Mary Beard's Blog

May 28, 2015


I have to confess that I am currently in a combination state of complete exhaustion and perky light-at-the-end-of-the-tunnel energy. I am just finishing the penultimate chapter of the book, and I am looking to finish (apart from all the pics, the end material, the timelines, the whatever...) in about 2 weeks. I know what I want to argue in the last chapter, and if I can only do 1000 words a day, I am there.

Currently I am finishing off a chapter called "Haves and Have-Nots", which is partly trying to ask what we can really say about the culture of those who are not the elite, but also wondering about bigger social political issues.

That really comes down, in a way, to why there wasn't a Roman revolution (despite the title of Syme's book). How was it that the emperors occupied so much of the city (not just the whole of the Palatine, but all the spacious horti etc around the city edges), while a million people were crammed into tenement blocks.. and there wasn't class warfare?

I sort of come to the conclusion that there was more that bound the rich and poor than meets the eye, that there were more shared aspirations and cultural norms than there appear to be. I have always thought it interesting that there was no real difference, for example, between the style of decoration in rich houses from poor houses at Pompeii... only more money behind one than the other. Same things go for the non-elite organisations, such as collegia, which seem to organise themselves on the same principles and on the same terms as elite ones.

Apart from the low level guerilla warfare that went on between the haves and have-nots throughout Roman history, it is not clear what the rallying cries on either side would be. After all, everyone (especially the poor) in the first century CE (say) must have agreed that it was better to be rich than poor. The basic terms weren't contested. I guess (and this is what I shall say) that the revaluation of poverty (and with it the revaluation of the whole hierarchy that Romans took for granted) didnt come till the Christian, which for all its quick embedding in the hierarchy WAS or BECAME a thought revolution.




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Published on May 28, 2015 13:36 • 3 views

May 24, 2015


How should students receive their degree results? Back in the day (I mean my day) we at Cambridge used to troop to the Senate House at the appointed hour and look at our results as they we posted up, on boards, Tripos by Tripos, in full public view. It was in some ways a brutal system. You discovered how you had done in the full glare of everyone else who was also discovering how they had done (and it was then published in the newspaper too...). But it was also supportive and collaborative. I don't remember an occasion when the student community didn't work together.. mopping up those who had done worse than expected, and those who had done better.

Now the system is that the students get their results online first, then they get put up in the Senate House... but apparently there is a petition to stop even this, that no exam results should be made public at all.

It's not hard to see where the students are coming from... but also not hard to see why the old system might be better than they imagine.

Sure, I understand why the old Senate House system was scary. But it was at least communal and it was actually supportive (and if it exposed any gender disparity then so much the better). There were loads of people there to pick you up, take you to a major drink, reassure you as only contemporaries can that a 2.2 was not the end of life (and it wasnt). Believe me I know.

Currently the system is that you receive the good or bad news on the privacy of your iphone, and the petition argues for going further -- that noone should even know what anyone else got. That would mean the mates cant even swoop round for the restorative drink, when they have seen the bad news posted up.

My point is that privacy in bad news is not always for the best. The old fashioned nineteenth century guys who invented the traditions we have, long before iphones were  invented, might not have got it so wrong. Privacy isn't always what helps most.

And, nor, while we are at it, is safety... universities are not supposed to be places (surely?) where you always feel comfortable, or safe, or unthreatened. They are supposed to be places where you feel there is someone to discuss, to debate and support when you do feel that.

Oh dear. I feel a bigger blog coming along.


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Published on May 24, 2015 13:03 • 12 views

May 21, 2015


I am an onlooker only in the election for Oxford's Professor of Poetry, having no Oxford degree -- which is the requirement for voting. But it's fun to look at the field, which is a nicely varied and distinguished one, including Simon Armitage, Ian Gregson, Sean Haldane and Wole Soyinka. But if I did have a vote, excellent as these gentlemen are, it would be going to Alicia Stallings. (If you click that link you will be able to find some of her poetry.)

