• December 10, 2023

Mary Beard Keeps History on the Move

If you happen to be speaking to someone unfamiliar with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Mary Beard, you may need a few tries to get their cultural post across. “Classicist” doesn’t quite catch it. “Celebrity Historian” comes just a few inches closer. In a guard profileA colleague of Beard remembers a crew of English schoolgirls who saw the scholar, a long-time pillar of Cambridge faculty, as they prepared to make a documentary about the lost city of Pompeii. “You went crazy,” said the colleague. “It was like seeing a boy band.”

Beard is perhaps best in the US as the author of “SPQR, “A doorstop from Roman history, and”Women and strength, ” an astute study the ancient and modern attitudes towards female language. She also contributes to the review of the London Review of Books and maintains a blog titled “A Don’s Life” for the Times Literary Supplement. On television, whether it’s about the restart of the BBC series “Civilizations”, about the demystification of the classic attitude to immigration or about Staging of cultural debates from her studiesThe now sixty-six year old beard seems to be perfectly cast in the role of the public intellectual: concise, personable, just shy of charmingly unkempt. She exudes humility – she couldn’t have been more polite than I confused Leonidas, King of Sparta, with Scipio Africanus, a Roman general who lived about three hundred years later – and her voice easily fits the rhythm of a storyteller a. Online, Beard is a frequent user of Twitter, and as Rebecca Mead noted in a 2014 profileShe has found an unlikely hobby in taming internet trolls. (“She should be able to analyze Augustus’ dictum or early AD epithets. / Without scrolling through death, bombing, and rape threats,” a spoken word poem uploaded to YouTube reads her haters. Previous A few years ago, a former Twitter opponent asked her for a letter of recommendation, and she said yes.

In April, Howard University announced that it is Dissolution of his classic departmentA move that breaks a heated debate over whether Greco-Roman history should be taught separately or differently from the history of other ancient societies. A new wave of scholars such as Princeton’s Dan-el Padilla Peralta see the discipline as inseparable from the imperialist way of thinking created it; They claim that classics maintain a mythology of whiteness. As the most famous practitioner in the field and a committed anti-racist and feminist, Beard occupies a middle position: She neither believes that classics deserve a pedestal nor that they need to be destroyed. Beard recently defended her stance in an interview – talking about feminist translations, internet manners, and the fluid qualities of canon. Our exchange has been processed for the sake of clarity.

I went through the list of topics you specialize in – things like civilization, empire, power, public exile of women – and thought this should be an easy, relaxing conversation.

Oh man!

But you also wrote about Roman laughter. Do you have a favorite classic joke to get us started?

Don’t get your hopes up – they’re not that funny. But what is interesting about them, I think, is that they are not incomprehensible; They fall on a spectrum of what might seem humorous to us today. Here is a relatively clean one. A man meets a friend of his in town. The friend acts in surprise; “I thought you were dead!” he says. “No,” says the man, “I mean, here I am. I’m alive. “And the friend looks at him doubtfully and says,” Well, the person who told me you were dead is much more reliable than you! “

[Awkward laughter.]

No, it won’t make you a lot of money in comedy venues, will it? But the joke is pretty interesting to me because it’s about one of the things we forget about premodern culture, which is how difficult it was to prove who you were. There were no IDs, no passports. Constructing an authentic, authoritative version of “that’s me” was actually quite difficult.

I was just listening to a writer talking about humor. She said writers can use it as an in-group and out-group sign: they kind of know who your people are laughing at your jokes. For example, humor can be used to signal loneliness or absence when a character is saying something funny and no one is around to hear it.

That’s true. The aggression in humor isn’t just: Oh, people are laughing at you. It can be more subtle – someone who refuses to notice you were joking and holds back their laugh. This can be just as hostile as people stacking on you I think! And again there is a lot in Roman comedy about how other people know who you are and how you know who you are, which, as you say, has to do with laughter and the notion of identification.

What was it about classics that interested you? I heard there was an origin story.

There is and yet I distrust it because you start telling origin stories and then they are mythologized. But I went to the British Museum with my mother when I was about five years old. I wanted to see the Egyptian stuff – not just the mummies that scared me, but everyday Egyptian life as well. And my mother said as we walked through this gallery, “In this case, it’s a piece of ancient Egyptian cake, three thousand years old.” I couldn’t see it because it was way up in the back of the suitcase. And at that moment a man came by, asked if I wanted to see something, took the keys out of my pocket, opened the suitcase and took out the cake. He put it right against my nose. And it was absolutely unforgettable – part, my God, it was a three thousand year old piece of cake – but also because of his relief. There was a locked museum case and someone came and opened it for me. It was quite a symbol to me because I think anyone is able to unlock museum suitcases for other people.

Of course, I realize that the charming little five year old white girl is likely to have a better experience than many others. Museums can keep people away by suggesting versions of the culture that are not inclusive. And yet I also know that they can bring people in.

I would like to ask if you think our approach to the past, or perhaps our goals in exploring the past, is changing. It seems as if contemporary historians are often trying not only to reconstruct history, but to reshape what the discipline does. There seems to be a strong corrective impulse and more room for imagination or speculation. Does that sound wrong to you?

I think that’s true. But I’m old enough to say that every generation has this corrective impulse, and that’s part of what keeps history moving. I remember when I was a student and the person who spoke to us at Cambridge was Moses Finley, a great historian of ancient Greece. And he just felt like he wanted to rewrite the way we think about the past by addressing slavery, debt, poverty and the fragility of democracy. The story would be very boring if we didn’t always try to change the way it operates. It is our conversation with the dead and we practice a kind of ventriloquist in order to hear from the other side.

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