The Interview: Mary Beard

Max Lunn interviews Mary Beard, the world’s best-loved classicist, on her new book Twelve Caesars, and ancient Rome’s enduring effect on our imagination and culture


I receive a warm introduction as Mary Beard swims into view on Zoom one grey Wednesday evening. Her Cambridge study looks invitingly cluttered and homely, and she generously brushes off my concerns about timing. Her famed lack of formality immediately becomes evident as she announces she’s had a long day, and proceeds to pour herself a glass of white wine. I suddenly wish I had one to hand, too.

It’s appropriate to be looking at Mary Beard on a screen: over the last decade she’s cultivated a career as a media personality, which has helped cement her status as the world’s most famous – and best-loved – classicist. Currently Professor of Classics at Cambridge and a fellow of Newnham College, Beard is a rare breed as a successful TV academic in that she’s still highly respected by her university peers. Perhaps one reason she’s never lost credibility is that her television appearances started relatively late in her career. There’s also the fact she’s used her extra income to help others. She recently announced that, to mark her retirement next year, she’s endowed a bursary for £80,000 for two students from disadvantaged backgrounds to study Classics at Cambridge.

There are few professors one can imagine having the panache to share a stage with Boris Johnson in a head-to-head public debate on “Ancient Greece versus Ancient Rome”, but Beard did just that in 2015. She represented Rome and convincingly won the audience’s votes and minds, her performance an object lesson in the classical arts of rhetoric and oratory.

We’re talking about Beard’s latest book, Twelve Caesars. Normally she writes about “confronting the classics” (the title of her 2013 book), deftly incorporating new research on overlooked figures in the Roman Empire – whether it’s women, Syrian men in Roman Britain or slaves. She has described the Roman Empire as a “history of people of colour”, and in her book on the city of Rome, SPQR (2015), she focused on cosmopolitanism, about the granting of citizenship to more than 30 million people. But her latest book isn’t tackling a subject that’s overlooked, it’s about those deeply familiar Roman emperors, the twelve Caesars of her title.

It was the ever-gossipy Roman writer Suetonius who first wrote a book of the same name, the twelve Caesars being the sequence of renowned Roman emperors that began with Julius Caesar aged sixteen in 84BC (not technically an emperor but considered the starting point of one-man rule), up to Domitian’s death in 96AD. Suetonius wrote this series of biographies during the rule of Hadrian and its influence was keenly felt well into the Renaissance; Petrarch was said to own at least three copies.

These emperors, then, are orthodox territory compared to Beard’s other work. The full title of her book: Twelve Caesars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern indicates she’s tracking the emperors’ influence from the original, self-fashioning moguls who controlled their own images through to medieval bishops, early modern monarchs and Victorian gentlemen. Up till now few of us have realised the extent to which images of the twelve emperors are culturally pervasive – both in form and content – in our lives. Beard cites the example of the portrait bust, which is normally assumed to be celebratory. “How have we come to assume that a bust is not a victim of a nasty murder?” she asks.

I ask if this idea of “re-looking” and disentangling the impact of the overly familiar was her motivation for writing the book. She replies that it emerged from giving the Mellon Lectures in Washington DC ten years ago, adding that the intervening period meant the book was born into a very different world, “thanks to all kinds of things, but including the Colston statue and Black Lives Matter,” and that “we’ve become much more attuned and actually interested in the arguments about sculpture, and, in a sense, the edginess that there is in very conservative image-making.”

Recent events in Washington also come to mind: the storming of the neoclassical Capitol building took place earlier this year, again thrusting a peculiar vision of the ancient world into the spotlight. Die-hard Trump supporters were spotted wearing Ancient Greek style helmets – supposedly to warn off Barbarians – whilst waving flags with the Greek phrase “Molon labe” (come and take them), referencing gun regulations.

“Let’s be straight,” she says. “I’m somebody who quite often goes into the museum and sees the line-up of Roman emperors and thinks, ‘let’s walk on’. And I think in some ways that’s their point. These are familiar… but they’re radical, they’re different, they’re awkward. They’re some of the nastiest people in the history of humanity.”