That is not just because she is female, though it would be good to have the first female professor of poetry in over 300 years, which is I think what she would be. Technically Ruth Padel was elected in 2009, but resigned before taking up the post. But, for me, the key argument would be that she is a wonderful combination of the two sides of the job (a combination seen also in some of its most distinguished past holders) -- both tremendous practising poet and academic critic.

I confess that I am slightly influenced by her classical links too. Stallings studied Classics in the USA and at Oxford, and she has produced some stonkingly good translations of classical poetry (her Lucretius is especially good I think). But her range is much wider than than, with great stuff influenced by modern Greece and by ... well ... just living.

She has already collected a load of honours, from a MacArthur "Genius award" to Membership of the American Academy of Arts and Science. But this one would have her around, doing lectures and master classes etc.

So if you are an Oxford alum, do think of voting (especially for her, but for anyone). You can register here, but you need to do it by 8 June.

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Published on May 21, 2015 02:07 • 11 views

May 17, 2015


I am now back from Algeria. What you see above if the extraordinary gorge at Constantine/Cirta that I mentioned but couldn't show in my last post. Now you see why it struck me that this really made a difference to any experience of living or being brought up in the place, now or 2000 years ago.

Anyway, I had a great time in Algeria, if slightly strange in various ways. The Roman remains really are amazing, as you can see (that's Timgad and the arch had a bit of assistance from the French, but never mind).


It would be great to think that more people would be able to go and see them, but it is difficult, though not impossible, to get there independently. Some cruises stop in Algiers and there are some niche tours, I think. But during the site visits we made, we saw no other definite non-Algerians. If you get a window of a chance, do go.

More generally, I think one should only very tentatively pontificate about places one visits but doesn't really understand. And I have been only to a small strip of a country that is as big as Europe. So please take what follows in the humble spirit it is meant. (Another picture of Constantine below: restoration of French mansion blocks.)



So far as I can tell from what I have read, there has been a big growth of committed Islam over the last twenty years or so, or back to the War of Independence. The impression I got in the cities of Constantine and Batna (that's the view from my Batna hotel window above) is that that majority of women are wearing the hijab, at least; and there were plenty of clearly "men only" zones (like every coffee shop). But it is clear that there is not a straightforward backward path for women. For a start the French banning of any kind of veiling hugely complicated the picture.  One local expert rightly pointed out that women in Algeria could claim a rather better record than those in the UK, with (for example) considerably more of them in the legislature.

I am always a bit suspicious of that kind of figure (and have a feeling that you tend to get more women in the legislature where power ACTUALLY lies elsewhere). But it isn't an isolated sign. The most dramatic thing we were told was about the birth rate: in the 70s women were having on average 8 births each; it's now around 2. And women are dominating in all kinds of professional university subjects, such as medicine.

The other issue for me (oh yes!) was the obviously very edgy question of alcohol, where there seemed violent differences of view. We had some good Algerian wine (and I brought 3 bottles back); we also stayed at places that threatened horrible things for even bringing a drop of the stuff into the place. That difference was summed up by the two flights we did on Air Algerie. On the way out, I was grudgingly brought a small glass of red wine when I asked for it. On the way back I had my glass repeatedly and generously topped up with champagne.

But the main point for me was that we had some great encounters with people who were really interested in the heritage,Roman and otherwise, and bent over backwards to be helpful. And whatever is going on in the politics of the place, it is not as simple as the usual demonisation makes out.



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Published on May 17, 2015 12:36 • 18 views

May 14, 2015


Regular readers of the blog will know that I have quite often posted about what a difference it makes to actually see something you are trying to write about. All the descriptions, plans, photos and 3d reconstructions dont ever make up for not actually seeing something. At least they dont for me, though I guess I may be peculiarly bad at visualising what I merely read of. May be others are better.

Anyway, I am currently on my first very brief trip to Algeria. I feel very pleased to be here, but there have been a few ancient eye-openers. (Don't go on about all this gadding about, please folks; this is work not holiday.)

I guess that like many classicists I have tended to focus on the central/northern/eastern Mediterranean -- basically Italy, Greece, the coast of Asia Minor and a few points north. I've been to Egypt a few times, and to Tunisia, but Algeria never before. Which is a bit disgraceful to be honest.

