I know nothing about the classical world.
Despite being an English Literature student and seeing in the works of Donne, Shakespeare and Pope a whole plethora of classical references, I have never bothered to really find about the Greeks or the Romans. My appreciation of “what the Romans did for us” does not extend beyond thinking Aristotle had some pretty good ideas on tragedy and liking underfloor heating.
At least that was the case before I read (most of) Mary Beard’s S.P.Q.R: A History of Modern Rome. You might be wondering why I ever attempted to read this six hundred page tome of a book when I display such a blatant disregard for the empire it is written about. Well, the answer is pretty simple really: Mary Beard is a legend in her own right and I thought it was high time I actually read something by her.
Essentially, this is an accessible history that manages appeal to the masses without dumbing itself down. “How exactly is this possible’? you may ask. Well, Beard not only makes mention of the great figures whose names have become synonymous with the study of Classics — Tacitus, Cicero and the like —but of the ordinary citizens who made up this empire and who have for too long been left out of the history books. “I wanted to put the people back into the Roman Empire,” as the author said herself during “Blackwell’s an Evening with Mary Beard.”
These people don’t seem to belong to the ancient past, having their own fears and concerns just like us, in the modern age. Finding out about this historical period under the guidance of Beard is like trying to peer into the windows of a block of flats as you walk past: an exercise of your natural curiosity into the lives of others. (Please forgive the somewhat creepy analogy).
Her engaging and direct style encourages this curiosity, and so does the way she refuses to paint the Romans as being quite as wonderful as we’ve been led to believe. Perhaps so many people feel disconnected with the Romans, not only because they existed so far in the past, but because they have always been portrayed as somewhat superior beings. However, Beard stresses our shared humanity and imperfections – even going as far as to describe Pliny the Younger as “humourless” and “slightly self-congratulary”.
Cambridge educated, now a fellow at Newnham College, and an editor on the Times Literary Supplement, an OBE winner and the author of a vast range of books: you might also be under the impression that Mary Beard is a bit of a superior being. This is why seeing her in the flesh, on the stage at George Street’s Assembly Rooms, was frankly exhilarating.
It’s clear why she’s become such a favourite of the public — in answering questions from the audience ranging from the highly complex to the more basic “what’s your favourite classical book?” she was consistently respectful and insightful.
I left the talk convinced that Beard is the hero of Roman women. As one can imagine, women were marginalised in the Classical World, obviously preventing them from occupying roles of great prominence. This means that it is typically men that we associate with this period, but by shifting the focus of off the “greats” and panning out to encompass the rest of society, Beard re-inserts women into Roman History.
Beard’s new book, S.P.Q.R: A History of Modern Rome, is now available.
Image: Commons Wikipedia/Sotherbys