OPEN APP
Home >Mint-lounge >Features >BETWEEN THE LINES | In defence of the classics

Mary Beard is not a stereotypical classicist. While she has three decades of experience teaching undergraduates at Cambridge University, it’s hard to imagine her becoming trapped in the fusty enclosures of academia. As well as teaching, Beard writes a column for The Times, called “A Don’s Life," which touches on subjects as diverse as governance, beer making and escalators. She writes and presents programs on classics for television and has an active presence on social media. Since having been at the Jaipur Literature Festival in India, for two days, Beard has found time to write a blog about the event, in between appearing on a panel in defence of the classics, lecturing on the ruined Roman city of Pompeii, interviewing a fellow festival speaker on the subject of “spice" and being questioned by journalists.

In 2014, Beard completes her 30th year teaching at Newnham, where she also took her undergraduate degree in the 70s. In that time though, she doesn’t seem to have lost her zest for the subject or her irreverent sense of humour, most often directed at the pomposity of those who consider her subject to be the holy grail of academia, off limits to the undeserving. In fact, Beard considers that the opening up of classical texts and historical artefacts to as broad a range of people as possible to be almost a moral obligation. She is an egalitarian, and a feminist, with a good deal of common sense and an impatience with elitism.

Perhaps that’s because the “ordinary girl from Shrewsbury" was bitten by the ancient history bug by another act of generosity. Beard dates her interest in classics from a trip to the British Museum aged five, when a lenient guard opened up a case in the Egyptian department and brought out a piece of carbonized cake for her to look at. “He didn’t have to do that," she said to her audience, “He could have thought, ‘Why should a child get to see that?’ But he didn’t and so here I am today."

Being a female academic and classical historian puts Beard in a minority, but it’s a minority that she feels has sometimes given “tough women" an edge over their male colleagues. Beard is tough, on the verge of brash sometimes, but self-consciously so. “For some time I was the only woman on the faculty," she says, of her early teaching days in the ‘80s. On television also, the kind of classics and history programmes that Beard presents have traditionally been the preserve of men. She made a humourous jibe during one of her talks at the literature festival directed at “boy scout" archaeologists who charge about the world looking for Odysseus’ grave or Julius Caesar’s head. “That’s what gets on telly," Beard told the audience. “The same goes for gladiators, if anyone wants to get funding for an excavation, they do one simple thing—they say, ‘I think this might be the skeleton of a female gladiator’."

Beard did not agree to appear on television without a few doubts. “I was very dubious, the first time, I thought it would take up a lot of my time and it would change my life, that there would be a lot of stick. There was. I was finally convinced by Janice Hadlow (who was then controller of BBC Four). She said to me, ‘I want to get real academic women on TV and if you don’t help me, you can’t moan about it anymore.’ I said that A.A. Gill (the notoriously sardonic TV critic) would hate it. And he did. He said I looked like the back end of a bus and I should be on The Undateables instead."

View Full Image

Beard really defines herself as a teacher, and she doesn’t want to limit herself to the intellectual or social elites. One of the things she admires most about the Jaipur Literary Festival, she says, is the age range of its audience— well below that she is used to in the UK. The large numbers of teens milling about is due to the fact that the festival is free, she says, and she thinks it’s wonderful that kids of any age group or background can have the opportunity to listen and learn. “I thought it would be a reneging of my responsibility as an educator to say that I’d only talk to Cambridge undergraduates," she says, of her decision to broaden her interests to TV and blogging. “The perilous state of the classics is greatly exaggerated. It’s more resilient than it appears, but you have to make sure it’s not being ghettoized in fee paying schools, or only schools with an extraordinary ethos."

The same applies to Sanskrit, she says. The previous day, Beard had debated this subject with two Indian academics: professor of Indian and South Asian Art, Vidhya Deheja and professor of Ancient Indian Art and Architecture, Naman Ahuja. In the panel, she talked about the connections between the Roman and Greek civilisations and ancient India, and the difficulties of keeping the conversation going with the past in both Europe and Asia.

“Britain is a long way from the roots of its civilization, Delhi is relatively close to its ancient heritage, Greece I suppose would be somewhere in between," she said. “In Greece, they have politicized their relationship to the past. In Rome, SPQR (the Latin acronym for Senātus Populusque Rōmānus, or The Senate and People of Rome) is still written on the manhole covers.

But, she agreed, the Indian intimacy and proximity to its ancient past, in terms both of the relevance of Hindu mythology in the lives of many, and also the many architectural sites that exist, unrestored and mingled in with the modernity of its cities. “I find Delhi interesting," she said. “I can’t internalize the logic of it, its urban topography. I find it very confusing." Reflecting on her lecture on Pompeii, in which she laughingly pointed out that we know almost nothing about the kind of society that lived within its walls, Beard admitted that perhaps we impose modern European ideas of what a city looks like onto those ruins, to our own detriment.

“Maybe the understanding of the logic of Roman towns has been built with an early modern view of what a city is," she said. “Maybe there are much better models in non-European places. It’s too cute to say, ‘If you want to know what Ancient Rome looked like, look at modern day Delhi,’ and probably not correct, but you’ve helped yourself by experiencing a different version of what a city can be like and still function as well."

Subscribe to Mint Newsletters
* Enter a valid email
* Thank you for subscribing to our newsletter.

Never miss a story! Stay connected and informed with Mint. Download our App Now!!

Close
×
Edit Profile
My ReadsRedeem a Gift CardLogout