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Book Review: Confronting the Classics: A Provocative Tour of What is Happening Now in the Classics by Mary Beard

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Mary Beard is pretty well British public intellectual of the year, after her tour de force on Question Time, and strong-minded reaction to the flood of misogynist vitriol she received as a result. I was really looking forward to her new Confronting the Classics, but I was a little disappointed on opening it to find a little-edited collection of book reviews.

As I got into the book, however, on a long train journey from Madrid to London — appropriately a swoop through a large expanse of the Roman Empire — my disappointment vanished. Sure the loose thesis that ties it all together — really we can know little of the actual lives of the Ancients, and often what we say has more to do with our “life and times” than their’s — is hardly earth-shattering.

But the ascetic wit and brutal honesty we expect from Beard shines through (she’s an entirely fair reviewer, but doesn’t pull punches or suffer foolish theses gladly) – commenting on Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica, she notes that the fiction writer of a series about the leader, Manda Scott “comes over as something of a nutter: ‘she now practices and teaches shamanic dreaming and spirituality’ and ‘she firmly believes her subject was given to her by the spirits’ … After this warning… The third volume of her series, comes as a relief (or at least the spirits we sensible enough to finger someone who could write”.

And Beard provide some fascinating details that we do know of ancient lives, and some great anecdotes that we don’t but are worth reading anyway,some supplied by the reviewees, some by Beard herself.

A small sample – in reviewing Giulla Sissa’s Greek Virginity, Beard notes that for the Ancient Greeks virginity was regarded as an open state – they paid no regard to the hymen. The moment of closure came when it sealed around a growing foetus during pregnancy. So the Pythia, the oracle priestess at Delphi, was a virgin,ensuring her openness to the god Apollo. “Christian writers poured scorn on the way she sat (as they claimed) astride a tripod, legs apart,taking up the vapours of prophetic spirit into her vagina.” And that August’s wife Livia put her long life down to drinking wine from Friuli, which is still used in the region’s advertising, whilst we also have recipes for her own treatments for sore throat and nervous exhaustion – both entirely without sinister ingredients, despite her reputation.

And she draws on the analysis of Aloys Winterling’s Caligula: A Biography to convincingly answer the question as to why we have vitriolic portraits of so many senior Roman figures, particularly emperors: the survivors after a regime fell were very keen to lineup with the new forces in power – and slandering the old was a way of buttering up the new.

Over to archaeology – lovely to learn that at the site of the battle Perugia between Octavian and Anthony’s brother Lucius in 41BC, more than 89 lead slingshots for both sides, with rough inscriptions scratched on them. Beard suggests these were “intended not so much, I imagine, for the enemy to read, but to convey something of the spirit in which they had been dispatched. The are mostly obscene “I am after Fulvia’s clitoris” and “I am after Octavian’s ass’ being typical examples. One, ‘Lucius is bald’ is regarded as Everitt as ‘rather more feeble’. Given the obvious tone of the others, I rather suspect that it is a nice indicator that baldness was seen as a gather physical imperfection in the Roman world thanit is today.”

On the “nice story” side,there’s the water dining rooms at Hadrian’s Villa in Rome the guests reclined around a pool of water and one reconstruction steered delicacies to each other on a fleet of boat-plates. “(Slaves would of course be on hand to rescue the beached pickles.)”

Modern classic references are also charted, such as reuses of Cicero’s denunciation of Catiline with “Quousque tandem abuterre, patience?” (Whither at length wilt thou abuse our patience?” in Ben Jonson’s version) as diverse as by Hungarian demonstrators against the ruling Fidesz party in 2012, Congolese protests in 2001 against Kabila, an editorial in El Pais in 1999 on Aznar’s refusal to bring Pinochet to trial, and strikers in Brazilian state universities.

Also, sometimes she presents the fascinating questions that the authors she is reviewing failed to ask, such as how did female Greek poets, particularly Sappho, radically subvert the male literary tradition, and explores the reasons an ancient joke book, the Philogelos, still get laughs today. Her answer is that laughing at jokes is a learned trait, with a direct line from the ancients through the Renaissance to us.

So overall this is still a collection of rather mixed essays, not in the class of Beard’s magisterial Pompei, but worth catching up with.

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About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.