At the end of this energetic and eclectic collection of book reviews on classical subjects from Augustus to Asterix, Mary Beard considers the basic question, “What are reviews for?” Beyond “a basic quality-control mechanism,” she sees them as opportunities for debate and conversation, a way of taking a book seriously and treating its ideas as worthwhile. At the same time, Beard, who is a professor of classics at Cambridge and has served as classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement for 20 years, admits that keeping things appropriately fair and balanced can be difficult in such a small world, where reviewers are more than likely to run into their subjects at conferences. It therefore takes a particularly talented writer such as Beard — clear-eyed, witty, learned, sincere — to engage outsiders in such questions as the true meaning of Thucydides’s barely penetrable Greek, the political importance of Cleopatra for Rome, the greatness of Alexander and, underneath it all, how we know what (we think) we know about ancient Greece and Rome.
The essays that make up most of “Confronting the Classics” are as much about what happens in the gap between antiquity and modernity as they are about the ancient works of art, literature, history and architecture themselves. Beard has no time for misty-eyed idealizing of the culture of Greece and Rome (or the era when it was more widely studied), beyond what it may reveal about those doing the looking back. Classical study has been lamented as “in decline” since at least Thomas Jefferson, as she points out, and such laments “are in part the expressions of the loss and longing and the nostalgia that have always tinged classical studies.” The scholars whose books she praises most highly are therefore those who do not try to smooth over the gaps in the record but to jump into them and peek about.