I cant share too much with you yet. The internet connection where I am is very fragile, and it has been the devil's own job just to get that picture of the trees under which I had lunch today into the top of this post. So you will have to wait for more (and the the links, which are also currently beyond me).

But I did get the biggest surprise when I went to the city of Constantine, ancient Cirta. I have often had cause to mention the place and to think about it. There is a famous record of the contents of an early Christian house-church from there, and in the last stages of my book I have just been mentioning Marcus Cornelius Fronto, tutor to Marcus Aurelius who came from there.

Now I dont know the exact location of the ancient town in relation to the new. But what I hadn't realised was that the whole place is perched on the edge of a vast ravine (now spectacularly bridged with a series of modern bridges). I dont know what it made such a difference to how I started thinking the place, but it did. It was if you had read about Venice for years, and the penny only dropped about the canals when you visited decades later.

But more soon!

Meanwhile, can I just warn you that this blog with be going onto another blogging system (still hosted by the TLS) probably next week. It shouldn't cause much difficulty. You may have to enter your details in order to comment the first time. But I am assured that the bright new look will make minor hassles worth it.


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Published on May 14, 2015 14:12 • 10 views

May 10, 2015


It was the annual Newnham Classics Paris trip yesterday, kindly sponsored by very generous donors, and still in memory of Jane Forshaw, long remembered, who died many years ago in college, falling down stairs just before her finals in the unluckiest and cruellest of accidents. Even now thought about often.

Anyway the standard pattern is the Eurostar, the Louvre, lunch (somewhere near the Palais Royal), the Louvre, a bar, then the Eurostar. Same this year, and much enjoyed.

The picture above is the equally traditional: pose as a classical sculpture photo opp (that is the Tetrachs in Venice, in case you wonder).

This is the Drunken Old Woman (Munich version?):











And here are some more modest poses next to the Pyramid!











The great thing is that with an early start it is possible to do it comfortably in one day, to see some stuff that is useful for revision (who could NOT find something in the Louvre) and have a good day off and a nice lunch.



Lunch was excellent at La Table du Palais Royal. I believe that is Caroll herself in the picture offering us her excellent food and drink. Fully recommended.

As for other tips. If you are planning a visit to the Louvre, do buy the tickets online first. They come within and you can enter the museum by the Passage Richelieu, and not have to join the massive queue at the Pyramid entrance.

I was also going to say, cut the pain out of an early start and stay over near St Pancras the night before. I had been at the TLS on the Friday and decided to treat myself to a long ambition to stay at the St Pancras hotel instead of scooting back to Cambridge and leaving again at 5.30 am. I'm still glad I did. BUT... actually it was all a bit disappointing. I had a modern style Marriott room, a far cry from Gilbert Scott (who would have been disgusted), and looking over one of the worst views of the British Library. The only coffee in the room was Nescafe (I may be a snob, but at THAT price). And, as I discovered when I woke up at 6.50 to hoof it for the train, noone had put any soap or shampoo etc in the bathroom. That'll teach me to push the boat out.






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Published on May 10, 2015 13:13 • 11 views

May 7, 2015


I am about to sit down in front of the telly for the election. My publisher has told me not to, on the grounds that it will spoil any writing for tomorrow. But at a certain point a girl has to be a citizen, and that means watching what happens for as long as it takes.

Election nights were one of the first occasions I remember bonding politically with the parents. My Dad was a big Liberal in the old fashioned sense, and a big activist in the Ludlow constituency, where you could put up a donkey with a blue rosette... My first real political memory was the 1964 election when the Liberal candidate, John Griffiths, came to our house, with Jo Grimond. I was nine years old and I vividly remember John Griffiths taking me seriously and Jo Grimond, for all that I now admire him, metaphorically trampling on my childhood ambitions. (Yes I was just a kid, but 15 seconds of attention doesnt cost much . . .).

My Mum went along with this, but she was a Labour party woman through and through. She even bought a Gannex mac when Harold Wilson did.

