Clash of the titans: when Boris Johnson met Mary Beard

The debate brought out a series of old divides: Oxford vs Cambridge, Left vs Right. . . Greece vs Rome.

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The thousands shivering in a queue outside the Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, aren’t Adele fans or Corbynistas. They’re public school boys, City workers and Barbour-wearing couples up from the Home Counties, here to watch Boris Johnson and the academic Mary Beard debate that most heated of historical questions: Greece or Rome?

Of course, as Andrew Marr, the chair, points out at the start, the crowds are really here for a tussle between two intellectual titans fighting opposite corners: Oxford and Cambridge (the first Johnson’s alma mater, the second Beard’s professorial home); and, naturally, between right and left.

Politics soon rears its head. Boris makes the case for Greece, locating for us “the first example of meritocratic indignation” in a speech from Achilles, pointing out that there’s far more to admire in Athenian democracy than the Roman emperors’ dictatorial rule. He jibes the Greek ambassador, sitting at the front, praising “the marbles rescued, quite rightly, by Elgin”.

The Greeks, Johnson concludes, are “us” – living in a democracy, hopping on and off their chariots as we Londoners do our new Routemaster buses.

“Boris is a hard act to follow,” begins Beard, contradicting herself with a long list of corrections jotted down during his speech. She points out that while Athens entertained a limited form of democracy (men only, of course), it never darkened the doorsteps of the rest of Greece.

In her most decisive blow, Beard answers her opponent’s snubs of Roman literature with a line from a book by a “leading politician” claiming book four of Virgil’s Aeneid as “the best book of the best poem of the best poet”. The book, inevitably, is Johnson’s. The audience loves it: more enjoyable even than Johnson’s charismatic bluster is seeing that bluster trounced.

Rome wins the debate with 56 per cent of the audience vote, particularly impressive given that it lagged seven points behind Greece in a poll taken as we arrived. Beard is most convincing in her argument that Rome handed out citizenship to 50 million people in AD 212 (a nod to this year’s refugee crisis is clear) and laid the blueprints for modern urban living. Besides, as she points out, the Romans, as Greece’s conquerors, curated the Greek legacy: “We see the Greeks through Roman spectacles,” she says.

It was a fight worthy of the Colosseum – or, as Beard points out in one gloriously pedantic flourish, any one of the many arenas renovated by the Greeks for gladiatorial sport once they caught wind of the Roman trend. The Romans didn’t have the monopoly on brutality, it seems.

On one subject, at least, the pair agree: that is over the value of Classics in mainstream education. A portion of the steep £50 charged for each of tonight’s 2,200-odd tickets will go to Classics for All, a charity that funds the study of Latin and ancient Greek in state schools. As a state-educated plebeian with no grounding in the subjects at all, I leave unconvinced that dead languages and ancient history should top any educational shopping list. But if anyone can prove that the Classics are still relevant and anything but boring, then it’s these two.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State