So this is what the Romans did for us ....
Professor Mary Beard on her new history of ancient Rome book
Mary Beard’s informality has disarmed me since we first met at a party at her publisher’s office in Clerkenwell four years ago, when we ended up sitting on a communal staircase, chatting like a couple of students. Since then, she has answered all manner of journalistic questions from me, silly and serious, with either a rapid-fire thought-provoking response or, over the past year or so, something more like “bugger off, I’m finishing my book”. Now SPQR, her history of ancient Rome, is done and, one Friday afternoon in late September, I’m invited over for tea in the kitchen to talk about it. With a conspiratorial look, she promises me a glass of wine when the “tutorial” is over.
Beard’s grand title, awarded 11 years ago, is Professor of Classics at Cambridge. Donnish she is not. Indeed, when we do get down to discussing her credentials, she describes 40 years in classics as being a “jobbing teacher on ancient history”.
This book, which covers from the birth of Rome to AD212, when all in the Empire are granted citizenship, pitches itself firmly to the non-classicist. “People say ‘aren’t your Cambridge students different?’ First-years know no more about Roman history than anybody who might pick it up.” But this isn’t an A-level book: it is a distillation of 40 years of scholarship told by someone who has managed to strip away the patina of deference that has attached itself to classical studies. The over-arching values and absolutes of Rome are gone, so too the long slog through multiple Latin names and the blood and guts of wars. SPQR – the brand standing for Senatus Populus Que Romanus, the senate and the people of Rome – is a tussle of ideas. It wakes up the once-greatest city in the world again by asking: “Well, was it so great?”
There’s a gasp of exasperation in Mary Beard’s voice when it comes to talking about Cicero, the orator, consul, and compulsive letter writer, and staple for Latin students, who has become the template for Roman values.
“He has so taken over. We see the republic through his eyes,” says Beard. “All the time, when writing this, you have to ask, ‘what does it look like from the other side?’.”
You’ll find Beard leaning not towards the man who claimed to have saved Rome from the equivalent of the Gunpowder Plot in 63BC, but towards the people who saw Cicero for what he was: a man who bent laws and took lives for his own political ends. Nowadays, she says, “we would be on Clodius’s side [one of his political rivals and something of a master of street politics]. We would be knocking Cicero’s house down and putting up a sign to Libertas.”
Where Beard positions herself, if we are to go Roman, is as one of the plebeians, interrogating the patrician class who, thanks to being its actors, writers, speechmakers, those to whom grand statues were dedicated, had the upper hand in the historical narrative to date. She’s not shy about her own socialist disposition. A former Labour Party member who “let my subscription lapse” when Tony Blair arrived, she says Ed Miliband’s demise was just like a Roman emperor’s assassination – “to the point of assassination you can’t find anybody who will break ranks apart from one or two out-and-out mavericks; as soon as the bugger gets killed and deposed, they are all out saying ‘God, he was useless’.”
She is also quite keen on Jeremy Corbyn for roughing up the status quo.
You could read a bit of leftie-ism into her history. SPQR is very focused on the P – the Populus – who in the co-dependent relationship between consuls, senate, and the people, held some sway. Beard will linger over examples of populist politicians – the Gracchus brothers or, later, Caligula, whom she restores to his real name Gaius.
But when I suggest that the Gracchus brothers, Tiberius and Gaius, are proto-socialist with their land allotments and corn dole for the masses, Beard doesn’t let me get away with such an easy comparison. “You are being a bit too charitable there,” she says. “There was [political] advantage for them in doing it.”
Beard likes to argue. I’ve never seen it in anger, but one hears a tutor’s voice that suggests you look again at the premises of what you’ve said. That voice came into the public sphere in 2001. The London Review of Books had asked her, and other intellectual grandees, to write a response to the 9/11 attacks. Hers is remembered for one sentiment, that the US “had it coming”, though it is a far more nuanced letter in full: its reflections on the word “terrorism” are worth re-reading in the context of Islamic State.
Her email inbox was jammed. “First, I thought: don’t respond to these things if you get abuse. So, for the first couple of days I didn’t. Then I thought: this is a bit odd. I’ve written something. This guy doesn’t agree and he’s written to me. Now it is written a bit intemperately but he probably thought what I said was intemperate. I’m gonna write back. That’s kind of what I do. I’m an academic, I argue, I engage with people.”
That is what she did, later taking on the Twitter trolls, and becoming a regular on the Question Time platform. This book is itself an argument both with what popular history is – it doesn’t have to be all blood and guts – and staid previous tomes. This is Rome, retold in the vernacular.
Mary and I have had a few email exchanges over the last few months about the British Museum. Only half-jokingly I kept asking, given her close relations to the BM, why she wasn’t being talked about as a successor to the director, Neil McGregor (the post has been filled since we met). “I’d be rubbish at it,” she says, as she has done consistently. “Fate has it in for me to be an exhibit: that funny old lady from the telly.”
But don’t you agree, I prod Mary, that each era chooses who it wants to be its figureheard historian. The Sixties fell for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, the story of the West, now the 21st century hands Professor Beard Roman history. Do you see the significance in the BBC and the reading audience, I ask, choosing you as its story-teller.
Beard rolls her eyes at me. “You can say that if you like,” she says. I suspect the rebel in her won’t wear the mantle of the establishment easily. “Look darling you know exactly how old I am,” she continues in justification of SPQR. “I am 60. I’ve taught this stuff for nigh-on 40 years. Either I decide to have my say, right, because I’ve thought about it for quite a long time, or not. If you are my age, you either do it now or you don’t do it.”