Five Quick Questions for Classicist Mary Beard

Mary Beard is professor of Classics at Newnham College, Cambridge, and Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. Her academic work mainly focuses on aspects of Roman and Greek culture and she claims to be ‘particularly interested in the reception of Classics in the modern world’. This is borne out by her column for the Times Online, A Don’s Life, which comments incisively on modern life, often with a classical twist – I particularly liked her suggestions for Latin catch-phrases for London’s tube commuters.

She also has a long list of published books to her name, the two most recent ones about Pompeii: Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town and The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. So, of all the Roman and Greek archaeological sites, what was it about Pompeii in particular that piqued Mary’s interest?

I asked her five quick questions to find out more:

BK: What inspired you to write Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town?

MB: Well in some ways the project goes back 30 years or more – to when I first went to Pompeii. I was blown over by the place, yet it was so different from what the courses I had taken at university had led me to believe. Quite simply, I have wanted to share some of the excitement, and the puzzles of the city – and to set people up for enjoying and exploring the city on their own, if they are lucky enough to be able to go.

It is the most exciting thing to survive from the Roman world – the one place (despite all the difficulties of interpretation) where you get an up-close idea of what living in the Roman world was like.

BK:You’ve obviously spent a lot of time on the site – what was your most exciting moment there?

Roman baths hygienic? Come off it

MB: There were two moments – one was in a house usually closed to the public. We were walking round and came across two of those plaster casts of the dead/dying, on the stairway, just where they had fallen.

The other was wandering round the city with a friend who now works in the archaeological service there – and whose father had worked as a craftsman on the site. It was amazing having the work and the restorations carried out by the father 60 years ago pointed out. We tend to forget that Pompeii is still a community, people live near about, care for the site, make their careers there.

BK: What do you think your book offers that others about Pompeii miss out?

MB: For a start I think that it isn’t too preoccupied with the eruption, the pyroclastic flows etc. It is most of all interested in the living city. There are some other books like that, to be fair – but many concentrate on the disaster aspects!

Perhaps more special is that it shares the fun of making sense of the city with the reader. It is not concerned just to tell a story, but to show how we put together all the confusing and conflicting evidence to make some kind of sense. It’s as much about how as what we know.

It is also quite a lot more sceptical that most. Roman baths hygienic? Come off it.

BK: What are you working on as your next project/book?

MB: I’m working on a book about Roman laughter.

BK: What’s the most enjoyable part of your work… and the most frustrating?

Very hard to say… I don’t think that the Greeks and Romans were very nice (in our terms), but they are hugely interesting – and they have been found interesting for hundreds of years, in different ways. I suppose I enjoy the processes of historical reconstruction, but also trying to see in what ways the ancients can still speak to us. The frustrating bit is when people think that this is all terribly remote, hopelessly academic – and completely ivory tower. Sure, some bits of it are – but much of it is fascinating for anyone…

And yes understanding the past is essential to understanding the future.