Mary Beard

Mary Beard teaches at Cambridge and is the author of SPQR, among other books.

The Greer Method

Mary Beard, 24 October 2019

On Rape has its faults. But it is also full of flashes of insight, clever analysis, radical new proposals and powerful arguments that have been missed, or dismissed, by many critics, who seem determined to warp Greer’s arguments into the reactionary rant of an angry old lady. What is driving these attacks? Why are her critics so determined to deplore and ridicule? What lies behind the selective misreading that turns a provocative pamphlet, no more flawed than many others of the genre, into a case for the prosecution?

Athenian drama in particular, and the Greek imagination more generally, has offered our imaginations a series of unforgettable women: Medea, Clytemnestra, Antigone. They are not, however, role models – far from it. For the most part, they are portrayed as abusers rather than users of power. They take it illegitimately, in a way that leads to chaos, to the fracture of the state, to death and destruction. They are monstrous hybrids, who aren’t – in the Greek sense – women at all. And the unflinching logic of their stories is that they must be disempowered, put back in their place.

The Public Voice of Women

Mary Beard, 20 March 2014

Iwant to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey. We tend now to think of the Odyssey as the story of Odysseus and the adventures and scrapes he had...

Banter about Dildoes: Roman Shopping

Mary Beard, 3 January 2013

The most memorable account of an ancient shopping expedition is found in some comic verses by the third-century BC poet Herodas, who lived in Alexandria, by far the smartest city in the Western world at the time. In his poem a woman called Metro and a couple of her friends visit a shoe shop owned by one Kerdon (‘Mr Profiteer’). As soon as they arrive, slaves bring a bench for the ladies to sit on, while Kerdon tries to interest them in his wares with a pushy sales pitch.

It was satire: Caligula

Mary Beard, 26 April 2012

King Canute has had a raw deal from history. He took his throne down to the beach in order to show his servile courtiers that not even a king could control the waves (that was in God’s power alone). But, ironically, he is now most often remembered as the silly old duffer who got soaked on the seashore because he thought he could master the tides. When, for example, Ryan Giggs tried last year to use a super-injunction to stop the swell of news about his private life, he was hailed as ‘the King Canute of football’.

From Swindon to Swindon

Mary Beard, 17 February 2011

In February 1863, the newly founded Roman Bath Company opened its first premises in Jesus Lane, Cambridge. Behind an impressively classical façade, designed by Matthew Digby Wyatt, was a labyrinth of hot and cold rooms, and swimming pools, vaguely reflecting the layout and practice of an ancient Roman bath. Local worthies had invested considerable sums of money in the venture, in...

In February 1938, R. G. Collingwood, then Waynflete Professor of Metaphysical Philosophy at Oxford and aged only 48, suffered a small stroke. It was the first of a series, each one more serious than the last, that would kill him within five years. The usual treatment in the 1930s was less effective than modern medical intervention but rather more enjoyable. His doctors recommended a prolonged...

When McLynn chooses (as many have before him) to scour the Meditations for signs of Marcus’ inner conflicts, he might as well be looking for the evidence of psychic turmoil in the essay of a modern philosophy undergraduate.

In 1934, one of the most disturbing aspects of the Red Menace and the creeping influence of Moscow – for the Daily Mail at least – was a public school magazine called Out of Bounds. Written and produced by a group of wealthy, disaffected teenagers, it was a mixture of political polemic, reviews of left-wing books and adolescent anxiety. There were articles on the arms race and on...

Diary: set in Tunisia

Mary Beard, 14 December 2006

The practical mechanics of crucifixion have had a lurid hold on the popular imagination for at least two millennia. The idea that St Peter was crucified upside down was no sooner taken as a sign of his self-proclaimed unworthiness to share the fate of Jesus, than it was reinterpreted as a mark of his common sense. Even a poor fisherman knew that hanging head down brought the oblivion of...

‘In the language and manners of every Greek sailor and peasant the classical scholar will constantly recognise phrases and customs familiar to him in the literature of Ancient Hellas.’ So the anxious tourist was reassured in the preface to the 1854 edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Greece. The message was simple: on a Greek boat you will find yourself back with Odysseus (‘the nautical contrivances and tactics of the ancients may be observed in daily use . . . the Greek seas are still as fickle as ever’); in a country cottage you will find yourself entertained by someone who could pass for Homer’s swineherd Eumaeus. ‘Even the ferocious attacks of vermin, which soon find out an Englishman, are exactly described in the graphic accounts given by Aristophanes of similar sufferings in Greek houses of old.’

