When Mary Beard takes the stage of the National Gallery of Art on Sunday afternoon, she will join one of the most distinguished lists of intellectual luminaries ever assembled. Beard, who holds a chair in classics at Cambridge University, is a renowned lecturer, a brilliant communicator and a distinguished scholar. But the woman chosen to give the prestigious 2011 Mellon Lectures has also appeared on a reality television series, is an avid blogger, a frequent presence in English newspapers and the host of a BBC documentary series. If there are still rules about how far academics can stray from the Ivory Tower, she has probably breached them.
Even more surprising, her work as a prosyletizer for the classics seems to come easily to her. Her blog, A Don’s Life, is written with an unstrained mix of the personal and professional, the chatty and the erudite. Her books — which include an introduction to the Parthenon, a history of the traditional Roman victory celebration, a general survey of ancient classical art (with John Henderson) and a guide to motherhood — never condescend or simplify, even when dealing with the minutiae of 2,000-year-old texts written in dead languages. Her first-person essays, which have explored fearlessly autobiographical subjects such as the death of her parents and being victim of a sexual assault, mix classical reference and daily observation without a trace of the ostentatious or didactic. Her life as a public intellectual is seamless with her academic work.
Established by the National Gallery of Art in honor of Andrew Mellon in 1949, the Mellon Lectures are Washington’s annual opportunity to see top scholars think in public. But the talks almost always end up published in book form, so their content must rise to a level that bears sustained scrutiny. Scholars tend to throw out topics with very grand-sounding names — Sources of Romantic Thought, or Art and Reality — but it’s rare that someone arrives with a subject quite so catnippy to local intellectual obsessions: “The Twelve Caesars: Images of Power From Ancient Rome to Salvador Dali.”
Before you block off a half-dozen spring afternoons, however, it’s worth remembering one thing about Beard’s work: Her scholarship tends to dismantle as much as it constructs, and where others might find easy analogies between the imperial presidency and the old psychopaths who governed imperial Rome, Beard tends to see discontinuity, contradiction, misapprehension and faulty transmission of facts, names and just about everything else. At the end of her 2007 study of the Roman triumph — the traditional victory lap taken by vainglorious generals — she professed herself not very interested in the “why” of what the Romans were about when they paraded through the streets with captives, slaves and other booty on display. The “why” of it was both unknowable and reductive, and after more than 300 pages of explaining why the “why” was elusive, she concluded thus: “It was also a cultural idea, a ‘ritual in ink,’ a trope of power, a metaphor of love, a thorn in the side, a world view, a dangerous hyperbole, a marker of time, of change, and continuity. ‘Why’ questions do not reach the heart of those issues.”