Mary Beard: The dangerous don (says Guardian)

Historians in the News

Mary Beard vividly remembers a day in her first year at Newnham College, Cambridge, when one of her friends saw a marked essay lying on her desk. He picked it up and read the tutor's comment: "This is very good; I think it would get a first." "You," he spluttered, "get a first?" "Even in the mid-70s," Beard recalls, there were "lots of men who thought that women were destined only to get 2:1s." Besides, she was studying classics, a typically male discipline, and elitist too, run by "curmudgeonly old sods". "From that moment," she laughs, "I was bloody determined to show them."

And she has shown them: Beard is now a professor at Cambridge and the best-known classicist in Britain. Her new book, The Roman Triumph, is keenly awaited, and she has been asked to give the prestigious Sather lectures at Berkeley, California, next year. She is constantly called on by the BBC and the broadsheets to comment when popular culture ventures into the ancient world - Gladiator, Troy - and has become, she admits, "a bit of a media junkie".
She welcomes all the "hundreds of movies, and hundreds of novels and cartoon strips about the Romans". "What interests me," she says, "is the idea that classics is actually quite democratic. It isn't only the toff, upper-class subject it's often thought to be. Every generation enjoys rediscovering it." At the same time, she does her best to cut through the popular myths and cruder appropriations of the ancient world, patiently pointing out that Romans didn't wear togas very often, that the animals killed in the Colosseum were more likely to be sheep than lions (also no Christians were ever put to death there), and that the Athenian version of democracy celebrated by prime ministers and presidents had severe limitations, not least the exclusion of women.

Beard is known for saying what she thinks, and for her sense of fun; she is, according to her blog, "wickedly subversive". The other day, a documentary-maker, having sought out her advice, decided she was "one of the smartest women alive ... Convivially we end up in ... a bar downing bellinis and red-pepper margaritas". But her forthrightness has also got Beard into trouble. In particular, she is still condemned in some quarters for a statement she made in the London Review of Books a few days after 9/11. "Ever after, I've been that foolish/callous/dangerous don who thought that 'the United States had it coming.'"...

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