She confronts the classics in her new book about what we can learn from ancient Rome, but Cambridge professor and author Mary Beard has also challenged the online bullies who attack her appearance rather than her opinions.
Britain’s best known classicist, Mary Beard, is posing for the camera. We’re in her rambling house in Cambridge, which is filled with books, crackling fires, paintings, worn furniture, stuffed birds, the sound of classical piano music drifting from her husband’s study, the smell of fresh coffee, and, yep, more books. In the midst of all this, The Oldie Magazine’s pin-up of the year stands in what fashion magazines call the half-urn (one hand on hip), long hair gleaming softly like polished silver, doing her best not to smile. This proves to be almost impossible. As the photographer points out in an attempt to get her to shut up and look serious, Beard is forever talking and almost always smiling. This is the case whether enthusing about the lives of Roman slaves on the telly, lecturing at Cambridge University where she is Professor of Classics, or squaring up to the never-ending line of people who abuse her.
For now she concentrates and gazes into the middle distance, trying to look the part of the remote and authoritarian don. It doesn’t last. She catches my eye, those clever eyes twinkle with mischief, and she starts grinning, revealing what she calls “my mother’s tombstone teeth”.
“I look like a 58-year-old woman,” she tells me later with a gleeful expression. “That is what I am. Most people know that this is what women my age look like. It isn’t a secret. But what all this abuse reveals is that we live in a culture in which the only way to be a post-menopausal woman is to pretend that you are not. This seems to me extraordinary.”
Thank god for Mary Beard or, as she simply calls herself, “Beard”. She is the anti-David Starkey, a living embodiment of the fact that Classics need not be the preserve of posh, white, conservative, and often dead men. To put it another way, the other classicist in the public eye is Boris Johnson, “and the only thing we agree on,” Beard points out, “is that it is important”. For this, her age, subversiveness, intelligence, grey hair, teeth, weight, and much else besides she has been the subject of what she quite rightly calls “gobsmacking misogyny”.
We’ll get to that, but first to her beloved Classics. Beard has a new book of essays out called Confronting the Classics, in which she argues for the future of her subject with typical verve and humour, posing questions along the way such as what made the Romans laugh (covered in her next book), did they have bad breath, and what we can learn from Asterix. Her overall position is that the Classics are never done and dusted. Our conversation with the ancient world goes on.
“People say it’s all translated, it’s the past, what does it matter?” she groans. “They think we should be teaching kids computers and Mandarin, not Latin. It’s very easy to fall into that argument without thinking it through. But what if you say – what would we lose if we stopped talking to the ancient world?”
What would we? “Well, one of the reasons the ancient world is important is that it’s always changing as we talk to it differently,” she goes on, settling comfortably into both chair and lecturer mode. “History is how we have learnt to think about ourselves. It’s not as though the Greeks and Romans are static entities out there to be discovered and translated. We make them speak, we talk to them, and they inform what we say. It isn’t a question of reverence. Some of them are absolutely horrible.”
I attempt to ask another question but Beard is on a roll now and there is no stopping her. As anyone who watched her inspect Roman speculums or root around in an ancient baker’s tomb on her brilliant BBC series Meet the Romans – and millions did – will know, this professor likes to talk. “If we lose that direct access to Julius Caesar or the drama of Greece you end up with a gory torso with the limbs of western culture hacked off.” She laughs loudly. “That’s slightly dramatic but I really do think it. The reason why the British theatrical tradition is world-leading in Greek drama is because there is a flourishing tradition of people rethinking Greek tragedy. It doesn’t just happen like the discovery of a fossil. It’s not a blasted dodo!”
But what about the argument that the Classics are, well, a bit like a fossil: old, calcified, irrelevant, and the preserve of the privileged? Basically, the last subject that you’d imagine to be of interest to someone like Beard. “That’s just another myth about the ancient world,” she bats back. “Over the last hundred years there has been a sense that Latin and Greek stand for class, wealth, privilege, patriarchy, empire, and other things we want to reject. There is nothing inherently conservative in the ancient world. We have decided to make it so. When universal suffrage was brought to this country how was that legitimated? Through looking at ancient Greek democracy. And where did people go to defend homosexuality? To Plato and the homoerotic world of ancient Athens. What did Karl Marx do his dissertation on? Greek philosophy! And where does Freud get his ideas about the human psyche? The plays of Sophocles!”
