Mary Beard is synonymous with the history of ancient Rome. Thanks to her decades of excellent teaching at University of Cambridge, numerous books (including the best-selling SPQR, her recent history of Rome) and television series which she presents with infectious zeal and gusto, she is a proper academic rock star, or perhaps goddess of classics would be more apt. We chatted with her for this exclusive interview.
Božidar Slapšak (B.S.): You are among the few classicists in academia to regularly communicate with the wider public, discuss the disciplinary and other issues of consequence for society, and thus take part in public discourse. The study of antiquity is the oldest discipline – the very source of all human sciences – and yet most classicists refrain from such engagement... What could be the reasons for that, and why did you decide to depart from that attitude?
Mary Beard (M.B.): In a way it was not a decision, as such. I think that a university academic more or less has a duty to explain what they do to the wider public. Partly that is self-interest: we need the public on our side. But also we have a duty to the subject and to the people whose taxes still, in some form, even if less than it used to be, pay for what we do.
What I particularly dislike, however, is the habit you still find among a few academics – that of writing “down” to the general public. I think it is really important to share the difficult bits with the public. They are not stupid, and you just need to avoid the technical jargon. I don’t see how anyone would not want to.
B.S.: Following upon that – can antiquity, or more precisely ancient texts and their authors, be subversive today? If so, would that be the reason why ancient languages and knowledge of antiquity are consequently removed from the school curricula across Europe?
M.B.: The ancient world has always been a subversive subject of study, masquerading as a conservative one. I fear that ancient languages have been removed from the curriculum because they seem old fashioned and reactionary. We need to show that that is simply not so.
B.S.: What kind of feedback do you get for your blog and other interventions in public discourse?
M.B.: Most of it is constructive and friendly, even if critical. There have been a few examples of “trolling” – from silly insults to nasty threats of rape and death. I can’t say that is nice, but I am old enough to be pretty resilient and usually to argue back. Death threats are something different though, there is no option but to report them to the police.
Vanishing one evening
without a trace.
Without forgotten clues
on the threshold of my room
and no arrow
to show me the way.
Wherever I could have gone
Would be of no relevance:
Laid at the bottom of the sea
Buried in the darkness of the woods
In China devoid of memory
Looking for a pitiful story
Or in the desert with a shroud of sand.
Everything is fine
As long as nobody ever knows.
Vanishing without a certificate of death
So that one day they will understand
What is baffling me now.
B.S.: Traditionally, classicists were reluctant to engage in theoretical or methodological issues in their academic work...
M.B.: I am not sure that is entirely true. If you think back to the nineteenth century, the work of (for example) Jane Harrison was deeply influenced by Durkheimian sociology. And J G Frazer, author of the extremely influential and pioneering The Golden Bough, was a Classicist by training. The Golden Bough may be outdated now, but it launched the theoretical study of anthropology in the late nineteenth century.
B.S.: What is needed to properly convey the understanding of the role, organization, practices and experience in ancient religions?
M.B.: That is a hard one. I suspect that it is next to impossible to do more than guess at the religious experience of the Greeks and Romans. We can see the structures, the institutions and the functions, but we have a terrible tendency to project our own sense of what religious experience is onto the past.
B.S.: Your engagements go well beyond established academic agendas... You cooperated with Jamie Oliver in his program to help underprivileged and poorly educated teenagers to find a professional orientation... What was the feedback you got there, and what is your personal position now regarding such highly visible social interventions?
M.B.: I agreed to do the Jamie Oliver series because it was a good way of introducing Latin to television viewers who were not likely to turn onto a documentary about the Roman Empire! The feedback was friendly, I learned how difficult teaching 15 – 16 year olds is. And I am still in touch with some of the young people I taught!
B.S.: A hard one: what more can be done to promote knowledge – of antiquity for one thing? Could academia have more impact on the pop-cultures and the current mass production of rubbish featuring antiquity?
M.B.: I think we should not be too sniffy about the rubbish, there has always been rubbish about the ancient world… It’s nothing new. What we need to do is enjoy the rubbish, and then explain why the truth about antiquity is even more interesting. Many people have their interest in the ancient world first sparked by films or cheap novels. We need to be there to help them develop it.