, for example, starting her lesson with one of David Beckham's tattoos, she managed to show that they already know and use Latin. She managed to get many of the students on board, and with a number of them she even instilled in them a fascination for Latin. I don't see many professors doing that in such a clever way.

In her books and programmes, Beard demonstrates how Classical Antiquity remains relevant today as one of the cultures that has shaped us, but above all as a culture that holds up a mirror to us, teaching us to see the prejudices of our own time. Do you think that culture could also actually be an eye-opener today?

To her mind, the link between then and now is not as clear-cut as that. Nothing is black and white, she mentions not only the great achievements, but also the cruelties of history. She always seeks the nuance and emphasises that you have to see history in its context. It's not a mirror of what we are experiencing today or of how we think, but through history, you can question your view of today. The same is true of Classical Antiquity. It's important to understand that part of history properly as well, if only to see how it is also misused in contemporary discourse, something Beard will always be keen to point out.

Is there a book you would recommend to people who have never read a Mary Beard book?

Even though she is, of course, a great story teller, SPQR may put some people off because of its volume. In that case, I can heartily recommend Women and Power. Mary Beard is also a very staunch feminist, but again with room for nuance. In Women and Power, she explains why, according to her, women still don't have that obvious position to share their opinion or expertise, a phenomenon with a very long history. For example, she refers to the fact that since Ancient Times, we have been taught that a woman's voice sounds less powerful and is, therefore, less convincing. This still determines our assessment of women who speak out or hold positions of authority, even today. But Beard also shows that you can resist this. The beauty of that essayistic book is that it connects experiences of today with historical examples based on her own analysis. Because she often engages in debate on Twitter and is often criticised on that platform. There's a famous anecdote where she got into an argument with someone who insulted her on Twitter and ended up having a coffee with him and becoming friends. That's one of the reasons I admire her so much: she continues to engage in conversation, even with people with whom she will never share the same views.

Finally, what makes Mary Beard unique?

Mary Beard is her uncomplicated self, she knows her worth and she doesn't get intimidated by anyone. But was that always the case? She's made it now, but perhaps her trajectory was less obvious than it appears now. In fact, that's something I would like to ask her at Bozar on 13 December.