Mary Beard's Blog

July 22, 2017

There was a good episode of The Long View on Radio 4 last week, looking at a terrible fire in Glasgow in 1905 as a ghastly parallel of the Grenfell Tower. But I couldn���t help thinking also of a much more distant fire, and the blame game around it that has lasted for centuries: the great fire of Rome in 64 CE.

We now know it best through the phrase ���Nero fiddled while Rome burned��� ��� or to give the fuller version, he (apocryphally, Tacitus says that he was in Antium at the time) went to a great vantage point and as he watched the city go up in flames, he sang a song about the Fall of Troy, accompanying himself on the lyre (it was fiddling in the musical sense, not footling, as I have blogged before). But more interesting is the controversy about what had really caused this, and what the clean-up operations were or should have been.

Nero blamed the Christians and a few people have since followed him. Many early Christians thought that the end of the world was nigh, and that it would come in a vast conflagration: what was more tempting than to give it a helping hand? Other people blamed Nero, believing that it was a quick way of clearing the centre of the city to make space for the new palace he wanted to build (that is, The Golden House).

Nero certainly turned on the Christians instantly, crucifying some, turning others into human torches. It was the first documented ���persecution���, but gave him a worse reputation later than at the time (Christians were as popular then as ���terrorists��� now). The interesting thing is that he does seem to have instituted rather more effective relief measures than the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. He opened his own grounds to house the homeless (not something we have recently seen). And he made all kinds of Health and Safety regulations (about building height etc: ancient Rome was almost as high rise as modern London) to prevent the same thing happening again.

What he didn���t do was set up a public inquiry. On which subject, I must confess that I have started to feel very slightly sorry for Martin Moore-Bick. There is no doubt that he doesn���t look particularly well qualified for some of the jobs that need doing right now. Nor is there any doubt for me that someone needs to look at all the wider social and political issues that are off Moore-Bicks���s agenda (the ���not my remit��� line). They are rightly not going to go away. But I really do want someone to go through the mountains of paperwork, the trail of contracts and subcontracts which involve dozens of firms and consultants etc ��� and to work out, as nerdily as possible, who made what decision about that cladding, when, and on whose authority. As well as everything else, I want to know where the buck stops; and Moore-Bick might be just the man for that job.


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Published on July 22, 2017 13:25 • 43 views

July 19, 2017


Just to prove that I put my break to good use, let me recommend another little gem of a museum, this time on the Greek island of Kalymnos. We went over there from Turkey for a night. The formalities are a bit time consuming (couldn���t help thinking that this is what it might be like trying to get to Calais in years to come) ��� but, boy, was it worth it.

The museum on the island is famous for its ancient bronzes, especially the ���Lady of Kalymnos��� (above), who came up out of the sea  in some fishing nets in 1995: probably (it���s devilish difficult to date bronzes) a second century BC piece, probably lost in a ship wreck on the way from Greece to Rome. (Any Greek sculpture found on the Mediterranean bed is always assumed to be Roman plunder: some of it might well be, but it is a tremendously catch all assumption.)

But there is a lot more that makes the museum really worth visiting.

When we first went in, my eye was caught by this sixth-century BC figure ��� a standard archaic type of kouros, except that this one is clothed. There are a few others like this, but the norm is for these male figures to be naked, and it is striking to notice the really different impression they make when they are draped. (You cant really see it on this photo, but he has also got a lot of still surviving red paint on him, especially on the back.)

As for two other highlights amongst a lot of good marble pieces, then I would go for this wonderfully characterful Roman portrait.

He���s a bit battered, but makes a great match (as the husband observed) for some of the late second/early first century BC sculpture on the island of Delos. The usual guess would be that he was part of the Roman community of traders making a lot of cash out of the new opportunities in the East (on Delos, it was the slave trade that brought the profits; on Kalymnos, I���m not so sure).

And my favourite little bit of ���re-identification��� is this one.

It���s labelled in the Museum as the statue of a boy wearing an unusual diaphanous ���chiton���. Well so he might possibly be, but he also has a strangely prominent willy. He must in fact be Attis, the young consort of the goddess Cybele; suspecting his affections were straying (or at least this is one version), she sent him mad so that he castrated himself. He���s often represented in something like this style, or even more revealing. This isn���t the best parallel (not sure about the strange leggings), but I hope you get the point.

So not an ordinary little boy at all.

