Mary Beard: Why the Classics Today are Better than Ever Before

In Medias Res |

On the bright future of the Classics and the transformative wonder of seeing antiquity up close.

In May 2024, Dame Mary Beard was honored by the Paideia Institute with the third Arete Award at a gala dinner at the University Club in New York City. Below are her remarks, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Thank you, thank you everybody. [...] I want to tell you just a little bit of my own story, actually, about how I got into the ancient world, and that was more than 60 years ago, when I was five. And this was in 1960, so you can now work out exactly how old I am. I was brought up in a little village in rural Shropshire, which is on the border between England and Wales. And when I was five, my mum, who was the village schoolteacher, thought it would be a good idea that I went to London and saw what a city was like because there were no cities anywhere near where we lived. So we did go to London, and one of the things we did was we went to the British Museum. And I was, at that stage, like kind of every five-year-old I think, or many five-year-olds, let's say, dead keen on Egyptian mummies. That's what you wanted to see, you wanted to see the dead bodies of Ancient Egypt. And we did that in the British Museum and it was extremely exciting.

But my mum, who was a schoolteacher who saw that there was more to Ancient Egypt than dead bodies, said that we should go to the Everyday Life Gallery in the British Museum. And I think there might be some people in the audience who remember what museums were like back in 1960, but they were not child-friendly. The cases started about here [chest high], right? No kid could ever see into them, so this was all being a bit difficult. And then my mum–we got our bags with us and it was all quite hard and cumbersome–said, "Oh, my goodness me, at the back of that case there's a piece of Egyptian cake, 4,000 years old." I thought, "That's what I want to see. Stop the mummies. I want to see the Egyptian cake."

But I couldn't see it. It was at the back of the case. So she had to try to lift me up to see. But we had bags and I was wriggly, so she really couldn't manage it. And at that moment, what seemed to me then like an old bloke came along (I suspect he was pushing 40) and he said, "Was I looking for anything in particular?" And I said, "That piece of cake at the back of the case!" And he must've been a curator because he put his hands in his pockets, he got some keys out, he unlocked the case, he put his hands in the back of the case and he got the cake out and he put it right in front of my nose.

And it was amazing. It was wondrous, it was surprising, it was magical. It was what the Greeks would've called thauma, the kind of magic wonder that makes you think differently about the world. That little piece of 4,000 year-old Egyptian cake changed my life, and I will come back to it as I finish. I have now to confess that I never did go on to learn hieroglyphs, which would've been the natural and predictable end of this story, but I did go on to a high school where I was lucky enough to be able to learn Latin and Greek.

And one of the reasons that I'm so very much behind what the Paideia Institute wants to do is because it's helping people do that when they don't have necessarily an easy opportunity at high school like I did. So I was rather drilled in Latin and Greek, but I also was able to explore the Romans beneath my feet in Shropshire, where we came from, and do archaeological excavations and all that kind of stuff, in which I think the wonder of it all, the sheer magic that that moment of the cake represented, really never went away. And that was partly the material remains, it was picking up the bit of pottery that nobody had picked up since 100 CE or whatever. That is magical.

But it was also reading the stuff, the really interesting, engaging, and surprising stuff like the Catullus you mentioned, Thomas, that people had written such a long time ago. And it gave me a different perspective on what history was. The history was there: it could be touched, it was immediate, it was in front of us, it was accessible. But I think it also gave me a very important different perspective on myself. And I think that's why, in the end, we look so carefully at the ancient world. It's not because we are just interested in the ancients. They are very interesting, but we're also interested in ourselves and in what antiquity makes us rethink about us. And that happened to me in spades even before I got to university.

Now, I think that Classicists in general can be a bit of a gloomy lot–I have to say, right? And I've been part of this and I plead guilty. We tend to kind of lament all the things that we don't know about the ancient world. We have so little literature written by women–we have some, but very little–so little literature written by slaves. (Again, some, but very little.) I think that what for me has been important for a career of now decades studying Classics, is thinking about how much there is that survives. What's amazing about the ancient Greco-Roman world is not that we have so little of it, it's that we have so much. We mentioned Marcus Aurelius. Now I don't very much like Marcus Aurelius, I have to confess, but it's just absolutely bloody amazing– isn't it?–that what a Roman emperor jotted down to himself when he was thrashing some unfortunate barbarians, which is what he was doing, actually survives.

