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[personal profile] mtvessel
May 2015
Confronting the Classics - Mary Beard - Profile, 2014

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This is a fix-up of various reviews that Beard has written for publications such as The London Review of Books and is intended to show how Classics is still a lively and relevant subject today. To my mind it doesn't quite succeed, and the reason is its format.

Yes, yes, I know - for a book review to criticise a book for being a set of book reviews may seem like the height of hypocrisy, particularly coming from someone who doesn't do much original writing himself. But that's the point. The reason I write book reviews is that I am lazy. Criticising others is simple; coming up with something worth criticising much harder. And I think that Beard can to a certain extent be accused of taking the easy way out here. Her reviews are interesting and entertaining reads. But the scattergun approach imposed by the variety of topics that they cover reveals a common weakness about Classics as a whole that she does not really address.

There are plenty of interesting and surprising titbits in here, though not as many on the ancient Greeks as I would have liked (ancient Greece, for me, is a far more interesting society than ancient Rome). Thucydides, the supposed master analyst of the Pelopponesian War, wrote such convoluted Greek that it is sometimes very difficult to determine what he meant, and some of the aphorisms attributed to him (such as "The strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must") may owe more to creative interpretation by his translators than his original intention. Nero was probably not the monster of depravity that ancient writers depicted him as being (at least if the popular support at the time of his death is anything to go by); Hadrian's lavish villa at Tivoli, by contrast, suggests that he was just as profligate and decadent as Nero, but had better PR and the good sense to keep his excesses out of sight of ordinary Romans (unlike Nero's Golden House which was built right by the Forum).

I was less interested in the articles about the modern perceptions of ancient Romans and their society, which smacked too much of post-modernism (the medium is not the message). The facts are interesting and puzzling enough in themselves. The massive baker's tomb in Rome that suggests that ex-slaves were not the second-class citizens that contemporary writers portrayed them as. The bilingual Latin/Aramaic inscription for Regina in South Shields that shows that a variety of languages were spoken under the Pax Romanum. I think Beard thinks so too, which is why she spends so much time in her reviews slapping down authors who, in attempting to constructive a coherent narrative, have speculated beyond the facts.

But that indicates a fundamental problem with Classics as a whole; there is so little evidence to go on. It is impossible to write an authoritative decade-by-decade biography of any major ancient Greek or Roman leader - all we have are vivid fragments from the few sources available, and even those are coloured by the personal prejudices and political affiliations of their originators. And if you can't speculate about the gaps, what else is there for classicists to discuss, other than nuances of language and the salience of archeological remains? Beard tries to make the point that the classics and their interpretation influence modern culture, but demonstrates primarily with pop culture references such as the famous television adaptation of I, Claudius and the Goscinny and Uderzo Asterix books rather than anything deeper, such as current thinking in politics, religion or feminism. One is left with the impression that Classics, while a fascinating intellectual pursuit, is too uncertain in its conclusions to have relevance for the modern world, and that its practitioners are largely inventing things to argue about. I am sure that this is the opposite of Beard's intention, and indeed her own books give the lie to it, but I am afraid that is one of the hazards of criticising others' opinions rather than expressing one's own.

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