Her efforts were more in Telford, where (in the Wrekin constituency, where she was head of a primary school) there was some hope of a Labour victory. In fact she worked hard for Gerry Fowler, who held the seat in the late 60s and early 70s. It was another world then. I remember her driving voters to the polling station, with all the outright racism that we then almost took for granted. She's pick up a group of Nigerians, she would say, and they would get into her little Mini .. and the first thing they wouyld say is "You've had Paki's in this car...". Well yes, those were the days.

For me Gerry Fowler meant something different. He had briefly taught Classics at Oxford. When he discovered that the young daughter of one of his constituency helpers was about to try to read Classics at Uni, he leant me a load of books that I would never have been able to buy myself. I wasn't a toff, just a keen kid. And he gave me a flying start, for which I shall be for ever grateful. And I hope I will do the same one day.

So now off to the telly.


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Published on May 07, 2015 14:18 • 21 views

May 3, 2015


I have just had a really flying visit to the site of Aphrodisias in Turkey, the Greco Roman city that has probably produced more important Roman discoveries over the last fifty years or so than anywhere else: Roman inscriptions by the ton have been found and published, but amongst other things uncovered pride of place must go to the "Sebasteion", the sanctuary of the imperial cult and to the extraordinary array of sculptured panels with which it was originally decorated (showing emperors in various poses and scenes from Greek myths). 80 of these survive from an original 200.

But I was most struck by the changes in the place since I went there almost 40 years ago. The summer after I graduated (that's 1977), I worked there on the inscriptions for a couple of weeks, and I got to know the place pretty well. It was an excavation run very much on old school lines by a quixotic, baronial, Turkish-American director (whom I discovered yesterday had actually been buried on the site). That meant dorms, cold showers (unless you were a visiting dignitary, for whom miraculously hot water appeared), communal and rather deferential meals, and after dinner (this is one especially quixotic bit) compulsory viewing of films in Turkish with no sub-titles (my Turkish was a little less rudimentary then than it is now, but still barely up to a Mickey Mouse cartoon, let alone a feature film).



That said, it had quite a lot of the romance of old school archaeology too -- a truly beautiful site, miles from anywhere, being dug up around a few remaining villagers on their small holdings, who were gradually being bought out ... so digging could go on under their properties.

Well forty years makes a huge difference. Aphrodisias is now a fully fledged tourist site (though important digging and survey continues). There is a new museum, a cafe and souvenir shop, and specially laid paths and sign to help you navigate the large area it covers. There is even a tourist "bus" pulled by a tractor to transport visitors from the new car park to the site itself.

Don't misunderstand me. I think that the opening up is a hugely good thing, and I would recommend anyone to go. It's still very much in my top ten ancient sites. But the fact is that it is STILL miles from anywhere, so it's visitor trade seems to be mostly large groups, often from cruise boats docking a Kusadasi. So it all comes in odd waves, one minute the place you are in is heaving, the next it's completely deserted.

And much as I approve of what's happened to the place, I did catch myself having an occasional nostalgic moment for the quixotic baronial past.

But if you are anywhere near southern Turkey DO put it on your MUST VISIT list.



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Published on May 03, 2015 13:36 • 21 views

April 29, 2015


I am afraid that my resolution to go through all the party manifestos has weakened a bit. I fear I have been rather put off the whole process by the bribes we are offered every morning, as supposedly tempting morsels of policy are unveiled before us in a carefully selected stream.

This morning there was the Tory "tax lock"...Would I like there to be no rise in income tax, VAT, and national insurance over the duration of the next parliament? Well, in a way, of course I would, at some level of base self interest. But I would MUCH prefer to have a government who could raise more money from those tax payers who could afford it, if that might mean more money for public services. And anyway pledges of that sort only mean that, when the government does need the cash, it just raises it by putting up all the levies that happen to fall outside its particular "pledge". Why is anyone taken in?

Same goes for 20,000 extra nurses that Labour promise. Yes, of course that sounds a great idea, but unless we know where they are coming from, how they relate to policies on migration and training, it's just that: nice.

So far as I can see from my scan of the UKIP manifesto, they are offering a slightly saner image since the last election, they have adopted a bit of the PR veneer of the main parties, but to no good effect. In fact I find myself thinking that, though I wouldn't vote for them in any conceivable that I could foresee, I rather preferred them when they were dottier.

