Mary Beard interview – “The ancient world is a safe space for arguing”

Mary Beard discusses the Classics, political-polarisation, and access with Barney Pite

photo credit: Robin Cormack

Mary Beard is Britain’s best-known don. Widely regarded for her appearances in BBC documentaries and debates with Boris Johnson, Beard has introduced millions to the ancient world. For my own part, (although this perhaps says more about my 12-year- old self than anything else) I remember particularly enjoying one documentary about Pompeii which included a long tour of the city’s brothels. And she has, of course, provided many an aspiring Oxbridge classicist with rich fodder for their UCAS application.

Unsurprisingly, I felt a little intimidation at the prospect of the interview. Beard, as the forthright advocate of a subject sometimes dismissed as irrelevant and outdated, is universally acknowledged as a bit of a hero. In January of this year, the Guardian’s Charlotte Higgins published a “Long Read” on ‘The Cult of Mary Beard’, while her talks and book-signings attract crowds of ardent fans. It was with no little apprehension, and no shortage of nervously scrawled questions, that I called up Mary Beard, on a sunny August morning.

We spoke – of course – about Classics. I wanted her to sell me our subject: “Classics is a particularly privileged discipline,” she responds, “because of the way the subject has been defined as not simply Latin and Greek literature but a wide swathe of cultural and intellectual studies – it’s going to continue to think hard.”

Beard concedes – rightly – that there’s something Victorian about the oft-repeated claim that studying the classics teaches you how to think – what does knowing ‘how to think’ mean? “It’s about learning to not just think,” she clarifies, “it’s about learning to make a plausible, convincing,analytical argument. It introduces you to how people research, find out, analyse, structure and argue.”

Of course, this is the great virtue of studying a humanities degree, where you are taught not just how to work the answer out but how to persuade your interlocutor that your stance is correct.

I ask Beard about that perennial concern of humanities graduates – the jobs market. She laughs: “It would be a sad day for the planet if employers did not value skills of argument, research and analysis, and I don’t see any signs of that being seriously challenged. We’re not in a position where there are these poor old classicists who are not getting jobs, whereas people who’ve done astrophysics are slipping effortlessly into employment.”

So, if it’s the training in careful analysis and thoughtful debate which marks out the humanities, then what similarly distinguishes Beard is her almost total willingness to thoughtfully engage with people who disagree with her. Famously, she once took a Twitter troll out for lunch, and after an online fracas concerning the fall of the Roman Empire, she met with arch-Brexiteer Arron Banks, which was recorded by the Guardian. In a world where it seems impossible for people with differing political views to hold a conversation that doesn’t turn into a flame war, the description of their mostly genial conversation made cheering reading.

It’s easy to characterise Mary Beard as some sort of public intellectual – a figure from the Academy who utilises their learning and experience to mete out political commentary and considered wisdom – but the title isn’t one she likes: “Would one ever call oneself a public intellectual? It’s a phrase that’s often used with a slightly ambivalent, slightly pejorative sense.”

But that doesn’t mean that she regrets her visibility in the public domain: for Beard, speaking up is part of giving back. “I’ve been very lucky,” she says, “to have been able to spend my career studying and teaching something that I’m very interested in. I have a responsibility to give back, partly in gratitude and in respect for what I’ve been able and allowed to do with my life. What a Classics – or what any Humanities discipline does – is it
gives a real edge to some of the analytical skills that we ought to have.

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“I think that there is some kind of obligation to comment and to use those more widely. It is really important that public and political debate and particularly political debate are not restricted to those people who have somehow self-defined as professional politicians.”

Modern political discussion can sometimes make it seem like we live in a culture where initial disagreement is a roadblock to discussion and further progress but Beard sees it differently. She believes that total agreement and a full consensus is something neither possible nor desirable.

“One of the things that all of us should contribute in,” says Beard, “is to increase the degree and level and productivity of public disagreement and one of the most important things a society can do for itself is to provide a way to disagree furiously while still being engaged in this same overall social project.”

“Agreement,” she continues, “is comforting in some respects, but in other respects what it does is it closes down debate. What would it be like to have a culture in which we all agreed with each other? It would be absolutely ghastly.”