Laddish: Nero’s Ups and Downs

Mary Beard, 2 September 2004

The most lasting memorial to the Emperor Nero is the Colosseum, even if that was not the intention. In fact, the new Flavian dynasty which took control of Rome in AD 69 erected this vast pleasure palace for the people precisely in order to obliterate Nero’s memory. It was a calculated decision to build a public amphitheatre on the site of the artificial lake that had been one of the...

“Scratch the surface of Galba’s speech . . . and many of the dilemmas of succession are revealed: not just who to choose, but how – and what arguments could ever count as good when picking a man to rule the world. It is a set of dilemmas picked up a few chapters later in Tacitus’ famous post-mortem summary of Galba’s career: . . . ‘by universal consent capable of being emperor, had he not been one’. Further into Tacitus’ narrative of 69, the dilemmas are acted out yet more horribly in the appalling massacre of the civilians of Cremona who get caught in the crossfire between rival camps. Even bit-part emperors can wreak havoc.”

Cleopatra’s last public appearance in the city of Rome was in the form of a wax model, complete with model asp, carried in the victory parade of Octavian in 29 BC. Octavian – a bloodthirsty ideologue in the civil wars – was by then well on his way to reinventing himself as Rome’s benevolent autocrat, its first (and almost only) ‘good’ Emperor, Augustus....

Sun and Strawberries: Gwen Raverat

Mary Beard, 19 September 2002

Most of the Cambridge institutions we now take for granted (from not walking on the grass to the two-part Tripos and May Balls) were invented by these grey, smug, ‘hen-pecked’ late-19th-century types, all tucked up in bed by 10 p.m.

Bonté Gracieuse! Astérix Redux

Mary Beard, 21 February 2002

When René Goscinny, the creator of Astérix, died in 1977, it was, in the words of one French obituary, ‘as if the Eiffel Tower had fallen down’. The cartoon adventures of the plucky little Gaul holding out against Roman conquest (with the help of a magic potion that could confer a few minutes’ irresistible strength at a single gulp) were as much a defining part of...

Lucky City: Cicero

Mary Beard, 23 August 2001

Marcus Tullius Cicero was murdered on 7 December 43 BC: Rome’s most famous orator, off-and-on defender of Republican liberty and thundering critic of autocracy. He was finally hunted down by lackeys of Mark Antony, a member of Rome’s ruling junta and principal victim of Cicero’s dazzling swansong of invective: more than a dozen speeches called the Philippics, after...

At Christmas 1859, one of the 19th century’s most celebrated headmasters suddenly, and for no obvious reason, resigned his job. The Rev. Charles Vaughan had taken charge at Harrow in 1845, when the school was close to collapse. There were just 69 boys on the roll (many of whom were seriously in debt to the local loan shark); even by Victorian standards the boys’ lodgings were a...

Builder of Ruins: Arthur Evans

Mary Beard, 30 November 2000

Evelyn Waugh was characteristically unimpressed by the remains of the prehistoric Minoan palace at Knossos and its famous decoration. His 1930 travelogue, Labels, contains a memorable account of his disappointment, not so much at the excavation site itself (‘where,’ he writes archly, ‘Sir Arthur Evans … is rebuilding the palace’) but at its collection of prize...