Anyway, it���s a small, high quality collection, which takes an hour or so to enjoy. And after that, the swimming is great.

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Published on July 19, 2017 14:33 • 43 views

OK everyone. After months of preparation, we are moving onto the TLS/Wordpress of this blog from next Monday, 24th July.

The most you will have to do in order to comment is register once. It is simple.

It has taken so long because the valiant TLS people have tried very hard to respond to your very useful comments and criticisms of the protype (thank you commenters, and thank you TLS). I am assured that all the previous posts and the comments will be there, there will be no unsightly gaps between comments etc etc.

Of course, there may well be a few teething troubles, but very few I hope.

See you there -- with all those learned, witty, incisive and temperate (sic) comments for which this blog has become known.


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Published on July 19, 2017 00:11 • 55 views

July 15, 2017



I have spent the last week on a boat with friends, sailing around the south coast of Turkey. Those are her sails, above. It was, I confess, mostly for holiday purposes, but there were a couple of days of antiquity hunting. The truth is (and believe this justification if you will!) that some of the best sites are actually much more easily accessible from the sea than from the land, so it makes good sense to combine the pleasures of the deep (best bathing I know), with shore-dashes to the serious antiquarian stuff.

Anyway, on one slightly marathon day we did three inland ancient cities, all within reasonably easy reach of Bodrum (and of each other), and a good trip to make if you are ever in that area: that was (in the order we visited), Miletus, Priene and Didyma.

Guidebooks are rather down on Miletus (despite it being the home of the whole Milesian School of Pre-Socratic philosophy ��� Thales et al.) . They recommend the theatre, which is ��� as you see ��� damned good, but suggest that there is not much else to see. Wrong, wrong, wrong.

We didn���t have time to do the whole site, but we explored the second century AD baths (the Baths of Faustina, named after the wife of Marcus Aurelius), which were a real textbook set of facilities. Here is the plunge pool:

And we also had fun in a beautifully restored fifteenth century mosque on the site.

Priene is very��� and interestingly ��� different. Most of what is visible at Miletus and most of these big Asia Minor sites is Roman. But, thanks to a big fire and the silting up of the coastline, Priene really didn���t make it into the Roman period in any big way. So what you see is, unusually, more or less completely pre-Roman Hellenistic.

It is, I warn you, a tougher nut to crack than Miletus: a stonking climb up a steep hill, over which the determined town planners of Priene imposed a perfect grid plan. I was indeed pretty knackered here, as you see (the remains of the columns providing a useful resting point):

But it is a great opportunity to put some physical remains next to the kind of political and social analysis of the place offered by Peter Thonemann in his excellent little book on the Hellenistic Age.

The last stop was Didyma, where there is a huge temple of Apollo, housing one of the most famous oracles in the ancient world. It was centred over a sacred stream, and had a pretty chequered history. At one point the stream apparently dried up, but flowed again when Alexander the Great passed by (which is obviously a metaphor for something!). And there is a sense in which, at least in the reformed, post-Alexander version of the cult, they have one eye on the procedures at Delphi, with a priestess apparently speaking mumbo jumbo, interpreted by a priest. But it does, even better than Delphi, give you some sense of the splendour of an A list oracle. This is one of the approach routes to the main oracular centre of the shrine.

It isn���t hard to imagine what it might have felt like coming here with a question . . .

So a bit of a busman���s holiday, but different from a similar trip last year with some of the same friends. Last year, as one of the party remarked, we went off to the sun in the immediate aftermath of Brexit. This year it was just Andy Murray���s defeat!

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Published on July 15, 2017 12:20 • 29 views

July 5, 2017


One of the fun things about working on modern images of Roman emperors is that there are such a lot of them about, and for sale. Just this last week a rather splendid (vulgar?) set of four came up at Sotheby's. They were probably rightly said to be very like the sixteenth-century versions of Della Porta and interesting partly because these sets of busts only really get off the ground a bit later than this.

Tipped off by a friend, I did go to Sotheby's to have a real look. And two things struck me apart from the price (half a million for four emperors, rather beyond me).

First, these are emperors done before the iconography has become clearly standardized. The pic at the op does match up a bit to the standard Julius Caesar, but I wasnt certain that I detected a classic Marcus Aurelius here (as the catalogue suggested). I have always liked the 'porosity' of these Caesars and this looks like a good case. Who is who?

But second I was struck by a bit of the cheap skate construction. The busts are at firat sight made out of the most lavish coloured marble.