One of the most remarkable passages of the book concerns the classification system of the Cotton Library. This was the early modern collection of manuscripts which went on to become the basis for the British Library, and Beard writes about how Robert Cotton organised his library around various Roman emperors, meaning that anyone wanting to order Beowolf, for example, would have to ask for Cotton Vitellius A.xv. As Beard comments: “It is traditional, conservative and terribly radical,” all at once. And this is one of the delights of her book: seeing how the emperors have been deployed to represent and embody everything in our culture, including status, history, knowledge and power.

Another novel use of the images of the emperors emerges in her chapter on Titian’s paintings of the Caesars (which were destroyed in a fire in the eighteenth century). Beard’s analysis of the relatively modest room they were displayed in at the Gonzaga Palace in Mantua illustrates they weren’t used as the archetypal “off-the-peg status symbol” that we so often assume is the point of displaying images of emperors; far from being on public view the paintings had a predominantly domestic audience. Beard posits they were a means for the Gonzaga rulers to contemplate their own, impossible, autocratic ambitions. It’s a perspective few others would see, and she comments, “I have not become any more favourable to autocracy as a system, but I have come to see that the dilemma of the monarch is terrible. That it’s a system which exploits those who appear to be at the top.” She adds: “It’s a very unfashionable view.”

You look at Charles I, looking down Whitehall, and you think, nobody is going to tell me that Charles I is now up there because we want to return to a monarchy with a divine right of kings. That is not what he’s doing. He is reminding us about some of the costs of a political change. Our democracy depends on killing this guy. And we’ve got to get our heads around that”

In the same vein, Beard shows that Henry VIII’s Caesar tapestries at Hampton Court, which were generally assumed to depict “scenes from his life”, were in fact based on an epic poem which was critical of one-man rule. Upturning assumptions about artworks that appear to praise or uphold their morally dubious subjects, Beard believes they would have created a palpable sense of unease in court.

“This is how modern, post-Renaissance images of power can help us be a little bit more reflective about our own engagement with images in the public sphere,” she says. “The conundrum that people don’t want to face is how do you deal with a set of apparently legitimising images of dynastic power, almost every one of whom is recognised as being dreadful? I think we’re probably too naïve in thinking that images in public places should be those of whom we approve.”

Of the statues in Trafalgar Square, she observes: “[M]ost of them have been disliked forever. It’s not that there was some great Victorian moment when everybody loved them because they were all imperialists and then suddenly, ‘Oh my God, we don’t like them.’ They’ve been controversial, they’ve been moved, they’ve been criticised. You look at Charles I, looking down Whitehall, and you think, nobody is going to tell me that Charles I is now up there because we want to return to a monarchy with a divine right of kings. That is not what he’s doing. He is reminding us about some of the costs of a political change. Our democracy depends on killing this guy. And we’ve got to get our heads around that.”

Beard steadily occupies this imaginative middle ground in her online interactions. She famously questioned the UKIP donor Arron Banks’s assertion on Twitter that the Roman Empire had collapsed because of too much immigration, suggesting he mug up on his classical history. In the end they met up for lunch to discuss their differences. Encounters like this demonstrate her value to public life: she adopts a stance that doesn’t shy away from serious argument but is delivered in a personable and often entertaining manner. Crucially, during our increasingly polarised times – when things often get ugly – she insists on civil discourse. “[I]t’s not necessarily pleasant but it seems to me to be obviously the right thing to do”.

This is a gracious response from one who’s been the subject of vicious online trolling. In fact, Beard is a model of how to stand up to bullies. She publicly named and shamed one student who had called her a “filthy old slut” by retweeting his offensive observation about her genitalia. Following a public apology from the student, Beard was compassionate. She now writes his job references, as she doesn’t want one “idiotic” tweet to make him suffer from lack of opportunities in the long-term.

Much of the online abuse in the early days focused on her appearance, as an older woman in a highly-scrutinised media landscape where miraculously defying the ageing process was (and often still is) essential for women presenters. Early in her TV career, the writer AA Gill notoriously commented on her “corpse’s teeth” and as late as 2012 suggested she should be “kept away from cameras altogether”. Beard spoke out to a sympathetic crowd in a follow-up article saying “[t]here have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds,” and finished by explaining “[t]he point is not what I look like, but what I do.”

