Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard

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Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard

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Category: Reference
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Richard T Watson
Reviewed by Richard T Watson
Summary: A wide-ranging and insightful survey of the modern study of Classics and classical history, Mary Beard's Confronting the Classics is more an engagement with her subject than an analysis of it. In a collection of punchy reviews of other writers' work, she articulates her own thoughts as well as introducing her reader to current thinking on a range of areas within the subject. Benefiting from Beard's long career in academic Classics, this isn't a book for the casual reader, and does demand a basic knowledge of Classics, Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome – but anyone already studying or interested in those is bound to find plenty of food for thought in Confronting the Classics.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 384 Date: March 2013
Publisher: Profile Books
External links: [https/ Author's website]
ISBN: 978-781250488

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For a lot of us, the idea of learning Classics conjures up images – or memories – of rows of (usually public) schoolboys endlessly repeating different conjugations of Latin verbs. 'Amo, amas, amat...' and so on. It's an idea imprinted on the popular imagination by countless books, films and TV shows, and indeed by anecdotal memory. I'm pretty sure my dad would have been one of those schoolboys in the 1960s.

But that isn't my experience of Classics; it isn't the modern experience, nor the experience that Mary Beard wants to pass on in her latest book: Confronting the Classics. For a student of the early twenty-first century, Classics is about the culture and people of Ancient Greece and Rome – the senators, the slaves, the gladiators, the feasts, the baths, the foreign wars, the poets, playwrights and philosophers – as much, if not more, as it is about the languages themselves. I remember my Classics lessons being more a combination of history, literature and fine art. We certainly didn't do any droning conjugations. These days, we're learning about a people and a time in history (and about ourselves, because human nature doesn't change much over the centuries).

For Mary Beard, the study of Classical civilisations (Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire) is an ongoing conversation with past generations. After all, academics have been writing about our ancestors for hundreds of years, and Beard is just one more to pour her bottle of knowledge into an already wide and deep pool, hoping that the rest of us can drink from it (which may be stretching a metaphor, but the point about contributing to humanity's collective store of learning stands). In Confronting the Classics, Beard not only discusses issues from antiquity – slavery, military occupation, Roman politics, creative archaeology, to name a handful – but also engages with fellow academics and delves bravely (sometimes provocatively) into the current range of thinking and writing about the ancient world.

You might recognise Cambridge professor Mary Beard from her television appearances – documentaries and her controversial 'Question Time' comments – but she's had a long academic career in Classics, so Confronting the Classics comes from a guide who knows her subject. As Classics Editor for the 'Times Literary Supplement' she's been in the business of reviewing (and editing reviews of) writing about her field for twenty years. Confronting the Classics is itself a product of that, being a collection of Beard's essays and reviews, some going as far back as 1990 but mostly from the last decade or so.

That title is well-chosen – confrontation is exactly what's going on here. Beard doesn't praise unreservedly, and she doesn't take things at face value. If she sometimes takes a long time to get around to mentioning the actual book being reviewed, it's because she's so busy engaging with the subject herself and putting her own ideas forward. She probes deeper into the subjects covered, using her own knowledge and wider reading to dispute the arguments and conclusions of the writers under review. Ancient history relies on fragmentary sources of evidence – literally, in the case of chunks of engraved stone, or surviving sections of longer manuscripts – and the conclusions academics derive from them. Two different scholars can easily get very different conclusions from the same evidence, and many of the debates within Classics are about those differing interpretations. For example, was Caligula genuinely mad and promoting his horse to high office, or was he having a private joke about the vanity and pointlessness of the Roman elite striving for empty honours and public office?

Perhaps inevitably, the overall impression is one of Beard surrounded by other writers who can't quite get it right. Her most frequent accusation is that writers fill in the gaps with fantasies about Ancient life – a conclusion you can draw when you know the evidence like Beard does. And that's the thing about Confronting the Classics, it takes the reader on a journey through modern Classical learning, but assumes the reader already knows something about the route. That's fine for the student or academic reader, but the casual reader is bound to feel slightly alienated. For all Beard's hopes that Confronting the Classics can introduce new readers to the Ancient History, it's better suited to those who already recognise the landscape a little.

While avoiding the chorus of voices bemoaning the decline of Classics, Latin and Greek in the British curriculum – instead highlighting that the argument has been going for centuries – Beard gives a rallying cry for the study of the ancient world. There should, she argues, be at least some people who can, say, read Virgil in the original, otherwise a vast treasure of the Western cultural heritage could easily be lost. Confronting the Classics is a rewarding glimpse into that heritage.

Further reading suggestion: For an in-depth look at one of the 'characters' in this book try The Colosseum by Keith Hopkins and Mary Beard. There's more digging into the world of Ancient Rome in Invisible Romans: Prostitutes, Outlaws, Slaves, Gladiators, Ordinary Men and Women … the Romans that History Forgot by Robert Knapp.

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Buy Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations by Mary Beard at


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