Classics, the study of the literature, philosophy and history of the ancient Greek and Roman worlds, long occupied a foremost place in the western cultural and political imagination. It encompasses everything from the Greek epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey and the philosophers Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, to the rise of Athenian democracy, the fall of the Roman republic and the theatres, baths and libraries that the Romans left from Scotland to the Sahara. Dante drew on Virgil, Karl Marx on Aristotle. Political scientists still bandy about the term “Thucydides Trap”, named after the Greek historian, to describe how rising powers come into conflict with established ones.Mary Beard: ‘The ancient world is a metaphor for us’ | Financial Times
Beard, however, is far more than an advocate for the relevance of the ancient world. What has made her books and documentaries so refreshing is her scepticism: she is willing to demolish things long held as true about the ancients. She has also been part of the movement to expand Classics’ boundaries, leading early courses on women and the body, for example, when women — along with slaves, migrants and regions outside Italy and Greece — were marginalised by the mainstream. The Roman empire is a “history of people of colour”, she says. Another example is her focus on Rome’s evolving cosmopolitanism: she concludes SPQR, her history of Rome, with the grant of citizenship by the emperor Caracalla in AD212 to more than 30m people — men, of course — across the empire.