Latin-lovers, Greek fanatics and anyone with a passing interest in the ancient world will have a unique opportunity to put their questions to the experts at two major public debates in Cambridge this summer.

The intent is to get people to think a little bit more widely and to see that by looking at problems from the ancient world, we can find new and interesting ways to confront our own.

Professor Mary Beard

As part of a wider conference on the classical world, the University of Cambridge is hosting two open fora, billed as a "Classics Question Time", and featuring leading scholars, commentators and other public figures.

The panellists will include the philosopher Roger Scruton; Liberty Director, Shami Chakrabarti; columnists Simon Heffer and Simon Jenkins; historian David Cannadine; children's author Caroline Lawrence and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, Master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and former director of the British School at Rome.

Audience members will be invited to interrogate them on the subjects of Pompeii - and how to manage tourism in the fragile remains of one of the world's most famous heritage sites - and Socrates, whose famous trial and alleged miscarriage of justice in 399BC may have been a "fair cop" after all.

The discussions will be held at 8.15pm on July 26 and 27 in the Lady Mitchell Hall, Sidgwick Site, Cambridge and are open to all. Tickets, priced £10 for adults, £7 for concessions or £25 for families, are available now from the Cambridge Corn Exchange Box Office, Wheeler Street, or by calling 01223 357851. Full details are also available at http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/faculty/seminars_conferences/triennial_con...

The aim of the event is to use two of the most controversial problems relating to the ancient world as a means of confronting most important issues in the present.

Professor Mary Beard, from the University of Cambridge's Faculty of Classics, which is organising the event, said: "We're trying to think about big issues and look at them through a classical prism. The intent is to get people to think a little bit more widely and to see that by looking at these problems from the ancient world, we can find new and interesting ways to confront our own."

Professor Beard will also be taking part in the session called "Will Pompeii Survive?". Last year the so-called House of the Gladiators in the ancient city suddenly collapsed overnight following heavy rains. The building itself was a reconstruction, having been bombed by the Allies in World War II, but its sudden and dramatic subsidence in November has prompted new concerns about the fate of Pompeii as an iconic world heritage centre.

Many experts have warned for some time that parts of Pompeii are gradually disintegrating and that a significant investment of money and manpower in the site is needed to prevent it from collapse. Part of the problem is the sheer weight of tourist traffic which passes through the site; the numbers approach two million every year. With poor crowd monitoring and control and ample opportunities for vandalism to occur, a number of experts now believe that humans are wreaking damage on the site far worse than that caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Dozens of buildings are thought to be under threat.

This raises much broader issues about how to manage public access to heritage sites in a sustainable way. "It's a question about how visitors should enjoy a site like that, and who should pay for it?" Beard said. "That applies just as much to sites like the Pyramids or Stonehenge. Is Pompeii just going to end up as a ruined theme park? There is a much wider debate about how we manage ancient monuments and materials."

The death of Socrates is another example of an ancient dispute that has significant implications for the modern world. Typically, the trial and execution of this founding father of western philosophy has been considered a grand miscarriage of justice and a classic example of democracy turning rotten and descending into mob rule. In 2009, however, Professor Paul Cartledge from the University of Cambridge, who will take part in the July debate, proposed that in fact, justice may have been done.

The argument hinges on the purity of Athenian democracy and the fact that one of the supposedly trumped up charges on which Socrates was tried was "impiety". A string of disasters in the years leading up to 399 BC, Cartledge contends, may well have led Athenians to believe that they had somehow offended Zeus and the other gods. Socrates was a thinker who had openly questioned the legitimacy of the gods themselves, and who spoke frequently of his inner "daimonon" - a term he probably meant as intuition, but which, thanks to the inherent ambiguities of Ancient Greek, could also be interpreted as a dark, supernatural influence.

Judged by the standards of Athenian democracy, which tested everything according to the service of the public good, Socrates was placing the city in jeopardy. In that sense it was a fair judgement - but for us in the 21st century, it has important resonances. "It raises questions about human rights and freedom of speech," Beard said. "If we think it is a fair cop, what does that say about how we regard people's freedom to air controversial views now, and the standards by which we measure them?"

Both debates are part of the Classics Triennial, a major classics conference which attracts an international cast of about 150 leading scholars and is being hosted by the University's Faculty of Classics each year. The full programme begins on 25 July and details can be found at: http://www.classics.cam.ac.uk/faculty/seminars_conferences/triennial_con...

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