Confronting the Classics brings together 31 reviews and essays originally published as stand-alone pieces in The Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books and The New York Review of Books, dating back to 1990. Reviews have been an important part of Mary Beard’s career, both as a classical scholar and a public figure, and it is fitting that they are collected here as a testament to this aspect of her work. The collection offers short, thought-provoking pieces on a wide range of subjects, with an emphasis on ancient Rome (Greece is less well represented).
Several essays demolish previous scholarship: Sir Arthur Evans and his team of architects, Beard observes, built up the Minoan ruins in Crete, with plenty of “embarrassing mistakes”, and fed “to the early-twentieth century exactly the image of primitive culture that it wanted”. Archaeologists who think they can recover the world of Boudicca, the queen of the Iceni who rebelled against Roman occupation, grossly overstate their insights: “despite their scientific advantages, they have not done much better…than their antiquarian, or pre-antiquarian, predecessors”. There are also provocations of a different kind: Beard chooses to reprint the (in)famous essay in which she considers the sexual harassment of students with a degree of indulgence: “If we’re honest, it is…hard to repress a bit of wistful nostalgia for the academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy - which had flourished, after all, since Plato - was firmly stamped out.” (There is, in this, not just a difficult sentiment but an error of fact: the “erotic dimension of pedagogy” was not stamped out in 1980; that is when it apparently became invisible to Beard.)
Confronting the Classics is a great read - and not only for its demolition work. Beard’s writing is accessible, yet never condescending to the general reader. She offers, above all, a lesson in method - and the last piece in the book is, quite fittingly, a tutorial on how to write a book review. Reading her other essays is like eavesdropping on a debate between professional classicists and understanding every word. She says herself that “studying Classics is to enter a conversation”. The next question is why one should enter that conversation. Beard amply demonstrates that doing so can be “fun”, but also offers a more serious argument: “to amputate Classics from the modern world…would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture”.
Her statement is correct but narrow. The explicit focus on “the West” accounts for the most glaring blind spots in Confronting the Classics. It is true that “Dante read Virgil’s Aeneid, not the epic of Gilgamesh”, as Beard points out; but it is also true that Petrarch had to turn East in order to recover Homer, and Homer in turn shared important insights with Gilgamesh. There are many, diverse, eastern and western routes to be traced. Beard defines Classics as “the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves”. By antiquity, she means Graeco-Roman antiquity, and this leads to a dismissal of other ancient cultures and their significance (for example, in chapter 4, she bizarrely claims that the title Alexander “the Great” may well have been “a Roman coinage”, whereas there is good evidence that this was a title widely used in the Near East - by rulers Alexander wanted to imitate as well as defeat). By “ourselves” Beard again means something specific - as her sentence on our “wistful nostalgia” (quoted above) testifies. Her perspective is Western, donnish and, to put it bluntly, quite exclusive. But then that lends strength to her writing: Confronting the Classics is, above all, a personal confrontation.