I was a little bit taken in by their desire to remove VAT from sanpro (a curious bit of down to earth feminism from a party not known for its great support of maternity leave etc), until I realised that it was an anti EU gesture by the backdoor (it turns out we could only do this if we got out of the EU . . .).

For the rest, it seemed to me that this was the wolf in sheep's clothing, rather than the wolf in its own skin. Sure, there are a fair few jibes at multi-culturalism and foreigners using the NATIONAL Health Service, pie in the sky schemes for recall of an MP if 20% of constituents asked,  and threats to cut quite a lot of things I hold dear, but more than I expected amounted to the same woolly platitudes (including the same 20,000 extra nurses):

"Cutting departmental running costs where they do not deliver value for money" is no doubt a reasonable aim for Westminster, but is any party actually advocating the opposite? And who decides on what counts as value for money?

Likewise: "The quality of education is almost entirely dependent on the quality of teaching. We need the best people to choose to teach and we need to keep them teaching. To achieve this, we must ensure not only that teachers are well-prepared for a teaching career, but also that they have a high status in society and feel valued". So.... ? Is anyone actually saying the reverse? (This platitude followed a photo of their education spokesman against a background of books, so desperately photo-shopped that exactly the same piles of books appeared twice -- unless Mr Nuttall makes a habit of buying duplicates).

In the end, though, I thought probably the photos were the best guide to the basic ideology. The only black face was on a page that proposed the slashing of foreign aid.




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Published on April 29, 2015 14:37 • 27 views

April 26, 2015


There is a wonderful collection of portraits at Girton College, Cambridge -- sponsored and owned by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, housed at Girton -- portraying "ordinary people" in paint. They are tremendous: including the one of Joy Bryant above, born 1931, mother, school dinner lady and all round star (it's by Robin Lee Hall).

There are now about 50 portraits in the collection, added to annually by the Royal Society, but 6 are at this minute on show at the Mall Galleries to mark the 15th anniversary of the project.

I had the fun of going to an event there the other night and of saying a few words joining up portraits, ordinary people and the ancient world.


I only had ten minutes, so I decided to focus on the amazing story in Pliny's Natural History of the first three dimensional portrait and also of the first drawn one:

"Enough and more than enough has been said about painting. It may be suitable to append to these remarks something about the plastic art. It was through the service of that same earth that modeling portraits from clay was first invented by Butades, a potter from Sikyon, at Corinth. He did this owing to his daughter, who was in love with a young man; and she, when he was going abroad, drew in outline on the wall the shadow of his face thrown by the lamp. Her father pressed clay on this and made a relief, which he hardened by exposure to fire with the rest of his pottery; and it is said that this likeness was preserved in the shrine of the Nymphs." (Pliny, NH 35, 43)

A bit earlier in the text, he makes it explicit that, leaving aside the complication of the pottery, the first human likeness was made by tracing a shadow.

This is a great story, which has intrigued arts, poets and theorists, Derrida included, ever since. There is the wonderful trick about what it is exactly that Butades daughter is drawing (not her lover but already an image of him in the shadow), and the ideas of loss and longing and love that the story writes into the origins of the portrait. It is also a story rather sentimentally reworked by Thomas Hardy in his poem "The Whitewashed Wall", where a bereaved mother looks at a whitewashed chimney breast -- underneath which a shadow portrait of her dead son is concealed.

But for me, and the People's Portraits, there was something very apposite indeed about the story, First of all, it ascribes the origins of portraiture to a woman (albeit anonymous, and albeit that her father insists on turning her delicate outline into a hunk of of fired clay). And also, even though we think of ancient portraiture as very much a celebrity genre, the story of its origin is amongst ordinary people, an ordinary potter, his ordinary daughter and her ordinary boyfriend who gets immortalised just because he happens to be going away. A people's portrait in other words.

(That is "Lifeboat Men of Fowey" by Jeff Stultiens above, by the way.)

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Published on April 26, 2015 13:32 • 29 views

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