But as you can see from this pic, the construction is basically a few strips of marble on a rough plaster base. They were a nice showy construction in other words, but in the end without much bottom (apart from the glorious faces).

Anyway, no half a million to spare at this end -- rare, nice and cheap skate as they are.


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Published on July 05, 2017 14:41 • 38 views

I am off tomorrow to the opening of the new exhibition at Leighton House, ���Alma-Tadema at home in antiquity���, to say a few words.

I first came across the domestic circumstances of the Alma-Tadema family when I was working on Jane Harrison, twenty years ago. Harrison and her friend Eugenie Sellers were always popping up to an exciting tea in north London with the Alma-Tadema daughters. But it is since then that I have  got more interested not just in the A-T domestic life, but in how he represented the Roman version.

It is easy to think of him as a very dreamy version of Victorian classicism (in its Roman form not Greek). But what I hope this exhibition shows is quite how edgy A-T���s version of classical domesticity was.

That goes from the emperor down.

This brilliant canvas, which is in the exhibition, encapsulates the deadliness of the emperor���s generosity: it���s the early third-century emperor Elagabalus showering his dinner guests with so many rose petals that they are smothered to death. (It���s a warning about killing with kindness in a way.)

But there are plenty more of A-T���s paintings, which undermine the dreamy certainties of Roman domestic life. I have always been slightly spooked by the painting of the domestic gladiators at Pompeii.

There is something actually much nastier about this than about the big show piece paintings of gladiators in the public arena. This brings the killing right down to the sitting room.

So do go and ���enjoy���.

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Published on July 05, 2017 13:25 • 43 views

July 4, 2017


Last night the whole family went to the dinner for the announcement of this year���s Caine Prize. The prize, established in memory of Michael Caine, onetime chair of Booker plc (not the actor),  is awarded to the writer of the best African short story to be published in English. And we were there, thanks to the son (above), because one of the shortlisted stories ��� Bushra al-Fadil���s ���The Story of the Girl whose Birds Flew Away��� ��� had appeared in the collection he edited with Max Shmookler, The Book of Khartoum.

The story, which Shmookler translated from the Arabic, is a wonderfully difficult, experimental few pages about a myriad of aspects of modern Sudan ��� from gender to exile, modern dislocation and sheer chaos. We didn���t really expect it to win��� far too experimentally hard I thought (not unlike Eimear McBride the son suggested). And we set about enjoying the evening nonetheless. In fact, a very good one it was, and a hell of a lot more diverse than most literary prize gatherings.

Anyway, the upshot was that it did win, to rapturous applause from our table. The prize is ��10,000 (of which Shmookler gets ��3000), but also includes other really useful writerly benefits, especially a month���s residency at the Lannan Center at Georgetown University. Mind you, I wonder how easy it will be for a a Sudanese writer (albeit living in Saudi) to get a visa for Trump���s America. It was apparently hard enough to get him a visa to come to the UK (a 65 year old guy, shortlisted for a literary prize . .  have we gone mad). But, even though he is not living there, Bushra al-Fadil is a citizen of one of Trump���s ���axis of evil��� states. I do wonder whether he will make it.

But meanwhile if his story gives you a taste for new writing from Sudan, let me entirely partially recommend The Book of Khartoum.

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Published on July 04, 2017 13:44 • 52 views

July 2, 2017


We had a little party today at home, to inaugurate the new book stacks. It was huge fun, but reminded me again as I looked at the shelves of quite how hard it is to organise ���knowledge���.

I have spent the whole week trying to get the books into plausibly coherent shelves, and I still don���t think I have it quite right. Part of it is easy enough (ancient authors go in alphabetical order, right?). But the division between books on major Renaissance artists and on major Renaissance art is trickier. Not sure we have it right.

One thing is for sure though. It is better to have a few more shelves, than to have everything piled on the floor, as it was, even if that brings its own problems.

There is also a rather gloomy vista of the future.  As I looked around our new room, built on the back of the house to take the book overspill, I reflected that we might be the last generation to have any such problem.

When we are dead and gone, the next occupants will probably rip all the lovely shelves out for a few tv screens  Who will have books?

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Published on July 02, 2017 13:40 • 59 views

June 30, 2017


I am reaching another of those tricky bits in my emperors book. I have have reached the section when I must think harder about Roman coins.