Diary: on rape

Mary Beard, 24 August 2000

In September 1978, on a night train from Milan, I was forced to have sex with an architect on his way to the site of a biscuit factory he was designing somewhere outside Naples (or so he claimed). It’s a simple enough story. I was a graduate student, changing trains at Milan, and laden with luggage for a term’s research in Rome. There were a couple of hours to wait for the most convenient train south, so I went to the station bar on the look-out, I suppose, for an opportunity to wheel out my still very faltering Italian. The architect was there, on the look-out, too, presumably. Discovering that I had no couchette for the journey, he insisted on trying to book one for me; he took my ticket (which I meekly gave him), returned triumphant and then helped me with my cases and backpack to the train. Predictably enough as it now seems (though I’m sure I didn’t foresee it at the time), what he had actually booked was a two-berth first-class wagon lit. He bundled me in, took off my clothes and had sex, before departing to the upper bunk. I woke a few hours later just outside Rome to find him on top of me again, humping away – taking his last chance before handing me over to the sleeping-car steward to deposit on the platform, while he no doubt slept on to Naples. The only face I have chosen to remember (or perhaps re-create) from the whole incident belongs to this steward, the sly and uncomfortably knowing face of a man who had recognised exactly what was going on and had seen it all before, many times. As he pressed a small plastic cup of coffee into my hand in a routine way, I could tell that it would have been useless appealing to him for help, even if I’d had the chance.’

Noel Annan will be best remembered for Our Age, his grand, confident and sometimes very funny memoir written in the late 1980s, looking back at that generation of the British élite which came of age between the two world wars and so (as the book’s subtitle claimed) ‘made postwar Britain’. Here he reflected on their social connections, their shifting political and intellectual priorities, their sexual preferences, and their apparently glittering careers. Annan’s own achievements within this group have been rehearsed in the many obituaries which followed his death in February this year: Provost of King’s College, Cambridge at the age of 39, Provost of University College London, first full-time Vice-Chancellor of the University of London, author of the ‘Annan Report’ on the future of broadcasting, Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery, Director of Covent Garden and so on; ‘a fine exemplar of the civilisation he portrays’, as Roy Jenkins wrote in a review of author and book together.‘

Tombs do not rank high in the history of modern architecture. Only two grave monuments in London have been designated as Grade One Listed Buildings: the icon of Karl Marx in Highgate Cemetery, and the aggressively idiosyncratic construction that is the memorial to the family of Sir John Soane (‘architect to the Bank of England &c &c &c’, as the inscription proclaims) in the burial ground next to Old St Pancras Church – the romantic spot where Shelley first caught sight of Mary Godwin, but now part of some lugubrious gardens sandwiched between the Hospital for Tropical Diseases, the mainline railway and St Pancras Coroner’s Court. ‘Listing’ has done little to protect either monument. Predictably perhaps, Marx’s tomb has suffered over the years from the hammers and spray guns of both enemies and friends. But Soane’s has fared even worse; not, I imagine, at the hands of desperate architectural ideologues, but from run-of-the-mill vandals, attracted by its sheer oddity. When I visited it in January, it was overrun by brambles; much of its balustrading had been kicked away; its four white marble columns had long since been heaved off (the nearby railway line their likely destination); and the temporary metal fence surrounding it was more of an eyesore than a protection.’‘

One good thing about volcanic eruptions is that they rarely come without warning. Days or weeks of insistent rumbling, smoke pouring ever more energetically from the crater, followed by a few light drizzles of ash, are usually enough to ensure that all those with common sense, determination and some means of transport have fled to safety hours before the lava starts to flow or the pumice to rain. That was certainly the case in Pompeii in 79 AD. The ash incinerated the city in an instant, but several days of earth tremors and the appearance of a mushroom cloud above Vesuvius on the morning of the eruption had given a clear signal of what was to come. The notoriously ghoulish Pompeian ‘corpses’ (in fact, plaster casts of the dead made by the ingenious process of injecting plaster of Paris into the cavity left by the decomposing flesh) represent only a tiny minority of the town’s population: the procrastinators; the fatalists; the unlucky; those in the wrong place at the wrong time (the richly dressed woman, for example, found in the gladiatorial barracks, her mind presumably on other things); the poor with no means to escape; the slaves with no option; the dogs still chained up at the doors. The most famous victim – Pliny the Elder, insufferable polymath and author of a vast encyclopedia of natural history – lost his life in a foolhardy attempt to get a better view of the catastrophe. The rest – and that was the vast majority of the inhabitants – had taken their valuables and left.’‘

