Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. Her Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, were published in June as Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up.
 (October 2014)

How Stoical Was Seneca?

Peter Paul Rubens: The Death of Seneca, 1612–1613
The contradictions in Seneca’s career troubled many ancient observers, just as they have troubled many later ones. Part of this is the question of how to reconcile Seneca’s intimate involvement in the brutal power politics of the Roman court with the high-minded philosophical ethics he professed.

Britain Lurches

UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage celebrating local election results, South Benfleet, Essex, United Kingdom, May 23, 2014

The real danger of the UK Independence Party in EU and local elections is not the party’s own policies, but the reaction it draws from politicians and supporters of the other parties. On the one hand, there is a tendency to brush its success aside, as merely a fairly insignificant protest vote. On the other hand, there is also a dangerous overreaction by the main political parties—and a drift toward an increasingly rigid policy on immigration, even if their heart is not really in it.

The Latest Scheme for the Parthenon

The central scene of the east frieze of the Parthenon. ‘The traditional reading of the frieze,’ writes Mary Beard, interprets it as ‘the presentation of a newly woven robe (peplos) to Athena,’ the high point of a festival celebrating the goddess. Joan Breton Connelly, in The Parthenon Enigma, instead argues that the frieze depicts a scene from early Athenian myth, in which King Erechtheus, as Beard writes, ‘has been told by an oracle that in order to save Athens from invasion he must sacrifice one of his daughters,’ and is not receiving the peplos but rather handing the material over to his youngest daughter, who will wear it as her shroud.
There is one basic rule about the “Elgin Marble Controversy”: it is not straightforward (if it were, it would have been solved decades ago). There are bad arguments and woeful oversimplifications on both sides, and the whole question raises some of the biggest dilemmas of heritage and cultural property. It pits the desirable notion of the Universal Museum against the desirable aim of seeing a coherent ensemble of sculpture (whether or not united by the Erechtheus theme) put together again.

What Was Greek to Them?

The Queen’s Megaron room at Knossos; watercolor, early twentieth century. It was at the Knossos site that Arthur Evans found tablets covered with a script he called ‘Linear B.’
Stories of code-breaking and decipherment usually end at the moment the code is finally cracked, or the once-mysterious language demystified and translated. The narrative thrill is in the chase, in the rivalries between the various would-be code-breakers. There tends to be a “tortoise-and-the-hare” element to the tales too. Will the winner be the brilliant maverick who cuts corners, but has the lucky hunch? Or will it be the low-key, patient systematizers, hunched over their boxes of file cards?

Pinning Down Spartacus

‘Spartacus Fresco,’ detail, from Pompeii, early first century BC. The rider on the left is thought to be labeled ‘Felix the Pompeian’ (or ‘Lucky from Pompeii’) and the other is ‘Spartaks’ (reading right to left), or ‘Spartacus’ in Latin
In the entrance hall of a fairly ordinary house in ancient Pompeii, buried beneath layers of later paint, are the faint traces of an intriguing sketch of two men fighting on horseback. They are named in captions above their heads. The name of one is scarcely legible, but probably says “Felix the Pompeian” (or “Lucky from Pompeii”). The other reads clearly, in Oscan, “Spartaks,” which in Latin would be “Spartacus”—a name best known to us from the slave and gladiator who in the late 70s BC led a rebellion that, it is said, very nearly managed to defeat the power of Rome itself.

Election by Connection

Marina del Rey, California, 2009; photograph by Arthur Grace from his book America 101, a selection of his documentary images from the early 1970s to the present, most of them never seen before. It has just been published by Fall Line.
The “Handbook on Electioneering” is rather more complicated than it appears. There has long been some doubt on whether it really was written by the second-rate Quintus Cicero, attempting to instruct his much smarter elder brother in how to reach the consulship. Why, after all, would it have been preserved? And why did Marcus need Quintus’ advice? Many critics have suspected that it was a nostalgic fiction—or rhetorical exercise—of the early imperial period, written decades after popular elections had ended under Roman autocratic rule. But at the same time, most critics have imagined that it nevertheless represented much of the reality of Roman political competition; and that’s partly because it can seem so close to our own.

How to Win the Election (Without Super PACs)

A Scene from the HBO series Rome (2005)

Roman elections were all a matter of personal connections, charisma, and favor, not of manifestos and paid-up party loyalty. No patron would have a houseful of clients if he only offered to help those whom he knew he really could. That’s a different claim from a modern political view that you promise anything you like to get elected. In fact, in other ways too, the twenty-first-century relationship between the political hopeful and his voters and “clients” is the mirror image of the ancient one. But the modern clients, in the shape of Super PACs and the like, call the political tune to an extent that most of the supporters of the ancient would-be consul could not.

Do the Classics Have a Future?

Dante and Virgil in the first circle of hell, meeting classical poets, including Homer, Horace, Ovid, and Lucan, who were virtuous in life but are condemned to Limbo because they were never baptized; engraving by Gustave Doré
I’m not here to convince you that classical literature, culture, or art is worth taking seriously; I suspect that would be preaching to the converted. I’m here instead to suggest that the cultural language of the classics continues to be an essential and ineradicable dialect of “Western culture” (embedded in the drama of Terence Rattigan, as much as in the poetry of Ted Hughes or the novels of Margaret Atwood or Donna Tartt—The Secret History couldn’t, after all, have been written about a department of geography). But I also want to examine a bit more closely our fixation on the decline of classical learning.