I can���t claim that I have ever been an expert in numismatics. I rate myself an amateur, with a decent graduate student grounding. We used to have classes in ancient coinage every Saturday morning in the coin room of the Fitzwilliam Museum with Terry Volk, and I learned the basics: how to weigh the damn things, why it might matter, how to do ���die studies���, as well as the subjects I was more obviously interested in (what the reverse designs might tell you about the imperial image, whether Roman coins could be counted as propaganda and so on). And I got familiar enough with all the vast numismatic compendia, so I could find my way around the subject and evaluate some of the more extravagant arguments made on the back of a few surviving denarii.

I was a diligent student, but it was never going to be central to the work I did.

Now I find myself coming at coinage from a rather different direction. It is absolutely clear (and I am certainly not the first to point this out) that when it came to imagining the face of the Roman emperor between the fourteenth and the sixteenth century, coins held a more central position that full-scale marble sculpture. Although there is a tendency now to assume that their main use was as an aid to identifying marble busts. It is true that there is a whole tricky history in modern scholarship of matching up the tiny silver heads with big stone ones; and it is clear enough that the ciceroni (tour guides, more or less) of eighteenth-century Rome used to carry round some ancient coins in their pockets to impress the clients with the likeness between numismatic images and marbles. But for centuries in the early and ���high��� Renaissance, coins held the prime position.

Petrarch for example, famously gave a set of coins to Charles IV, just before his coronation as Holy Roman Emperor in the mid fourteenth century ��� singling out the image of Augustus (���almost breathing���) as an emperor particularly to be imitated in reviving Rome and Italy. It didn���t work. As soon as Charles was crowned, he went straight back to Bohemia without doing anything much as all to revive Rome and Italy; and as if to prove he had missed the point, he sent Petrarch a coin of Julius Caesar in return.

But in my book, I am more interested in how the form of, and images of, ancient coins influenced the way Roman emperors were perceived and reproduced. So often it was the coin form (even if not exact copies of Roman coins themselves) that held sway. You need only look at the medallions that plastered the facade of La Certosa near Pavia, or Horton Court in England ��� or as you see here the imperial images in the corners of  Vicenzo Foppa���s Crucifixion.

Anyway, the truth is that I have got far too interested in exploring this way of representing the imperial form, and the filter of coinage in defining the appearance of emperors. (There���s lots more where this came from.) And I am about to go back and excise loads of my precious words, and keep them in a safe place for an article in the future��� and get down to the main story. There���s a ���need to know��� principle that should be at work here.

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Published on June 30, 2017 07:15 • 53 views

June 24, 2017


This is not just a first world problem. It���s a first world ACADEMIC  problem. So please take it in the sense it is meant.

We have just built a new bit of book-shelf extension onto the house (thanks to the excellent Henry Freeland, Andrew Turner and Bob Button ��� all of whom, if you want to know, are highly recommended). The fact is that I have two shared offices half full of books, and every floor in the house is piled high. So now is the moment to take action (I am thinking about retirement when those two half-offices no longer exist) and to put the old books on the new shelves. The fact is that we are now coming to see what librarians have been working on, and trying to sort out, for centuries.

First of all, how do we manage between us (husband and me) to have so many duplicates or triplicates. When I bought (cheaply) a second-hand of the 2003 National Gallery Titian Exhibition a few weeks ago, did I not realise that we had two already (no, because they were in those unsorted piles on the floor)?

But just as pressing is the size and shape of the books. We are well used to the Cambridge University Library system of classification by size (from ���a��� big, to ���d��� small), but it does seem a bit self-aggrandizing to do that at home. All the same, even when you try to do it in a small way, you get clobbered.

I can���t tell you how many series of books have changed their size (that must really irritate the UL. So you start putting Penguin Classics (or Cambridge ���Green and Yellows���) onto their own perfectly appropriately sized shelf���.then ffs you discover that a few years ago they get bigger and don���t fit. Meanwhile, the Journal of Roman Archaeology and the Journal of Roman Studies have downsized, and didn���t actually need those supersized shelves allocated.

And that is before you get to all those knotty questions of classification. Does a book about the nineteenth-century history of Pompeii go with archaeology or classical reception? Blow me if I know���

��� but I do know that I cant retire till I get these books sorted (I have 5 years to go, and on this rate of progress it will take me that long to have a decent few shelves).

If I have ever poured scorn on the librarian���s skill, this is the time for me to eat humble pie.

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Published on June 24, 2017 14:09 • 67 views

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