Her refusal to turn her back on online interactions is evidence not just of Beard’s strength of character, but also her sincere optimism. Most people would simply shrink from social media, feeling world-weary and cynical after only half the experiences Beard has suffered on Twitter, but she continues to engage: calmly countering personal abuse and dangerous fictions with the same generosity. She continues to believe in the progress of human interaction and the possibility of more productive dialogues.

When I ask how she’s able to cope with the conflicts that could easily fell some of her peers, Beard points to a sense of personal security and a background of academic tit-for-tat. “I think I’m fearless because I don’t need employment,” she muses. “I’m about to retire, I’ve done my job. In some ways the obligation [to engage] really is on me because I can, and because I want to. People can be very horrible to me, they can be nasty, [but] I spent 40 years teaching students, and when they say something I don’t agree with, I argue back. I don’t dislike them for saying things that I don’t agree with. I don’t think they’re wicked, but I argue back. And I’m going to go on doing that.” She finishes with the rhetorical question: “That’s the citizen’s job, isn’t it?”

Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s director of arts, who worked with Beard on Civilisations, has also noted her sense of public duty. “It’s never about her,” he says. “To be a true public intellectual is like offering a form of public service. A lot of people don’t realise that: they confuse being a public intellectual with their ego.”

I ask how she interacts with her students at Cambridge on current issues such as the Oxford University “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign. “I think it’s harder to have those kinds of discussions productively, or at least to end those discussions productively on Zoom,” she says thoughtfully, emphasising once more the value she places on civil discourse as a force for good.

You can go back to The Iliad and say, “Where does western literature start, guys? It starts with a pandemic.” These things come together to offer us a way of rethinking and making sense of it. But the idea that somehow arts and culture are ancillary is wrong, they’re central

Beard’s broadcasting career has opened out from her original role as an expert on Ancient Rome. She was a lead on Civilisations and has her own programme on BBC 2, Inside Culture; she is also a trustee of the British Museum. She thinks some of the arguments made in favour of subsidising culture during the pandemic were counter-productive – notably the idea that art is merely a solace to a bleak world. “I think it’s very dangerous as a single justification for the arts because it implies, ‘Well, it’s kind of nice. It helps people,’” she explains.

Her argument for culture is: “If you’re thinking about, ‘How are we going to get over Covid?’, of course we need science and of course we need better money for healthcare. But we also need tools with which to rethink that. You can go back to The Iliad and you can say, ‘Where does western literature start, guys? It starts with a pandemic.’ These things come together to offer us a way of rethinking and making sense of it. But the idea that somehow arts and culture are ancillary is wrong, they’re central.”

This leads us onto museums, organisations that have continually faced questions about the validity of their future. Again, as with statues, Beard tries to move on from the idea that it’s a zero-sum game and reframes the binary debates. “It’s a bit like: Statue, should it come down, should it stay up? [Or] this piece of art, a cultural trophy from some imperialist war: should it stay or should it go back? We know we can’t solve those debates because [historically] we haven’t.”

Beard cites a recent initiative by the British Museum called Ancestors, Artefacts, Empire, essentially a cultural exchange between the UK and Australia, with an accompanying gazetteer that maps out the UK’s various collections of indigenous art (some it homed as far away as Stornoway). She describes the launching discussion at the British Museum which was chaired by Julia Gillard: “In some ways if you start to get the questions right, you get more productive answers. So if you don’t start with, ‘Well, who’s going to send what back when?’ but, ‘What’s the problem here? Do we think that the perspective of the indigenous creators adds something to these objects? Do we think that the curatorial vision of the British Museum adds something? And if so, how do we start to balance those?’ And what was amazing was absolutely nobody lost their temper!”

On the broader future of the museum model Beard says, “I suspect that we will see more art moving around and fewer people. I think in the end something good will come out of it, but we’ve got to really let that argument open, not close.”

As I log off Zoom, it strikes me we’ve had a surprisingly uplifting conversation about museums and their future: something most people are either too afraid, or too set in their views, to broach. Beard’s continual questioning of the status quo – such as whether it comes from the Left or Right – her optimism about people, and the way we all interact with each other, both on and offline, has been edifying.

“Twelve Ceasars: Images of Power from the Ancient World to the Modern, Princeton University Press”

Max Lunn is a journalist based in London


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