Alexander: How Great?

Detail of the ‘Alexander Mosaic,’ circa 100 BC, recovered from the floor of the ‘House of the Faun’ in Pompeii, showing Alexander the Great (with a Gorgon’s head on his breastplate) charging toward King Darius of Persia in what is thought to be the Battle of Issus, 333 BC
In 51 BC, Marcus Tullius Cicero, who had reluctantly left his desk in Rome to become military governor of the province of Cilicia in southern Turkey, scored a minor victory against some local insurgents. As we know from his surviving letters, he was conscious that he was treading in the footsteps of a famous predecessor: “For a few days,” he wrote to his friend Atticus, “we were encamped in exactly the same place that Alexander occupied when he was fighting Darius at Issus”—hastily conceding that Alexander was in fact “a rather better general that you or I.” Whatever the irony in Cicero’s remarks, almost any Roman, given the command of a brigade of troops and a glimpse of lands to the East, would soon dream of becoming Alexander the Great.

Cleopatra: The Myth

Warren William, as Julius Caesar, and Claudette Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934

The life of Cleopatra VII, the last monarch of the Ptolemaic dynasty, is even more “mythical” than the story of Alexandria, and the real queen is even harder to excavate than the remains of her capital. This is, in part, thanks to the inventive traditions of modern drama, from William Shakespeare to Elizabeth Taylor, which have indelibly fixed a languorous and decadent queen bathing in ass’s milk in the popular imagination. But these modern versions draw on an ancient mythology that goes back ultimately to the propaganda campaigns of the emperor Augustus, whose own reign was founded on the defeat of the “Egyptian” Cleopatra (in truth she was, almost certainly, ethnically Greek) and Mark Antony. It was irresistible for Augustus to demonize Cleopatra as a dangerously seductive Oriental despot, living a life of extravagance entirely at odds with the down-to-earth traditions of Rome and Italy, which he himself claimed to represent.

Which Thucydides Can You Trust?

Thucydides wrote his History of the Peloponnesian War in almost impossibly difficult Greek. Maybe the contorted language has something to do with the novelty of his enterprise. Writing at the end of the fifth century BC, he was attempting something never done before: an aggressively rational, apparently impersonal analysis of …

The Hero Pose

I am one of a team that has been redesigning the Greek and Roman Galleries in the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. We’ve finished—and a couple of weeks ago the new display opened to the public. This is nothing on the scale of the new Greek and Roman galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of course. But, after the British Museum and the Ashmolean in Oxford (also recently “re-hung”), the Fitz has the best collection of classical antiquities in the UK—thanks to generous donations since the mid-nineteenth century from professors and alumni of the University.

Are Classics Classy? The Roman View

What is a “classic”? Is it simply (as Frank Kermode, I think, once put it) an old book that we still read? Or is there something a bit more sinister to the whole idea? An old book you feel you ought to have read? Or is it more casually serendipitous: An old book you have rediscovered and want to share with the world? And what does a “classicist” (in the Greek-and-Latin sense of the word) have to contribute to the debate?

Knossos: Fakes, Facts, and Mystery

Giorgio de Chirico: Ariadne, 1913
The masterpieces of Minoan art are not what they seem. The vivid frescoes that once decorated the walls of the prehistoric palace at Knossos in Crete are now the main attraction of the Archaeological Museum in the modern city of Heraklion, a few miles from the site of Knossos. Dating …

The Truth About Cleopatra

An ancient Egyptian relief of Cleopatra
One of the most important Roman discoveries of the last fifteen years is still little known. Unearthed in northern Greece, it is the monument erected to commemorate the naval battle of Actium in 31 BC, fought between Octavian (the future emperor Augustus) on the one side and Mark Antony, with …

Cruising with Caesar

In the spring of 47 BCE, Julius Caesar took a Nile cruise. The civil wars that would make him sole ruler of Rome were drawing to a close. His main rival and erstwhile ally, Pompey the Great, had been decapitated—and Caesar had even managed to produce some tears when the …

Isn’t It Funny?

Just over halfway up the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is a memorable, and unsettling, scene. Although practically invisible from ground level, and almost crowded out by the images of violent conflict between Roman legions and German tribes which spiral up the shaft, it has often caught the attention …

Looking for the Emperor

The ancient Romans liked an emperor who could take—and make—a joke. Their first emperor, Augustus, was particularly renowned for his sense of humor. In fact, even four centuries after his death, the scholarly Macrobius devoted several pages of his encyclopedia Saturnalia to a collection of Augustus’ bons mots, very much …

Et Tu, Cicero?

In 79 BCE, Pompey the Great—Republican Rome’s home-grown answer to the Greek Alexander—was upstaged by some elephants. He was celebrating his military victories in Africa with a triumphal procession through the streets of Rome. This was the nearest thing to heaven for a Roman general. Almost literally; for the triumph …