12 March 2016

Mary Beard: Greatest Hits

Posted by Anna Thornton

In anticipation of Mary Beard’s sold out event with us on 1 April, here's her ‘Greatest Hits’ from the London Review of Books archive.

A professor of Classics at Cambridge, author of numerous books and host of BBC shows such as 'Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed', Mary Beard is often referred to as Britain’s best known classicist. This is no mean feat. She continually pulls together our societal fascination with ancient civilisations with a sharp analysis of how this has impacted contemporary society. She gives relevancy and poignancy to a subject which could otherwise be seen as antiquated. Beard is a favourite at the LRB; she delivered one of its Winter Lectures in 2015, and has written profusely over the years for the magazine. Her topics range from Swindon to Sappho, so choosing favourites has been a delight. Here goes…

The Public Voice of Women

It would be impossible to discuss Mary Beard’s involvement with the LRB without mentioning her seminal Winter Lecture: ‘The Public Voice of Women’. Exploring the foundations of voicelessness of women in society, she traces these ideas through classical texts and philosophy to the present day.

What I mean is that public speaking and oratory were not merely things that ancient women didn’t do: they were exclusive practices and skills that defined masculinity as a gender... to become a man – and we’re talking elite man – was to claim the right to speak. Public speech was a – if not the – defining attribute of maleness. A woman speaking in public was, in most circumstances, by definition not a woman.

Sappho speaks

A fascinating look at the voice of Sappho’s poetry and how this has hitherto been detached from her sexuality and gender in classical academia. You can see how her ideas around voice and female expression develop throughout her writing.

What was at stake was not just the anxiety of conservative Classical scholars at Sappho’s apparent sexual preference for young women – though that was, no doubt, an aggravating factor in the most strident reactions. More important, as Jack Winkler suggests in his essay on Sappho reprinted in The Constraints of Desire, was the plain fact that the writer, the speaking subject of these poems, was a woman – a woman claiming the right to talk about her own sexuality. What was at stake was not so much lesbianism as the ‘woman’s voice’, and how that could be heard and understood.


Here Beard discusses the recent infatuation with John Soane, a neo-classical architect, starting with his outrageous custom grave and ending with his house, which is now a living memorandum for his love of classical art and architecture.

The 20th-century enthusiasm for Soane’s work might seem to be just another strand in the traditional tale of architectural revaluation and changing fashion, of the genius recognised only long after his death – were it not for one thing which (though fleetingly acknowledged) is rarely emphasised in modern studies of Soane. The uncomfortable fact is that almost nothing of his major work survives, certainly not complete or in anything like its original form.

From Swindon to Swindon

Beard’s review of Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us by Ferdinand Mount is one of her most explicit engagements with the interconnectedness of the classical and contemporary worlds. The title, and the article which follows it, exemplify her irreverent, wry and engaged writing style.

Yet it seems to be in the nature of our engagement with the classical past that each generation comes to believe that they are rediscovering the ancient world for themselves. And this is in part the implication of Full Circle, whether Mount quite realises it or not. Underlying his account is a sense that the history of antiquity in the modern world is a history of both remembering and forgetting as, over time, we choose to disown or embrace different aspects of the Greco-Roman world.

Don’t forget your pith helmet

This review of tourist guidebooks for Greece (two written in 1884 along with their modern equivalent), is an entertaining look at the ways in which we consume culture, and how our concepts of Greece have changed – and most importantly, have not.

Through all these changes and redefinitions, one thing remains more or less constant: the idea that modern Greece and the modern Greeks preserved something of the spirit and customs of the ancient world.