Women scientists – even the most distinguished of them – have a notoriously hard time. In feminist mythology at least, plagiarism by their male colleagues, belated recognition (if recognition at all) and early death (something to do with all that radiation) regularly combine to outweigh the charisma that might attach to scientific discovery. The paradigm case is Rosalind Franklin, who died of cancer at 37 and was posthumously written out of the story of the discovery of DNA, in which she had played a crucial part. James Watson’s outrageously self-heroising Double Helix systematically ridiculed and patronised ‘Rosy’s’ contributions to the work (‘Rosy’, needless to say, was a diminutive she never used herself), while at the same time portraying her as aggressive, ambitious, unsocialised, unimaginative and unfeminine. Her first appearance in The Double Helix sets the tone. Discussing the awkward relations between Franklin, a Cambridge graduate and post-doctoral crystallographer, and her London laboratory head, Maurice Wilkins, Watson writes:’‘

One of the Lads

Mary Beard, 18 June 1998

The Emperor Hadrian once went to the public baths and saw an old soldier rubbing his back against a wall. Puzzled, he asked the old man what he was doing. ‘Getting the marble to scrape the oil off,’ the old man explained, ‘because I can’t afford a slave.’ The Emperor immediately presented him with a team of slaves and the money for their upkeep. A few weeks later, he was in the baths again. Predictably, perhaps, he found a whole group of old men ostentatiously rubbing their backs against the wall, trying to cash in on his generosity. He asked the same question and got the same response. ‘But haven’t you thought,’ replied the canny Emperor, ‘of rubbing each other down?’‘

Martinis with the Bellinis

Mary Beard, 31 July 1997

Two photographs in The Roy Strong Diaries 1967-87 sum up his achievement as museum director: ‘The National Portrait Gallery before, and after’ – before and after, that is, the ‘reign’ (his word) of Strong. The first is a predictably gloomy view of a classically old-fashioned museum: wood-block floor, two benches in the centre of the gallery, paintings crammed onto the walls (20 assorted 17th-century portraits are visible in this shot alone), and no trace of an information panel beyond the tiny labels perched under each picture. The second shows the same room after the Strong treatment. There are only six paintings to be seen now; the others have given way to a large slogan blazoning CIVIL WAR, a vast floor-to-ceiling map of England, marking the sites of the major battles, another information panel, plus eight suits of armour fixed like trophies to the wall. The wood-block floor has been covered with some ‘period-feel’ black and white squared linoleum.’

Not You

Mary Beard, 23 January 1997

For more than two thousand years, classical culture – as a set of institutions and as a way of life – has been lamenting its own imminent extinction. By inventing the idea of ‘barbarity’ to be the antitype of their own ‘civilised’ values, the ancient Greeks prompted the fear that those barbarians (real or, for the most part, imaginary) would sooner or later triumph. And, eventually, the more interesting ancient intellectuals (notably the Romans) went one step further: to speculate on the inner corruption of classical civilisation as they knew it, and to play with the awful paradox that real barbarity lay in their own midst, while the savages at their margins were the true inheritors of civilised classical values. When Tacitus wrote his study of the tribes of Germany at the end of the first century CE, he was using the noble barbarians as a stick with which to beat the decadence of his fellow Romans.’

Pull as archer, in lbs

Mary Beard, 5 September 1996

You educate your women at the expense of their reserve fund; and after all you find they marry, and make very unsatisfactory and physically inefficient mothers … You may think you have done no harm to her health by your training; and that may be true enough while she remains single; but have you done it positive good? Have you let it lay up that reserve fund of strength without which child-bearing is dangerous and (what is far worse for the community) inefficient? You can never tell till the time comes, and then many of your seemingly healthy Girton and Newnham Girls break down utterly.

Diary: On Moving

Mary Beard, 4 April 1996

The American Dream starts from a covered wagon; it takes mobility for granted. Recent censuses show that more than 43 million Americans move house each year. This is an annual migration roughly equivalent to the entire population of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin (or, alternatively, every single American in their twenties) relocating every 12 months; and it all seems to pass relatively unnoticed. I asked in a Cambridge (Mass) bookstore last week for a guide to moving house – not intending to join the migration, but simply out of a vague cross-cultural curiosity at how a nation manages to get itself rehoused at such an astonishing rate. But the sales assistant just looked baffled (in a ‘what on earth would there be to write about that?’ sort of way) and politely suggested I call a truck rental company. A shop that had self-help manuals to cover every crisis of American life, from starting fourth grade to burying a pet, could only offer the Yellow Pages when it came to house moving.’

