The world’s best-known classicist, Mary Beard, is not your regular academic figure. The English historian is know not just for her rigorously-researched books about the Roman empire and ancient civilisations but also her many TV appearances, Twitter takedowns and controversial public statements.
Beard’s no-holds-barred approach to tough questions has often led to online abuse and misogynistic backlash – stemming, she says, from a discomfort with outspoken women. In her book, Women & Power: A Manifesto, published in 2017, Beard traces this silencing of women to ancient history, beginning with Homer’s Odyssey, in which Telemachus essentially tells his mother Penelope to “shut up”.
The book also draws out the underpinnings of modern-day misogyny and its manifestation, most particularly, in the case of women politicians such as Theresa May and Hillary Clinton.
Yet Beard has also been criticised for subscribing to a form of white feminism, in response to contentious comments about alleged sexual exploitation by Oxfam aid workers in Haiti. “I really should have learned by now that it is a very bad idea to try to make a nuanced contribution to a topical debate in 280 characters.” Beard wrote about the controversy afterwards, “But still I do it.”
At the Jaipur Literature Festival in January, Beard spoke to Scroll.in about who gets to tell history, her problem with “moral certainty” and what Donald Trump and Julius Caesar have in common.
In a session, you spoke about how the actual process of uncovering history is rarely focused on in popular tellings, even though it is something of interest to readers. Do you think we don’t talk enough, or have enough skepticism about sources and who is controlling the telling of history?
I think we’re getting better. Some historians have always been very good at that and I think that’s what part of the pleasure of doing history really is – seeing and understanding how the story is constructed. Look at the story of Antony and Cleopatra. If we look at it, we need to know it was part of the fake news put out by the emperor Augustus in order to justify his own victory. In some ways, it is being able to think harder about the fake news that makes history interesting. Almost all the stories we hear about Roman emperors are probably untrue. But they all tell us something.
Without the skepticism, there’s also the potential for misuse of history, such as with Arron Banks and his claim that the Roman empire was brought down by immigration, which you publicly countered. Do you see that pushback as one of the many hats you wear? As one of your responsibilities as a public figure?
I think you have to be very clear that we don’t own history...the idea that there are somehow a load of professional historians who have the right to speak about it and people who don’t. I think that’s a very anti-democratic view. The last thing we want is to only allow professional historians to talk about history. We want everybody to talk about history. On the other hand, I think that professional historians need to engage to show precisely how different stories are constructed and why we think some common myths about the past are myths. Such as in this case, a powerful myth about the fall of the Roman empire, which is almost 100% untrue.
In Women and Power, you wrote about how Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser degree, Theresa May have been graphically caricatured as Medusa. What is it about Medusa that makes that parallel so easy in misogynistic politics of power?
Because it is a brilliant combination of male victory in the end – the holding of her head, the triumphalism – and yet also that sense that the illegitimate, illicit power of this female monster has been overcome. It’s the killing of the potentially powerful female, not just the killing of the woman.
The woman in power is almost always a monster in that kind of discourse. The monstrosity then justifies her being put down.
You also wrote about Theresa May in the book, which seems more and more prophetic with each passing day, that she was almost being set up to fail. How do you feel about that in light of the last couple of months of British politics?
It’s very hard. I’m not of Mrs May’s politics. But you can’t help feel some kind of sympathy for her because she’s being used by those guys. They don’t want to run the country right now. They want a woman to fail to run the country. And then one of them will be able to come in and “save us”. I’m sure she doesn’t entirely feel this herself and I’m sure she’s got quite a lot of inner resource but I think in the light of history, it will appear that she was, in a sense, a tool of a particular form of patriarchal politics.
Then of course, there’s Donald Trump. You’ve resisted recent comparisons with Julius Caesar but you admitted the similarity between Trump’s approach to public conversation and Caesar’s “I came, I saw, I conquered”.
I do think you can see the techniques of populism. And with populism, I think one has to be a bit careful of always saying that’s a bad thing. You can also say populism is democracy and it’s a very elite term. But you can see how, within cultures with very strongly entrenched elites, the populist leader manages to find a way around. And you can see that in Trump’s use of Twitter, [which] has striking similarities with Julius Caesar’s direct appeal to the Roman people.
There’s been renewed talk about a Lakshmi statue being found in Pompeii in the early 20th century. And of course Roman urns and amphorae have been found in various parts of India. Have the links between the Roman empire and ports in Southern India, such as Muziris, been a part of your work?