She could go on like this all day but instead I throw a few quick questions her way. Beard, after all, has never been one to shy away from controversy. (Most famously, she wrote an essay in the London Review of Books after 9/11 saying that “however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming”.) So, last month Hilary Mantel compared our image of Kate Middleton with the Tudor perception of Anne Boleyn (and found herself in the eye of a media storm over it). How would Beard view the Duchess of Cambridge through the gaze of the ancient Greeks and Romans?
“She would have been disposed of more easily,” she replies. “Marriage in the ancient world was unashamedly about breeding. And like now there was a lot of fear of women’s sexuality; fear that the empress would be impregnated by somebody else, fear of her potentially uncontrolled sexual power.”
Next I ask her to tell me a Roman joke. “A guy sells a slave to a friend of his,” she says without hesitation. “After a couple of days the slave dies. So the guy goes back to the person who sold it to him and says, hey that slave you sold me died. The guy says ‘that’s funny. He never did that when I owned him’.” Beard howls with laughter.
Which character in the ancient world would she identify with most? “None of them,” she says triumphantly. “We tend to have a folie de grandeur and compare ourselves to Livia or Cleopatra. Actually I identify with the slave girl who washes the dishes and is forced to sleep with the master against her will.”
We meet in Cambridge, the city where Beard first arrived as an undergraduate in the Seventies. She is all smiles and warm handshakes when she answers the door, which is impressive when you consider how badly she has been treated by the press. Her husband, a professor in Art History (they have two grown-up children), is an equally genial presence, making cappuccinos and calling taxis. Meanwhile, we head to a room heated by a blazing fire where Beard slouches in a chair and offers to share her footrest with me. She is dressed in a grey cardigan, black leggings emblazoned with silver studs, and two-tone suede brogues. She has great skin and laughing eyes. The overall impression is of a hip academic, the one who has more than 34,000 followers on Twitter, the one with whom students want to hang out in the pub.
So much has been written about Beard’s appearance. Even supportive pieces end up perpetuating what they seek to criticise, referring to her as “an anti-autocutie”, “unselfconsciously plump” with “grey hair wild as a witch”, an “unkempt appearance” and a “lived-in look”. If the same amount of obsessive interest had been afforded to what comes out of her mouth, we would all have degrees in Classics by now. And her detractors are even worse. AA Gill wrote that she was too ugly for television and “should be kept away from the cameras altogether”, to which she tells me – with another wide grin – “I’m sure I will meet Gill one day and I’m quite looking forward to it.”
The abuse reached its zenith after a recent appearance on Question Time, during which Beard aired her entirely reasonable views on immigration. She faced a tsunami of vitriolic abuse and trolling. On a website called Don’t Start Me Off, she was subjected to countless sexual taunts and violent threats. But instead of keeping quiet, she decided to speak out. On her popular blog, A Don’s Life, Beard denounced the abuse. And to some extent it has worked. The website shut down, and some of those involved have apologised. Elsewhere it goes on. For instance Rod Liddle wrote a piece headlined “It’s not misogyny Professor Beard, it’s you.”
“I responded to it as any tough 58-year-old woman would,” she insists. “It’s one of the advantages of being old. If someone had said that stuff when I was young, I would have thought… oh my god. But if you’ve spent your lifetime doing Classics you get a very good sense of how misogyny works. One of the nastiest features of the Greeks and Romans is their treatment of women, along with slaves. I’ve had an excellent training in sniffing it out.
“One of the downsides of working in antiquity is that you don’t have many female voices but you certainly have a lot of male terror about the potential of women’s power,” she continues. “It shows you very clearly that the most oppressive cultures tend to be afraid of those whom they oppress. It’s the same as the men who go home at night, open their laptops, and write ‘she’s a f***ing c***’. It’s not just that they’re not very nice people. They are also frightened. Knowing that gives you a sense of inner resolve.”