‘Cancer Girl’

Mary Beard, 6 July 1995

Cancer must sell almost as many books as cookery: not just old-fashioned self-help guides to detection or prevention, tips on how to survive the chemotherapy or colostomy (now lavishly illustrated with the kinds of photograph that were once allowed only in medical textbooks), but also a vast range of new-style ‘cancer journals’. These are first-person accounts – diaries, memoirs or letters – that chart the progress of ‘me and my cancer’ from the moment of discovery, through diagnosis and treatment, to life again on the other side. They range in tone from something close to Gothic horror to naive optimism.’

Straight Talk

Mary Beard, 9 February 1995

‘All you need to do, if you want the nation’s press camped on your doorstep, is to say that you once had a wank in 1947.’ Alan Bennett’s remark is quoted with obvious feeling by Kenneth Dover in a late-inserted footnote to his autobiography, Marginal Comment. Someone, he explains, had leaked part of the typescript of his book to the Evening Standard, who, on the scent of celebrity masturbation, had splashed (under the headline ‘Oxford Don Takes Memoirs In Hand’) his account of a ‘strange occasion’ in 1944 in the Italian hills. The beauty of the day, the blue sky and the snow ‘struck directly at my penis, so I sat down on a log and masturbated; it seemed the appropriate response.’’

What belongs

Mary Beard, 7 April 1994

There are more than ninety Holocaust Museums in the United States. Thousands of Americans, it seems, are forsaking their traditional Sunday-afternoon session of art-appreciation or dinosaur-gazing, in favour of an hour or two in front of some of the most horrifying images of the 20th century: naked corpses, emaciated survivors, gas-chambers. Film footage, of murder, death and dying, that would cause an outery if shown in the local cinema (let alone on prime-time television) has become ‘family viewing’ in the safety of the museum. The official publicity for all this, of course, is unwaveringly high-minded. It talks piously of commemoration and education: the modern museum should encourage us not only to wonder at the glorious achievements of the past, but also to reflect on, and learn from, its ‘mistakes’. Who could fail to be moved by these displays? Who could fail to welcome a new role for the museum as stirrer of the nation’s conscience?

Ancient religion has attracted some outrageous scholarship. And women’s religion in the ancient world – from cave people to the early Christians – has been blessed with far more than its fair share of lunacy. Part of this lunacy has, it is true, been confined to the wilder shores of popular imagination: vestal virgins having a dangerously good time with the highest-ranking senators of Rome; primitive mother goddesses ruling the roost in the never-never land of Stone Age matriarchy; beautiful Christian virgins speedily converting their thuggish Roman (would-be) lovers, then firmly leading them by the hand into the lion’s mouth. I am not only thinking of the licensed inaccuracy of film and fiction, however. Otherwise serious academics still offer arguments about women and religion that would be promptly – and rightly – laughed into the dustbin in almost every other field.’

Don’t forget the primitive

Mary Beard, 20 August 1992

The ‘Glory that was Greece’ has had a hard time recently. Big guns have been drawn up against our accustomed admiration of the Greek genius, our collusive Philhellenism. It is very heavy artillery indeed. First, Martin Bernal’s enormous Black Athena (two volumes already, with two more to come) – a brave piece of iconoclasm that questions not only the primacy of the Greek cultural achievement over its Near-Eastern, Semitic and African neighbours, but also the bigotry and racism sheltering under the authority of ‘traditional’ Classical scholarship. Now Dudley Young (in a more modest 350 pages) joins in the campaign – with a differently aimed, but equally impassioned, attack on ‘the Greeks’ as we think we know them.’

Looking for the loo

Mary Beard, 15 August 1991

Three years ago the University of Cambridge voted to revise its Statutes and Ordinances: all references to ‘he’ were to be replaced with ‘he or she’ or (mindful of the university’s responsibilities to English style) with some more elegant, non-sexist circumlocution. No longer would female students and staff be forced to assume that all the rules and regulations applied equally to them even though they were framed entirely in terms of the male gender. Women were to be formally and publicly included, to the last dot and comma.

