Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

The thing about a good bookshop is that it encourages speculation. This was another book I picked up in Daunt Books on Marylebone High St. Mary Beard will be familiar in particular to the British, but I’m guessing to a lot of other English speakers, as a high profile academic, with a public presence I imagine is unusual for somebody in this discipline. She is the Classics editor of the TLS and it is a hodge podge collection of book reviews she has written over quite a long period of time, linked together by various themes, that form the basis for this book. The units are small, I found myself looking forward to a tale and a cuppa for a week or two.

I hadn’t done any Classics since school and this was a bit of an eye-opener for me. I hadn’t realised just how much surmising has come from so little evidence. How many careers, books – an entire academic industry, not to mention a popular one too – has been extracted in a manner that one could rather precisely say ‘literally’ brings to mind blood from a stone. The big theme of this book is explaining how our view of this ancient period is dictated by interpretation in a way that makes me, as a historian of more modern times, aghast. It’s all made up! Almost. The characters, the stories, the very palaces we visit to pay homage to our ideas of how things were.

I exaggerate a little, of course: it isn’t ALL made up. And Beard takes pains to distinguish between the various types of academics delving into the crumbs of evidence from which they build the edifice of their theories. Nonetheless, there is clearly an odd sort of person who is attracted to the Classics, who wants to impose their ideas of what a person, or a period, or a war or a thing is, upon the reader. I was particularly relieved to read this, because it puts me at ease with my instinctive dislike of Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. This isn’t history, it’s pure fiction which has acquired a mystique based on some sort of veneration of Yourcenar’s obsessive ‘methodology’ in becoming Hadrian. We are left with something which is most likely Hadrian in Yourcenar’s clothes, her mentality, her personality. The result is overworked and plain tedious. I’ve fitted Yourcenar right into Beard’s general observations of how the industry goes. Like archaeologists in a thriller (and I dare say in real life) they are willing to go to any lengths to protect their claims. Let’s just say bitter battles have been fought.

Beard starts off with an essay talking about why Classics matters, placing it in perspective of the centuries since the period itself, why we might continue to find it important to try to understand the period. It’s a moving start to a book that is hugely entertaining, written by somebody who has strong views with the knowledge and experience – she is Professor of Classics at Cambridge – to sustain them. Without having read any of the books which she discusses, one’s sense is no punches pulled and that cops some writers get are fair. She also has a way with words which makes the reading easy.

Everybody could do with reading this, we are imbued with the period – or interpretations of the period – and becoming aware of just what that means will, I think, astonish you.

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7 thoughts on “Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

  1. > I was particularly relieved to read this, because it puts me at ease
    > with my instinctive dislike of Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. This
    > isn’t history, it’s pure fiction which has acquired a mystique based
    > on some sort of veneration of Yourcenar’s obsessive ‘methodology’
    > in becoming Hadrian.

    So that’s why all those people with pitchforks and flaming torches are milling around outside our front door. I thought it was an odd time of day for another farmer’s union demonstration.

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