And I think that Classics is a world in which you can happily–you don't have to, but you can–spend a lifetime, there is more literature written in Latin and Greek than anybody could read carefully in the course of one lifetime. And it is really worth doing. So I think there is huge importance in rejecting the sort of gloomy view about what we don't know. "Oh, we don't know about the ancient economy. They didn't even have a word for economics," whatever. What we've got is huge amounts of really engaging stuff.

I'm so behind what Paideia is wanting to do, because to actually give people access to that in the original language is different. Look, we all read translations–I read translations. If I'm going to look up a passage of Dio Cassius, I don't instantly go to the Greek. I don't, sorry. I might go later to the Greek, but that's not my first port of call. But the really important thing is that we have access to a world that is thousands of years different and apart from our own. So, why do we need Paideia? Because we don't want to lose that. We really don't want to lose that.

I think Classicists are also a terribly nostalgic lot, too. And they have a kind of myth, which I was brought up on, that people before us always did Classics better than we do. That a hundred years ago, every British little boy aged 12 could translate Latin better than I ever could. Now, I don't think that's actually true. And I think that Classics has thrived thinking that since about the second century CE–they always believed that people in the first century CE knew better than they did.

Actually, we are doing better than the past. Well, my experience suggests that we are doing better. Now, I'm not saying that unaware of funding cuts, unaware of the assault on the humanities, unaware of the need for support for humanities subjects and humanities skills and expertise like Classics. I think there's a rather vitriolic and unpleasant campaign against the humanities, actually, and I'm not going to start on my defense of them, but if anybody wants to ask me afterwards why I think the humanities need preserving in general, I'm very happy to say.

But I think my experiences are quite different from that nostalgic view. My experience is that studying Latin and Greek and the civilization that goes with it–and I'll call it civilization, perhaps in inverted commas, perhaps not, but still civilization–I think it's got better in my lifetime. And it's partly got better because the kind of people who are doing it have expanded and they've got more diverse, more different, more interesting. When I was a student back in the 1970s, Classics was studied by, by and large, posh, rich white men at Cambridge. It wasn't entirely the case–it can't have been entirely the case because they let me in and I wasn't a posh rich white man–but it was a very monocultural subject.

What happened over my career as a teacher at Cambridge, which was 40 years or so, is that–not quick enough and it's still not finished–we in the UK and you in the US brought new people, more diverse people, into the subject with different questions, with different areas to debate, and different disagreements, and that hugely revivified the subject. The kind of things that students are asking now about the ancient world are just a cut above what we used to ask in the 1970s, and that's partly because they're coming with different questions from different places and have a different engagement with the ancient world.

That means, and you can read it in the New York Times anytime you want, that there's increasing debates within Classics and increasing disagreements about what the subject is. I think that's all to the good, hugely healthy. The last thing we want is a subject that everybody agrees on what it should be about. The health of a subject is partly represented not just by the expertise that goes into it, but by the fact that people feel it's worth arguing about. And that is certainly the case for the Greco-Roman world and the neighbors of the Greco-Roman world who are increasingly being brought into the picture. (When I was a teenager, we learned about the Persian Wars without ever studying the Persians. I mean now it just seems mad!)

And so things have changed. And I think, actually, that there is a bit of a culture war–there's no subject on earth in Western Europe and the US that isn't somehow engaged in a culture war–but I have no doubt in saying that Classics is getting better, more interesting, and that what Paideia is doing is actually helping people engage in those debates. So I think we are hugely grateful to this.

But, I suppose, to go back to my man in the British Museum, I think, "What did he teach me?" Now, obviously I've slightly mythicized this. I've got no idea who he is, and I'm sure he is long dead. But one thing he taught me was the wonder: the wonder of getting close to things, real things, not digital things, real things from the ancient world, like a piece of cake that someone might have ate 4,000 years ago.

As I've thought back to that incident and to how important it was to me, I think he taught me something else, not just the wonder of the ancient world: he taught me that opening cases for people was extremely important. The most important thing you can do for kids or for people who feel outsiders in any way is either literally or metaphorically to open the cases for them. And I think that that's in a very, very small way what I've tried to do, but I think it's what the Paideia Institute is trying to do, and doing in spades. So I think, Jason, if I had a slogan for you, it's, “Let's open more cases to antiquity…and enjoy it”. Thank you.


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