Speaking up for Latin and Greek

Mary Beard, 9 May 1991

Twenty-five years ago M.I. Finley made a plea in the TLS for ‘unfreezing the Classics’. The discipline of ancient history, he argued, was in crisis: submerged in the stultifying traditions of old-fashioned Classical philology, cut off from dialogue with ‘proper’ history, political science and sociology, it was no longer part of any wider cultural debate. Finley believed that ancient history (at least in Britain) had lost its claim to be considered ‘serious’ history. It simply failed to broach ‘important matters of broad human concern’. It didn’t even try to reflect ‘the historian’s own seriousness and his values’. It had no ‘commitment’, no ‘point of view’.

Sappho speaks

Mary Beard, 11 October 1990

‘It is against the nature of things that a woman who has given herself up to unnatural and inordinate practices … should be able to write in perfect obedience to the laws of vocal harmony, imaginative portrayal, and arrangement of the details of thought.’ For David Robinson, writing in the Twenties and reprinted in the Sixties, the ‘perfection’ of Sappho’s verse was clear enough proof of her unblemished character. He was perhaps unusual in his unshakable confidence that (at least in the case of female writers) fine poetry could be found only in association with fine morals: but in other respects he was merely part of that great scholarly tradition that has attempted to rescue Sappho from the implications of her own writing – from the implication, in particular, that she enjoyed the physical love of other women. So, for example, even some recent critics have sought to portray her as a primarily religious figure, the leader of a cult of young girls devoted to the goddess Aphrodite. Others, with a yet more extreme capacity for fantasy, have seen her as some kind of female professor or headmistress, instructing her young charges in poetry, in music, even perhaps in the techniques of sensual pleasure that they would need in their future life as wives.’

With the wind in our shrouds

Mary Beard, 26 July 1990

He has changed the world – not as Mussolini has changed it, with coloured shirts and castor oil; not as Lenin has changed it, boldly emptying out the baby of the humanities with the filthy bath of Tsarism; nor as Hitler, with the fanfaronade of physical force. He has changed it by altering the chemical composition of the cultural air that all men breathe.’’

No Concubine

Mary Beard, 28 June 1990

There is not much romance in the average British Registry Office. The decorations are dirty and largely plastic, the notices forbidding. ‘Quiet please – marriage in progress,’ runs the standard government-issue warning hanging on the Registrar’s door – presumably to stop the expectant crowd in the waiting room disrupting the magic moments of those five minutes ahead in the queue. It is, after all, just a five-minute job – three minutes for handing over the fee and collecting your receipt, two for promising a lifetime’s commitment. And (in Cambridge at least – maybe other places have a more human face) the whole ceremony is conducted in the kind of petty bureaucratic style you associate with a driving test. Try asking to sign the register with your own pen. ‘No sir, it’s regulation blue or black ink I’m afraid,’ comes the response. ‘I’ll do it in black then,’ you say. ‘But we’ve only got blue.’ Smile please; kiss the bride; you’ve passed.’

Give her a snake

Mary Beard, 22 March 1990

In 1951 Lady Diana Cooper turned up at a ball in the Palazzo Labia in Venice dressed as Cleopatra. The choice of costume was perhaps predictable. On the walls of that Palazzo is Tiepolo’s painting of an outrageously haughty Cleopatra, attended by her male servants. And it was this fresco, copied faithfully (apart from its exposed breasts) down to the last jewel, that provided the model for Cooper’s outfit. Throughout the evening, we are told, she enjoyed the joke of posing in front of her ‘original’. But, as Lucy Hughes-Hallett explains, this was more than a fleeting game of fancy dress. Cooper was apparently so taken with Cecil Beaton’s photograph of herself in the guise of Cleopatra that she decided to use it in her passport. Yet it was not quite as simple as that. For who could forget the end of Cleopatra’s story and the trail of destruction that her sway – over the world and particularly over men – was said to have brought with it? Even Cooper could not escape the paradox Hughes-Hallett so neatly exposes: that the myth of Cleopatra may offer women an image of power, but at the cost of implicating them in the misogynistic fantasies of patriarchy. For women, ‘Cleopatra’ is a trap.’