This is the spirit which carried Mary Beard to meetings with Arron Banks and Boris Johnson. I think it’s brilliant, and all-important. Perhaps the one lesson to take away from the political earthquakes of 2016 is that unless you listen to someone you disagree with,
they aren’t going to change their mind.

And Beard has not been afraid to say things people disagree with – following 9/11, Beard
wrote in the London Review of Books that “the United States had it coming,” and that “[w]orld bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price.” These comments provoked some considerable anger, as did a tweet published in the advent of the Oxfam sexual assault scandal earlier this year. “Of course one can’t condone the (alleged) behaviour of Oxfam staff in Haiti and elsewhere.” said Beard. “But I do wonder how hard it must be to sustain “civilised” values in a disaster zone.” The problem was, of course, the word ‘civilised’, and all it’s colonialist resonances. Beard was challenged in a blog post by Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Reader in Cambridge’s English department; typically, they met and talked it over, rather than resorting to vitriolic argument.

Beard concedes that there are elements of her discipline that could be construed as colonial: “The Classical inheritance and tradition is by and large a Western phenomenon” she told me. But Beard asserts that the situation is more complex than it might appear, and rightly so: “I don’t think that even in the West that we are simply the inheritors, the bland straightforward inheritors of what the classical world has bequeathed to us. Thank God we’re not.”

“The standard stereotype,” she continues, “would be to cast Rome as a proud, fearless,
uncompromising and totally unreflective empire. But It’s also important to remind people
that Rome was also the source of many of the criticisms of Empire that we have.
Rome generated both an imperial ideology and an anti-imperial ideology at the same time.”

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Beard tells me about Tacitus: in chapter 30 of the Agricola, Tacitus’ biography of the Roman general and Governor of Britain, Tacitus puts they phrase ‘they make a desert and they call it peace’ into the mouth of Calgacus, a British chief.

“There’s hardly been a decade”, as she tells me, “since Tacitus wrote that in the early 2nd century AD, probably not a year, in which that phrase wasn’t completely applicable to some bit of military activity.”

Part of what’s appealing about studying the Classics is that, in a sense, they are liberatingly
distant; Tacitus and Calgacus are so far from us as to almost exist in a vacuum. “The ancient world was a long time ago – ” said Mary, “ – Cicero was 2000 years ago. None of it – in a way – matters; it is a very privileged, safe space for arguing.”

One of the oft-noted contradictions with which Mary Beard presents us is that she is both of the establishment and deeply subversive: “She often represents herself as quite traditional though she also likes to think of herself as transgressive” said Greg Woolf, director of the University of London’s Institute for Classical Studies, in conversation with Charlotte Higgins.

Yes, Beard’s willingness to challenge standard formulations of Roman history has helped breathe new life into the ancient discipline. But the subject still has structural access problems: to do Classics, you need to know Latin, and to study Latin, you need a school which teaches it.

“It’s the case it is changing and it has changed and we want to do more to change it”, she says. But Beard has seen a revolution in her lifetime: when she was an undergraduate, 10% of Classics students were female, and students without Latin and Greek to A-Level couldn’t study for a Classics degree. Now both Oxford and Cambridge offer ab initio degrees in Classics, and as many girls take Classics as boys. “I don’t think that any subject should rest on it’s laurels and not look at those who were perhaps excluded from it either structurally or perhaps directly,and think about how to do something about that.

“Just making something available on paper isn’t the same as encouraging and setting the groundwork out there for people,” she continued, “who might never have thought of it before. And that’s a tough nut to crack – extending classical civilisation and classical literature in translation in schools is one way to do that and telly programs are not a bad way to spark interest in the ancient world.

Complacency would be utterly out of order and every university not just Oxbridge has got loads more to do there.”

Most professional academics give the public sphere a justifiably wide berth; but Mary Beard doesn’t. I almost wonder why – abuse on Twitter and near constant scrutiny seem a lot less fun than hours in the University Library and Roman History.

But Mary Beard communicates her subject with compelling and contagious enthusiasm: “I think it’s part and parcel of being an academic actually,” she says. “It seems to me kind of unremarkable.”

Well, Mary, not to us.