Confronting the Classics

This collection of historian Mary Beard's reviews of books about classics is a source of wisdom, insight, provocation, and deep pleasure.

Confronting the Classics, by Mary Beard, Liveright, 320 pp.

That the review is being written means the book has been finished, which is a shame. You want it to go on, like "1001 Nights," to keep delivering the pleasures of an entertainment that lifts you to higher ground. So read it again. Read it from start to finish, or finish to start, or inside out – for this collection of Mary Beard's book reviews can be consumed in the order you wish and will nourish you time and again with insights and provocations you missed the first few times through.

These are Book Reviews among book reviews: incisive rather than mean, exacting but not prim, generous with acuity, as inviting as Robert Frost's "The Pasture," and blessed with a good storyteller's instinctive connection to the audience.

Confronting the Classics showcases Beard's familiarity with antiquity, its thoroughfares and back alleys, or at least what can be known of them, for Beard will be the first to admit that much can't. That doesn't mean there is no place for conjecture, it just needs to have footing. There are elemental rules at play: do the research, appreciate what you can of the surrounding circumstances, join the dots, and if you have something new to add, make it work. Otherwise, hope Beard doesn't review your book.

It is not that Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University and the classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement, is always serious. She has a bright humor to complement her rangy curiosity and razory skepticism; a dose of playfulness and mirth inhabit the obvious feeling of joy she finds in her work. On the other hand, in her view certain essentials are at stake in the study of antiquity. Of course if we can find a way to make the ancient world make sense to us, it might help us better understand our world. But there is something more fundamental than that, something that touches on loss and longing: "the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity.... the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value."

But although our links to it might be ever tenuous, for Beard antiquity is never far away. Aristophanes, Boadicea, Thucydides, Cicero, Korinna, and the "bit-part emperors" may have lived thousands of years ago, but we have held an abiding engagement with them and their classical world, and we have engaged with our predecessors' engagement with the classics, all that has happened in the space between antiquity and ourselves. "It would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus." Sever the classics from the modern world and it "would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture."

Some of the reviews here are demolitions. Shoddy scholarship gets straightforwardly called out: "[Vanessa] Collingridge seems to have done quite a lot of her research by long-distance phone calls or steaming around the country talking to 'experts,' " she writes of "Boudica." Of T. P. Wiseman's "Remus, A Roman Myth": "A whole series of Roman plays are concocted out of next to no evidence at all, and then made into major agents in the transmission of the myth." Of David Mattingly's estimate of 100,000 to 250,000 killed out of a population of 2 million during the Roman conquest of Britain: "Sounds bad. But where on earth do these figures come from? There is no good evidence whatsoever for either." Of Anthony Birley's chronology of Hadrian: "These are harmless enough questions: the problem is that there is virtually no evidence from which to answer most of them." That's the nub: Ask a question with a shot at an answer, then follow, if any, its trail of crumbs. Show Beard the money: "If the splendor of the show seems almost beyond belief, that is most likely because it is not to be believed." 

She also finds plenty to laud in a number of the books. Credit goes where credit is due, and Beard finds in others' intelligence a synergy that ignites her own. Something is always jumping up and biting her on the knee. She may come to the defense of Sir Arthur Evans's perceptivity or weigh in on the pure and elemental importance of Sappho's work as a woman's voice, a voice mostly unheard in public discourse, with its "radical subversion of the male literary (epic) tradition." It may be that we can still laugh at ancient jokes because "it is from them that we learned what 'laughing at jokes' is," or be reminded that Cicero's caricatures were no more truth than political prejudice.

She takes measure of Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, "to fix the dividing line between the upmarket elegance of an emperor and the decadent vulgarity of the tyrant"; there is Tiberius' refusal to partake in the dissimulation and hypocrisy of Roman imperial doublespeak, revealing the autocratic reality beneath the Augustan democratic veneer. Milk the primary sources, she writes, don't bemoan their paucity. Consider the "whole variety of material ... that brings the world of the poor, the humble, and the disadvantaged back to life," the butcher, the baker, the squaddy patrolling Hadrian's Wall, for whom she taps the ancient source of W. H. Auden: "Over the heather the wet wind blows / I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose."
It is a sight to see Beard bump heads with the classics, treating them as alive, stirring them up, trusting they will reveal something. She's not above stern interrogation in her pursuit of the truth, and though her reviewees may tremble, you've got to be tough if you want to keep those barbarians at bay for another little while.

Peter Lewis is the book review editor of the Geographical Review.

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