Cleopatra’s Books

Mary Beard, 8 February 1990

‘The Aristotle … was already burning. Meanwhile, some sparks had flown towards the walls, and already the volumes of another bookcase were crumpling in the fury of the fire.’ So, in the final pages of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco destroys ‘the greatest library in Christendom’, hidden away in the impenetrable labyrinth of his macabre abbey. The reader cannot help but feel some satisfaction at this apparent disaster. For the maze of the abbey’s library and its unpleasant secrets serve as a metaphor for the closure of Medieval thought and the dominance of oppressive monasticism, soon to be breached by the new sophistication represented by Eco’s hero, William of Baskerville. Paradoxically, the terrible fire brings light to the Dark Ages – and if its only major literary casualty is a ‘lost’ work of Aristotle, then not too many tears are to be shed.’


Mary Beard, 26 October 1989

If you want to see the cutting edge of Thatcherism, go to Basingstoke. There, as we learn in Paul Hirst’s After Thatcher, the local council (careful, no doubt, with its ratepayers’ money) has allowed an insurance company to take over and manage a large part of the town’s shopping centre. In the interests of ‘safety’, this company now patrols the area with security guards, whose job it is to exclude the more ‘undesirable’ elements of the local population. How these ‘undesirables’ in prosperous Hampshire are to be recognised is not entirely clear. But bouncers in Basingstoke probably operate much the same as bouncers anywhere and pick on the usual targets: dirty clothes, ghetto-blasters, cans of lager peeping out of the pockets and all the other outward signs of nuisance or just nonconformity. If your face doesn’t fit, no entry – and, in this case, no shopping.’

Bound for the bad

Mary Beard, 14 September 1989

Alice Thomas Ellis has a delicate touch with her fictional delinquents. In The Birds of the Air, her second novel, Sam, the nearly criminal son of a respectable academic couple, reveals all those conflicting qualities that make the young offender so hard to deal with and to understand. We feel at the same time revulsion and a sneaking admiration. True, Sam is in many ways an offputting specimen: he dies his hair virulently green; he talks in an almost incomprehensible adolescent jargon; and he gets his kicks from stealing bicycles and from other kinds of petty juvenile dishonesty. But with ATE we come to sympathise with Sam’s view of the world and his own sense of purpose. We begin to share his disdain for the hypocritical authority of his parents and share his excitement in trivial misdemeanours – like simply absconding from family celebrations or secretly taping (and then replaying at enormous volume) the pretentious chit-chat of a donnish party. It is even with a sense of wonder, rather than complete horror, that we read of his frankly appalling fantasies of mass murder: the dream of sitting on the rooftops, neatly unhooking the sharp-edged slates and aiming them at the necks of anonymous passers-by ‘until the air was full of their silly heads, flying around as thick as autumn leaves’. For a moment we can almost believe that these presumably innocent adults deserved their decapitation.’


11 September

4 October 2001

I may well be ‘worse than tactless’, as Christopher Prendergast suggests (Letters, 1 November), but I did not say that ‘America had it coming.’ I observed (as Nicholas Simpson correctly spotted) that ‘that is … what many people, openly or privately, think’. Witness, for example, the audience reaction on the famous – in the UK at least – Question...

New Lefts

26 October 1989

Mary Beard writes: Maybe it is predictable that as an opponent of Proportional Representation I should be unmoved by percentages. But I am surprised at David Howarth’s certainty in assuring a retrospective safe passage to social reforms under a proportional system. Practical coalitions do not follow simply from the figures – as the experience of many recent European governments shows. Besides,...

They were all foreigners: ‘SPQR’

Michael Kulikowski, 7 January 2016

Neil Tennant​ described his run of hits between ‘It’s a Sin’ and ‘Heart’ as the Pet Shop Boys’ imperial phase, when they owned the charts and charmed the...

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Laugh as long as you can: Roman Jokes

James Davidson, 16 July 2015

The oldest​ joke I know, the oldest joke that a real person quite probably told on a quite probably actual occasion, is one ascribed to Sophocles. Ion of Chios, a lesser poet, claimed he...

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Mr Big & Co: Roman Victory!

Denis Feeney, 21 February 2008

The triumph is a key element of the modern image of the Romans, embodying the characteristics we love to imagine as quintessentially Roman: militarism, arrogance, cruelty, spectacle. Because the...

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The Wives of Herr Bear: Jane Harrison

Julia Briggs, 21 September 2000

In Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, a group of clever, fastidious preppies in a small liberal arts college on the East Coast reinvent the cult of Dionysus. They brew a concoction of...

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