This Cambridge Life

The Classicist who wants the ancient world to have a radical future

Mary Beard sitting on steps

Mary Beard says the Greeks and Romans have more to say about modern society than we might think. A new set of films, aimed at teenagers whose schools don’t teach Classics, will investigate how the subject can help us to explore modern issues like free speech, heroes and self-imaging.

I first came into contact with the ancient world when I was about five years old. My mum and I had made the long journey from Shropshire to London so I could see the capital. First stop, the British Museum.

We initially went to see the mummies – every kid has a ghoulish fascination with them! Then we went to an exhibition about everyday ancient Egyptian life. That was when my mum spotted a piece of 3,500-year-old cake.

Now, this was a long time before museums were child friendly; the cake was at the back of a high case. My mum was trying to pick me up so I could see it but with all the bags she was holding this was very inconvenient. Just then a curator walked past and noticed what was going on.

He took his keys out of his pocket, opened the case, took out the cake and placed it in my hand. It was a magic moment. It represented an opening up of the ancient world. I don’t know who that guy was but I’ve got a lot to thank him for.

As a teenager I did quite a lot of ‘dirt archaeology’. I was lucky enough to study Latin and Greek at school and I liked the fact that you could dig under your local soil and find Roman roads, and that place names were derived from Latin words. That curiosity about where we come from has never left me.


Mary on the beach at an archaeological site, by Di Bonakis Webster.

Mary on the beach at an archaeological site, by Di Bonakis Webster.

Classics is the study of the history, culture, literature, archaeology and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans and, most importantly, their relationship with us. It’s one of a handful of subjects that you can study at university that allows you to explore a culture in the round. That’s one reason why it’s very special.

Once upon a time my interest in Classics was as a subject of curiosity, a foreign world to uncover in all its strangeness. But over the years I’ve grown increasingly interested in how the Classical world intersects with our view of ourselves.

Classics can give you new perspectives. For example you may find that a debate which feels unique to modern times, like free speech, was in fact first engaged with thousands of years ago. You might also turn the spotlight on us and ask what the ancient Greeks and Romans would think of some of our behaviour now. This can be very humbling.

I don’t think the Romans and Greeks have answers for us that we can just handpick as if we were in a supermarket, but they can help us hone our views. Take questions of identity. In the UK we are often taught to have an exclusive identity. Whereas the Roman poet Ennius talks of having ‘tria corda’ meaning “I’ve got three hearts” because I belong to three places. This alternative approach helps us to challenge our own assumptions about who we are and where we belong.

Over the years the Classical texts haven’t changed much but the questions we’ve asked about them have. For example, when I studied Classics at Cambridge here in the 70s, we just weren’t taught to see how important gender was. The fact that we are addressing these issues now is largely thanks to second-wave feminism. To take that further, today students are looking at what Classics has to say about non-binary identity.


Mary by Di Bonakis Webster

Mary by Di Bonakis Webster

Classicists are not buried in Classical texts; we’re buried in the discussions you can have off the back of those texts. Classics has given me a way of opening up my thoughts about the world and, along with members of the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge, I want to share that privilege more widely.

People can feel quite intimidated by the subject – it's in languages they don’t understand and it’s about unfamiliar people. But there’s not actually such a big barrier to the enjoyment of Classics whether you studied the subject at school or not. I mean we all loved the film Gladiator!

I’m not a Classics Stalinist – I don’t want to force every child in the country to learn Latin – but I do want to democratise Classics. One side of this is fairness – giving people opportunities – but the other is that the subject will undoubtedly benefit from diversity and different perspectives. I don’t want Classics to become a posh white man's subject; that can’t be its future. If we did nothing, I fear that Classics would go very slowly downhill and become increasingly irrelevant.

Mary by bookcase

Mary by Lloyd Mann

Mary by Lloyd Mann

Cambridge has been committed to bringing Classics to a wider audience for many years. The Faculty offers a four-year course for students who have not studied either Latin or Greek at school, allowing them to learn the languages from scratch before starting the three-year degree.

However, we realised that we needed to do more to reach teenagers in schools that don’t teach Classics. Thanks to a substantial donation from an anonymous alumnus, we partnered with Lion TV who generously produced five ten-minute films exploring questions like: do we need free speech? What makes a hero? Why do we take selfies and do we give images too much power? We’ll be investigating how Classics can help us think about these big issues.

As part of the films, we’ll be speaking to school kids, academics and celebrities like actor Rachel Weisz, comedian Alex Horne and author Malorie Blackman. It’s been so encouraging that people have been happy and keen to give their time. It really wouldn’t have been possible without everyone playing their part.

The highlight for me was putting Socrates on trial – something I’ve always wanted to do! It's fantastic working with a film company as it means you can do things like taking a picture of Socrates, blowing it up into a life-size cardboard cut-out and then standing it in a dock to cross-examine.

Mary sitting at outdoor picnic table

Mary by Lloyd Mann

Mary by Lloyd Mann

I’ve recently retired but it's been anything but quiet! I’m writing a new book – a sequel to my SPQR – that will dig deeper into Roman emperors, not as individual biographies but exploring the similarities between them. I’m hoping to do some more telly and radio – that will be fun as it’s about taking Classics out into the world.

I find the ancient world unbelievably and unendingly interesting. But I don’t actually like the Romans very much! Ancient writers say some pretty awful things; we need to look them in the eye and think about how we deal with these things.

The big Roman guys have had their chance to talk to us. If I had a day return to ancient Rome, I'd like to talk to those people whose thoughts weren’t recorded – the slave girl who sweeps the floor at the baths, the masseurs, the guy who brings the post into the imperial palace.

Mary Beard

Mary by Di Bonakis Webster

Mary by Di Bonakis Webster

I’m looking forward to leaving others to have their go. I’m pleased with what I've done but I've done it and its time for someone else now – to make their own mistakes – I've made mine.

Where would I like Classics to be in 50 years? I hope it will be a subject that more people think they might do, that people will believe that they have something to offer Classics and that it will be enriched by this diversity of thought. The ancient world is us and that means all of us.

I hope it will be a subject in which people disagree and debate and have furious arguments – furious arguments are jolly good! Classics has got a pretty stunning history in terms of radical thought political or otherwise. It’s got that radical past and I want it to have a radical future.

Published 22 Feburary 2023
With thanks to:

Mary Beard

Charis Goodyear

Di Bonakis Webster
Lloyd Mann

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License