She is as much interested in transmission through the centuries of an image as she is in the original function or meaning of the image (which more often than not we can’t divine). An example from her history of classical art shows how historical misunderstanding of ancient objects can create powerful new ideas and art, giving scholars layers upon layers of stories, none of which is privileged just because it is more or less ancient. When a statue of an old man, in what seems to be physical agony, was discovered during the Renaissance, it was assumed to be Seneca, the tutor and ultimately victim of Nero. So famous was Seneca’s forced suicide, in a bath, that someone decided to add a tub to the statue, to make the Senecan connection obvious. Peter Paul Rubens then based his 1608 painting of “The Death of Seneca” on the statue, which is now believed to represent an old fisherman. And thus an iconic image of stoicism and speaking truth to power is downgraded to peasant bathos, and one hunts in vain for it in the standard English-language visitor’s guide to the Louvre, where it was once a show-stopper.
Beard’s skepticism is, in part, a reflection of an increasingly methodical way of doing business in the small subset of the humanities known as classicism. Judith Hallett, a classics scholar at the University of Maryland, says she admires most a book Beard wrote about another classicist, Jane Ellen Harrison, who died in 1928. It might seem like a meta-meta project, studying a woman who was one of the powerhouse academics during another century. But it was also about making sense of how the academy worked, how women could negotiate it, who won and lost in the game. And those aren’t necessarily inside-baseball questions.
“Classics is fueled by what questions we decide to ask the ancient world,” says Beard. And the politics of the academy, and the society at large, help determine who does the asking, and what’s permissible.
One might add, it’s also about who hears the question, and Beard is remarkable for how well she has managed to be heard beyond the confines of the academy.
“If only we had someone like Mary here,” says Hallett, “because she is still in the classroom and still in the library, but she has this very vocal and influential role to play.”