Roman gamblers can give scholars of humanities a lesson in honesty

February 11, 2010

Ancient attitudes to uncertainty might be "more useful, appropriate and crucially more honest" than the current ethos governing teaching and research in the humanities.

In a lecture on "Risk and Humanities" to be delivered on 12 February, Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, will explore the images of gambling and associated brawls that appear on the walls of bars in Pompeii.

Although the Romans were obsessed with playing dice, and used gambling as a metaphor for life, she will argue that they had no understanding of the modern concept of probability.

Today, sociologists argue that most people see themselves as living in a "risk society" where individuals and governments constantly try to estimate the likelihood of various hazards and then do their best to avoid them.

In many cases, we are little more than "passive victims", she will say, affected by acts of God or the actions of polluters in foreign countries over which we have no control.

None of this would have made much sense to the Romans.

After setting out "the ancient model of danger", Professor Beard will ask whether this "can still speak to us".

Plagiarism is now sometimes regarded as something anyone might blunder into, rather than as an illicit form of behaviour an individual should take responsibility for, and risk-averse funding models take no account of the open-endedness and sheer luck central to any worthwhile research in the humanities.

Professor Beard will suggest that universities and funding councils might learn a thing or two from the attitudes of the ancient world.

The classicist is a well-known blogger who attracted controversy in 2001 after the 11 September terror attacks with her comments that "the United States had it coming" and that "world bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price".

This week's lecture is part of a series on risk organised by Darwin College, Cambridge.

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