Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard – review

Written with Beard's customary intellectual assurance and wit, these essays make the archaic seem accessible and relevant

The blurb claims that Mary Beard's latest book offers "a provocative tour of what is happening now in classics – learned, trenchant and witty". This isn't just idle hype. The selection of essays that make up the book are written with all the intellectual assurance and wit for which Beard is known. Offering a sweeping selection of insights into ancient Greece and Rome, Beard makes the archaic seem accessible and relevant, slyly drawing parallels between contemporary society and everything from Cicero's oratory (still an invaluable guide for all would-be politicians) to the ancient Greek collection of jokes, the Philogelos, which Jim Bowen of Bullseye once performed as standup to great acclaim.

Beard, to her credit, doesn't attempt to disguise the fact that the book isn't an original collection of material, but instead a lightly edited compendium of book reviews she has produced over the past two decades. The classical expert will appreciate Beard's insights into such writers as the imaginative historian Peter Wiseman (a regular sparring partner of hers), and is likely to be familiar with many of the books cited and discussed. For them, this is going to be an important and useful work. For the lay reader, the memorable characters who appear, from Livia, the murderous and scheming wife of Augustus, to the insane emperor Caligula, offer the very classiest of entertainment and insight, offering a clear view of this strange world of violence and upheaval.

At the end, Beard claims that the point of book reviews is as "a basic quality-control mechanism – not a perfect one, I admit, but about the best we've got". She has nothing to fear. If you don't mind the faint sense of publisher opportunism, this is the perfect introduction to classical studies, and deserves to become something of a standard work in the future.


Alexander Larman

The GuardianTramp

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