Addressing an intimate audience of about twenty, Mary Beard began by saying that she prefers to be called a ‘classicist’ rather than an historian – this broader title encompasses not just ancient history but disciplines like art history, archaeology and literary studies.
A self-described ‘swot’ at her Shrewsbury school for girls, with a special talent for Greek and Latin, she was encouraged by her teachers to study classics. This led to a PhD in Roman religion at Newnham College Cambridge, where she is currently a Professor of Classics. Beard emphasised the wonderful learning environment back in the 1970s, where a lack of time pressure meant she had access to teachers whenever she needed them, for as long as she liked. She bemoaned the time-poor, box-ticking culture pervasive in universities these days, which takes teachers away from their pupils and buries them under piles of paperwork, forcing them to justify and review every action.
Classical scholar Moses Finley (1912 – 1986) was mentioned as an important figure during Beard’s student days, for “ricocheting classics out of its philological basis, into broader view.” Another influential person was historian and sociologist Keith Hopkins (1934 – 2004), who made Mary Beard realise the importance of writing in an interesting way, so that people would genuinely want to to read her work.
Beard never published her PhD thesis, but said that this was quite normal for the time. After graduating from Cambridge, she cheekily instituted the practice of wearing blue stockings to job interviews, making herself into a kind of parody of a female intellectual. It worked, and Kings College London gave her a job working on Latin prose literature, specifically Cicero.
In the early 1980s, after four or five years in London, she donned her blue stockings and went back to Cambridge, hoping to escape the worst of the new budget cuts. The lone female lecturer in a faculty of twenty-five or so males, and a wife and mother to two young children, Beard worked like crazy to juggle domestic life with teaching and academia. Her earnings were almost entirely swallowed up by childcare, and she had little time for research. She admitted that her prospects were “not glorious”, and that it was “getting a hand on writing outside the academy” that ultimately rescued her.
Salvation arrived in the form of the Times Literary Supplement, for which she’d been penning occasional reviews. When the post of classics editor became vacant, it was offered to her – no blue stockings necessary. Beard found the job suited her very well – she commissioned reviews, wrote others herself, and was able to structure her working day to suit her needs. This allowed her to step away from the worst of the academic teaching treadmill, and gave her the freedom to pursue her many interests.
Beard’s association with the TLS has introduced her to a whole new audience over the last few years, particularly thanks to her TLS blog, A Don’s Life. Initially sceptical about the worth of blogging, she is now a convert – a blog enables her to write in a more academic style than a hard-copy newspaper would allow, and she is able to include links and other tools for understanding. The medium also allows her to engage with topical issues in real time.
Mary Beard has also risen to public prominence through her many books on the ancient world. Her most successful work, Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town, was turned into a documentary by the BBC, which she presented – having first laid the ground rules, “no CGI, no dressing up, and no B-grade actors”. Her upcoming projects include a work on Roman laughter, another on images of Roman emperors in post-antiquity art, and a three-part documentary on the lives of ordinary people in ancient Rome (drawing upon tombstone epitaphs as source material, such as this gem: “At least now I don’t have to pay the rent”).
The study of classics has allowed Beard to have a foot in many fields – “I’m a sort of an ancient historian, a bit of an archaeologist, and I’m not embarrassed about that. I’m very, very lucky.”
Previous ‘Meet the Historian’ speakers include Antony Beevor.
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Photos by Belinda Murphy
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Further selected reading by Mary Beard: