A Visit with Mary Beard

By Annalisa QuinnAugust 13, 2014

A Visit with Mary Beard

The following is a feature article from the newly released LARB Quarterly Journal: Spring 2014 edition. To pick up your copy of the Journal, become a member of the Los Angeles Review of Books at the $11 monthly level or order a copy at amazon.com, indiebound.com or b&n.com.


THE CLASSICIST MARY BEARD walked into the lobby of her hotel in Washington, DC looking thoroughly windswept, though it was a windless day. A Cambridge classics professor, she’s become famous in England for her BBC documentaries about the Romans, and, more recently, her outspokenness about misogynist abuse on Twitter.

For some women, Mary Beard’s messy gray hair has taken on the same significance as Elizabeth Bennet’s muddy petticoat or Frida Kahlo’s untamed eyebrows — they seem to say, I have much better things to worry about. Indeed, it is impossible to have perfect hair if you do as much wild gesturing, pensive head-rubbing and general jumping around as Mary Beard seems to do.

On her TV programs, she is excitable and perpetually disheveled, hopping around Rome in gold high-tops, pausing every so often to squat down in the dirt next to some ancient artifact or another. She sits — fully clothed and pleased as a pumpkin — on the seat of a Roman latrine to demonstrate how a Roman might have wiped his bottom. In a world where TV presenters tend to be either “craggy men,” as Beard calls them, or smoothly coiffed women with perfect teeth, she is the anti-coif.

The 58-year-old Beard inadvertently became a mascot for older women on television when she appeared in a BBC series without first dying her hair.

“It’s not like I’m a Stalinist about grey hair,” she tells me, sitting in the corner of the coffee shop in her hotel lobby. “In fact, I’d quite like to go pink. But I don’t like women feeling like they’re forced to dye their hair. It raises the broader question: how can women age without falling into the old crone trap? I mean, we’re back with the bloody Greeks and Romans.”

A. A. Gill, the television critic for The Sunday Times and one of Beard’s most vicious detractors, has suggested that Beard belongs on The Undateables, a reality TV show about people with serious disabilities or disfigurements trying to go on dates. She says that when she first heard about Gill’s comments: “For a moment, you feel like someone’s hit you. But then you think, this is silly. And most of the British public thought it was outrageous. Most women over 50 know what women over 50 look like. And they look like me. They can pretend like they don’t, but really they look like me.”

She adds, “I’m a classicist, not an autocue girl.”

She is, in fact, a very prominent classicist, a professor at the University of Cambridge, the classics editor for The Times Literary Supplement, and the author of 13 books on the ancient world.

Her book Confronting the Classics, which came out in 2013, is a sprawling collection of essays on everything from Asterix the Gaul to Hannibal. Her approach is decidedly unromantic — she hates it when people get “gooey” about the glories of Rome.

“You do the ancient world much greater service if you keep arguing with them,” she says, gesticulating without bothering to put down her latte, which dipped dangerously. “In all sorts of ways they were wrong. But the fact that they were wrong is not as important as the fact that they provided us with a way of thinking. We don’t want to go back to the ancient world. Women do not want to go back the ancient world. Jews do not want to go back to the ancient world. Christians do not want to go back to the ancient world. Absolutely ghastly.” (At this I edge away from the table, fearing burns).

In the book, she writes that the way we read the subject “says as much about us as it does about them.” I asked her what she meant. “We raid them,” she says, simply. “We have to ventriloquize the ancient world.” For example, scholarship on women in the ancient world has grown in the last few decades, Beard says, as a “result of the feminist movements of the ’70s and ’80s. When I was an undergraduate, people didn’t really talk about women in antiquity,” she says. But “now, when we talk about Euripides, we talk about his female characters.”

If the study of classics, then, can be a mirror of contemporary concerns, it also means scholars are never done. “It’s very interesting to look back at classics a hundred years ago. One of the things I’ve done is look back at Gilbert Murray’s translations of Euripides, which were huge popular success at the time. It seemed to engage with all sorts of political issues of the time. And you look at them now, and they’re unreadable. People sometimes say that everything’s been translated, so why do you need to learn the languages? Well, no, it hasn’t — if you want to read the works of Galen, well, Sorry, sunshine!”

She says this last wagging her finger at me, as if I had just suggested we pop down to the bookstore for a copy of the collected works of Galen. “You’re out of luck,” she adds. “You’re not going to find a nice English version.” (There are, in fact, a few translations of Galen available, but they’re not particularly readable).

We also read texts differently in different eras. “It isn’t just about putting things into some version of English or French or German or whatever. It’s about interpreting the text. It’s making this ancient text speak to us in ways we can understand. So translations from a hundred years ago don’t hack it for us.”

Not to mention that some translations can be plain wrong. As an example, she points to some of the myths surrounding the Roman emperor Caligula, who is famous for sadistic sexual practices. She explains that one frequently mistranslated passage in the work of the historian Suetonius has been used to create an image of garish excess. “The passage is glossed as, ‘Caligula had banquets with his wife underneath him and his wife on top,’ as if they were in a kind of threesome sandwich. And you look at the Latin, it talks about infra and supra, above and underneath, but the words are used as the technical terms for where you sit at a Roman banquet. So someone’s on the left and on the right. So there’s this whole really lurid version. But look, darling, the Latin does not say that. It just doesn’t.”

Lately, Beard has been doing less work on the Romans than she’d like. Instead, she’s been dealing with a relentless stream of anonymous threats, which make crude insults from newspaper columnists seem mild.

Last winter, Beard appeared on the political debate show Question Time and argued that the UK can benefit from fewer limits on immigration. Almost immediately, she was inundated with misogynist mail. The website Don’t Start Me Off named her “Twat of the Week.” One person posted a picture of her face superimposed on a vagina. Others speculated about her oral and genital hygiene, or even threatened to rape her. Shocked at the fierceness of the abuse, she decided to reprint some of it on her blog at The Times Literary Supplement, “A Don’s Life.” She wrote in the post, “It would be quite enough to put many women off appearing in public [or] contributing to political debate.”

She tells me that “in the UK, you can’t actually repeat what they’ve said. You go on the radio and you have to say, ‘He criticized my appearance!’ You can’t say, ‘Actually, what he said is, “You foul cunt, I think your vagina smells of cabbage and I want to roger you with a spatula.”’ But you just can’t say that on the BBC. So I just put it up on my blog.”

As a result of her post, the website Don't Start Me Off was shut down, and the man who owned it apologized to Beard.

“And that got a lot of publicity. Because many people saw it who didn’t quite understand what it is when we talk about misogynist abuse. People don’t quite realize what it is. So that was a kind of victory.” But the victory was short-lived. Feminists in the United Kingdom began a campaign to put a picture of Jane Austen on the pound note. Beard said she supported the campaign, but “wasn't much involved with it.” But when the women running it began to get death threats and rape threats, Beard appeared on the radio to talk about dealing with internet abuse.

“And so I said that one of the things to do with threats is retweet them, and show them to the world. And so I was sitting in the radio studio, and there was this guy on Twitter who sent a tweet saying, ‘I bet your vagina is really disgusting, you old hag. I bet you won’t retweet this!’ So, naturally I retweeted it, and within a few minutes, someone said, ‘I can tell you where his mother lives.’ So I said, let’s give him a few hours to apologize. If not, we’ll use the mother route. So of course he immediately apologized, and for a while it became a good news story. You know, everybody was saying, ‘What do you do with trolls? Tell their mums!’ But then I started getting death threats.”

“Were you scared?” I ask.

“I think its disingenuous to say you’re not scared. You get a note saying ‘I’m outside your house,’ and for 30 seconds you think, My god. After that, was I scared? Not really. I’ve been around long enough to know that most people, if they want to kill you, they don't send you a tweet first.”

Mary Beard’s toughness has been built up by decades of dealing with bad press. In the week following 9/11 she infamously wrote in the London Review of Books that the United States “had it coming,” which provoked an enormous amount of anger on both sides of the Atlantic. It also seems curiously at odds with the way, in her BBC documentary about Pompeii, for example, Mary Beard speaks of the dead — who have been buried in ash for 2,000 years — with genuine sorrow.

I asked her whether she feels the same way about the attacks now, with perhaps, a little more edge than I intended — we are both palpably aware of the mass shooting that had taken place in DC the day before our interview, not far from her hotel.

“I’m glad you asked about that,” she says. “Most interviewers are too polite.”

She is careful not to apologize, seeming — for the first time — a little uncomfortable:

“I feel that what I was trying to say then, I would still want to say now. I never, ever said that those people deserved to die. That would be monstrous. They were innocent victims. What I was trying to say, and perhaps I wouldn’t say it that way now, was that we’re mad if we think that Western foreign policy isn’t implicated somehow in world terrorism.” She pauses cautiously. “No, no, I wouldn't say that. I would say that it is a fair point to make that there is an interrelationship between Western policy — and that’s not just the United States — and world terrorism.”

“So perhaps you would say it differently?”

“When I wrote that in the couple of days after 9/11, nobody knew how to talk about it. Nobody had a rhetoric. Within two or three weeks, people had actually worked out a way to talk about this that allowed you to disagree. At that moment, we hadn’t.”

She’s sitting still now, hands folded safely on the table.

“If you’re a politician, you lose your job if you say the things I’ve said. It’s so easy to just go black and white. But normally the answer is, ‘It is more complicated than that.’ To say that it’s not complicated does not mean that it was a good thing to drive two planes into the Twin Towers. It was a terrible crime. But part of the job of the academic is to be the gadfly. And sometimes that rebounds, and that’s a part of it.”


Annalisa Quinn is a journalist covering books and culture for NPR and other outlets.

LARB Contributor

Annalisa Quinn is a journalist covering books and culture for NPR and other outlets. She is a native of Washington, D.C.


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