Doesn’t it depress her that nothing much has changed? “Thirty-five years ago you would go to a high table dinner in Cambridge and sit next to a guy who would say ‘I don’t think we should have women fellows at this college’. In some ways I have a slight nostalgia for those times because at least it was out there. They said it. And then I could argue with it. The encroachment of liberalism means that things are hugely improved yet nobody will really admit what they think. Now it’s much harder to fight. If something good has come out of all this, it’s that it’s been exposed. That particularly vile website was closed down. The guy who ran it wrote me a full letter of apology. I didn’t win the war but I won the battle.”
Was she scared? “Fleetingly,” she admits. “But you have to concentrate on the silliness. It was so juvenile. You have to treat it for what it’s worth. It is nugatory and vacuous as well as being nasty. Nobody in this country with half a brain could think that someone’s views on immigration are remotely related to the size or smell of their vagina. There is just no connection. We know this. So let’s say how ridiculous this is.”
A huge amount of more mainstream criticism seems to focus on the fact that she doesn’t dye her hair. “Yes,” she agrees. “However, you don’t escape it if you’re Louise Mensch either. They just fix on something else. In the end it can come down to a bit of cellulite on a thigh. Look, if people want to dye their hair, fine. I’m not a Stalinist. What it really comes down to is how you feel comfortable in yourself. And I would feel less comfortable pretending, and then feeling somehow committed to continuing that pretence. I don’t want to feel as though I have to go and have my roots retouched. It’s like taking medication. That idea of cosmetic change isn’t fun, like deciding to put some pink streaks in my hair. Maybe I should do that instead…”
She grew up in Shropshire, the only daughter of a liberal architect and primary school headmistress. “I was a little swot,” she says with satisfaction. “But it wasn’t a hothousing... you know, wouldn’t you like to read some improving literature after supper and when are you going to do your grade eight violin? There was none of that. It was an atmosphere in which exploring the past and its traces seemed like fun. There was a sense that history was lurking under the garden.”
At the age of five, on her first trip to London, her mother took her to the British Museum and her love of the ancient world was born. “Before that I had the impression that somehow we had got better at doing things. There had been progress. But when I saw the Elgin Marbles I thought, ‘god that was 2,500 years ago’. I suddenly felt that people back then were bloody brilliant.” Afterwards they wandered around the Egpytian cases. “In one there was a piece of carbonised cake from 3,500 years ago. I couldn’t see it and a curator came along and opened the case. Amazing. I was face to face with a piece of Egyptian cake! That curator did a lot for me.”
She showed a particular talent for Latin grammar at school and started working on archaeological digs as a teenager. “I was digging up the Romans from the ground,” she says breathlessly. “Lovely! You find a coin dropped by someone 2,000 years ago. Don’t tell me that’s not exciting. But also, there was a social side... excavating during the day and sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll in the evenings.”
And so she wound up here, in Cambridge, to study Classics. After her first year she made her first trip to Pompeii and realised that “none of it seemed to fit with what I had learnt”. She didn’t realise until 20 years later that her puzzlement made perfect sense. “All the academic studies and systematising had been done but the ruins are not like any of it. They are much more interesting and messy.”
By the time she returned to Cambridge as a lecturer in the early Eighties, she was the only woman in a department of 27. “It had its pluses and minuses,” she shrugs. “It’s tough working with a lot of blokes. You can feel a bit like a foreigner in a friendly country. On the other hand, although it’s unfashionable to say it, if you survive that imbalance there are advantages to it. You get more power. I don’t think it should be like that but it would be dishonest to say that I didn’t have some privileges. I would much rather have swapped them for more women though.”
Beard hasn’t changed much. She was a livewire in those days too. She wanted to go to King’s College until she discovered scholarships didn’t extend to women. Her bedroom was plastered with posters of Black Power activist Angela Davis. She used to write down how men interrupted seminars to get their voices heard and then emulate them. Oh, and she wore blue stockings. “I have this rule where I always wear blue stockings to interviews,” Beard says, her smile collapsing into a chuckle. “Back in 1979 you would go to an interview and be faced with a row of men. I knew what they were thinking so I decided to put it in their faces and wear blue tights.” Perhaps she should put those pink streaks in her hair and wear blue stockings for her next TV series? Beard kicks her legs on the footstool and laughs her head off. “Yes, what fun,” she says. “Maybe I will.”
• Confronting the Classics is published in hardback by Profile Books, £25.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
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Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east