Yes. You have an Indian dancer – it may or may not have been Lakshmi – found in Pompeii. And you instantly say, “how did it get there?” – to a rather second-rate town in South Italy. I think one of the things that working on the [Roman] empire is, you see that Rome’s vision of the world, which is different from its empire, extended at least to India. If you see the famous map of the Roman world, the so-called Peutinger Table, which is a mediaeval copy of an ancient map, one end of it is India. India and Rome were in contact and had a view of each other and China and Rome were in contact to some extent as well.
Even though India and China had flourishing international trade relation and huge naval fleets, what do you think about the dominance of Western civilisations? And this notion of a “superior civilisation”?
There is a part that says the West is inheriting, or thinks it is inheriting, a tradition of classical Greco-Roman writing for itself, which actually does centre itself, in the sense that they know the barbarians come from the North and the further east they go, the more uncertain they get.
I think it’s always very good for the British to realise that the Romans thought they were so barbarian. The history of Rome is prompting these debates now, to ask the question of “what kind of operation is to hierarchise civilisations” and we know that actually the British have always found that difficult.
They’ve shouted very loud about their superiority – aggressively loud and sometimes violently loud. We’ve also known that to some extent that has been to try and cover up an anxiety. I often point out to people that one of the things that the British empire does is to see itself as somehow modelled on the Roman empire. It certainly wasn’t, but you could symbolically represent it like that. Yet one of the problems was that they could never quite make it fit...Feelings of anxiety tend to make you shout very loud.
As China and India get more economically and culturally influential, there seems to be a greater academic reclaiming of history and the development of an India-centric or China-centric view of the world instead...
I think it’s very interesting. On the one hand – think about comparative studies of empires – there are many structural similarities between the empires of China and Rome. And yet there is an unresolved tension between reclaiming “our culture” as somehow central and up in the hierarchy, and the actual pull of global history. I suspect it’s always been like that. It’s very hard because there are some bits of global history that are very shoddy. How do you inject true expertise into global history? Only by collaboration, I suspect.
What did you think of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey? Do you see a woman’s perspective of such classics as something that wasn’t common when you began with your academic work?
In a way, it wasn’t. It has been a revolutionary change over my career. I think Emily’s translation is very good. It has been translated into French before, so the English-speaking world got a bit too excited – people who say this is the first translation [of The Odyssey] by a woman. It’s actually the first translation by a woman into English.
It’s a very good translation for the 21st century. I would like to say that, look, this is what a woman can do. I would like to say that and it may be true but I think much more than that, it’s what someone in the 21st century who is asking all those questions about the coloniser and the colonised does with a foundational text like this.
It’s almost as if the Cyclops, the utter barbarian, has been recast in a heroic guise and to some extent, that’s what we teach our students. When I teach The Odyssey, I say look, how do we feel about Odysseus’s cruelty to the Cyclops? And Emily Wilson writes that very well into her translation. But we mustn’t forget he was a cannibal. I think you need to sensitise yourself to the very notion of barbarity that counter involves, without simply saying “sorry Odysseus is the barbarian and the Cyclops is civilised”.
You said in an interview once that “the right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about”. You also wear the other hat of being a popular writer and a TV presenter. Do you ever find that the two are at odds?
I think when you live it, it doesn’t feel at odds. I can see what you mean. In some ways I think, being a relatively popular writer helps you say the unpopular. So in a sense, it can underpin freedom. That of course means that you can get pilloried in all sorts of ways and you get attacked and you get terribly misunderstood because there’s quite a lot of modern social media discourse that has no clue about complexity or nuance or anything like that.
In your writing and in interviews, you frequently use the term “moral certainty” how it’s so prevalent, today. Could you tell me more about what you mean?
I don’t think it’s the fault of social media, but it’s certainly encouraged by social media that you can surround yourself with friends and followers who think like you do, and you can be convinced of your own rectitude without engaging with people who think differently, except to block or vilify them.
Part of what politics is about – in the civic sense, not professional politics – is difference and discussion and debate, sometimes about compromise. That is very, very hard on social media. People seem, to me, to go around with the idea that you either have friends or enemies. And if you’re friends with someone, then you agree about everything, and if you’re enemies whatever they say is wrong. I think that is the sad side of modern politics.
You certainly see it in Britain, in Brexit. Quite a lot of my friends voted for Brexit. I would never have done that, to me it is almost inconceivable but people were just as surprised that I have friends who voted for Brexit. And that’s even sadder, I think. I do think the keyboard age – and I am both a beneficiary and a user of it – makes it easy to sit in your comfortable sitting room and have very strong views about the world, without ever having to think about difficulty and ambivalence. It’s easy to be morally virtuous in your own sitting room.