Hooked on classics

Confronting the Classics, by Mary Beard, Profile, RRP£25, 384 pages

Mary Beard is one of a generation of unstuffy classicists who have brought the discipline, dominant in western education and letters for centuries and then apparently more or less abandoned, back into mainstream discussion, and even popularity. In TV series such as the BBC’s Meet the Romans, Beard, seen cycling bravely through the Roman traffic, is far from the stereotype of the old-school classicist represented by Terence Rattigan’s Andrew Crocker-Harris in the play (and films) of The Browning Version; that is, not a repressed, tweed-jacketed figure, concerned mainly with lapses of grammar, but an irrepressible enthusiast with a refreshing disregard for convention.

For those who imagine classics – “the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves”, in Beard’s un-grandiloquent definition – to be primarily an establishment discipline, she gives pause for thought. She points out that classical literature, philosophy and history have inspired as many revolutionaries as reactionaries. Admirably, she seeks to give voice to the forgotten “ordinary” people of the ancient world, often ignored by classicists.

But the point, in these consistently engaging reviews and essays, is not the particular ideological direction but the continuing vitality of the conversation, not just with classical works, authors and sites but with the people, over 20 centuries and more, who have been moulded and moved by them. If the classics were consigned to oblivion, they would leave “bleeding wounds in the body of western culture”; in their absence, we would not understand large parts of ourselves. Beard is determined not to let it happen.

One of her great strengths is in showing how the classics, for all their apparent venerability, remain works in progress. It is rather like she were stripping layers of later repaintings off an old canvas or mural that we thought we knew well, but which turns out quite different.

How much do we really know about Alexander the Great, for instance? Beard suggests that Alexander, as refracted through art and historiography, is as much a Roman as a Greek figure. She is consistently surprising, and turns the tables on those who for decades have cast scorn on Sir Arthur Evans, the excavator of Knossos, for his cavalier recreation of Minoan civilisation. In fact, Beard argues, Evans and his excavation assistant Duncan Mackenzie were on the whole sensitive and careful, and the questions they raised about Minoan civilisation remain relevant.

Pompeii is one of Beard’s favourite stamping-grounds. In two essays she suggests that the lively 19th-century way of viewing the excavation of the buried town as a process and a site of conflicting interpretations has been replaced in our time by a rather deadly kind of apparent closure, in which the play of conjecture has been replaced by certainty. In particular, she wonders how many visitors to the famous Villa of the Mysteries realise that the celebrated Dionysiac frescoes are in considerable part modern reconstructions.

In general, Beard’s epistomelogical approach resembles that of Socrates in the early Platonic dialogues. We are led from false assumptions and certainties into places of deep unknowing. An example is her fascinating essay on the Greek historian Thucydides, which reminds us that his Greek was considered almost impenetrably difficult even in the ancient world. Some of his most famous bons mots bear little relation to what he actually wrote.

It’s a bracing approach, but I feel the undercutting can go too far. The frescoes in the Villa of the Mysteries may have been retouched and in parts repainted, but more remarkable is the fact they have survived almost intact for 2,000 years.

Another cavil concerns poetry, and the relative absence from these pages of what might be considered our greatest legacy from the Greeks and Romans. In Sappho, Beard finds a poet rather in her own image, a “tactical [inverter] of the dominant male language”. But you could go further and say that Sappho’s own language and voice, as well as breaking the bounds of “female silence”, opened up a realm of subjective feeling in poetry in which to articulate the loves, losses, yearnings of all humans, for all time, or es aei, as Thucydides (this time unambiguously) put it.

Harry Eyres writes the Slow Lane column

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.