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.
In the past few years, Beard has become the public face of modern classical scholarship in Britain, fronting BBC television shows about Pompeii and Caligula. Her high profile has made her the target of some vicious online attacks, which she has discussed in a blog she writes for the Times Literary Supplement. In light of her experience, her examinations of the misogyny and mythmaking surrounding powerful women such as Boadicea, Cleopatra and Augustus’s wife Livia are particularly trenchant. One of the most disturbing and important essays in the book, “What Gets Left Out” — ostensibly a somewhat inside-baseball examination of Robert B. Todd’s 2004 “Dictionary of British Classicists” — asks whether a respected don’s well-known “pawing about” of his female students ought to be part of the record. This question develops into a deeper one about pedagogy, politics and biographical censorship, how reputations are formed differently for men and women, and who, exactly, gets to be termed a “classicist.”
Reviewing Stacy Schiff’s “Cleopatra,” Beard faults the otherwise “skeptical and businesslike” biographer for taking at face value a description of the extravagant Ptolemaic kingdom written by an unknown historian and surviving only as an entry in a literary encyclopedia assembled by the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus about 200 years after Cleopatra’s death. Beard easily demonstrates that this is preposterous as a factual account, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful or interesting. Beard’s real point is that if we skip over the biases, gaps and questionable authenticity of pretty much all of these ancient sources in order to pretend that we can recover what Cleopatra’s childhood was “really” like, we are missing out on a more interesting question: Why do we want to know? Why have there been, as Beard points out, five biographies of Cleopatra in five years, and why are we willing to accept so much fiction in our ancient history? Elsewhere, Beard argues that this is less a problem of publishing’s love affair with biography than it is of “what modern historians of the ancient world think . . . is worth studying and writing about.” Generally, this is not what the ancient material (which is, in fact, extraordinary diverse and extensive) can tell us, which means that the historian ends up trying to solve a problem she herself has constructed: “Prestige in this business goes to those who outwit their sources.”
As well as posing important historiographical questions, Beard’s book is rich in revelation about the Greek and Roman world, especially in essays that explore the snobbery directed at freed slaves in Rome, the misery of Roman soldiers garrisoning a dull and drizzly Britain, developments in classical tourism since the 19th century, and what we can learn from the ancients’ favorite joke book. It helps to have a basic grasp of ancient history, but concise introductions to each of the book’s five sections explain how the essays fit together and what questions run through them, so that even pieces that dig into knotty problems of translation, excavation and political ideology remain accessible.
We will never know everything we might want to know about how Greeks and Romans thought, spoke and lived, but as Mary Beard demonstrates, there’s plenty that we do know, and plenty more we can continue to argue about.
Scutts is a freelance writer and an adjunct professor at New York University.
CONFRONTING THE CLASSICS
Traditions, Adventures and Innovations
By Mary Beard
Liveright. 310 pp. $28.95