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Mary Beard: “Learning to think should be destabilising”

The historian on eviscerating Boris Johnson, making students cry, and why classics is “not just for posh people”.  

By Rachel Cunliffe

When Mary Beard took aim at Boris Johnson, she shot to kill.

It was a 2015 debate on Greece vs Rome: Johnson, then mayor of London on the side of the Greeks, Beard the Romans. “The confession I have to make is that I was absolutely determined to win,” Beard admits, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “So I overprepared.” The Cambridge professor went back and watched every video she could find of Johnson talking about classics, noting the errors in his blustering generalisations about the ancient world and areas where he had a tendency to contradict himself.

On the night of the debate, she tore apart his broad-bush statements eulogising Athens, quoted his own praise of Roman literature back at him, and corrected him several times on facts he had got wrong. The audience loved it: Beard won 56 per cent of the vote.

The evening was a bit of fun to raise money for Classics for All, a charity that promotes the teaching of Latin and Greek in state schools. But Beard used a light-hearted topic with no political implications or emotive resonance to expose how vapid and full of holes Johnson’s “Oxford Union debate” style is. For once, people saw through it. “It’s partly because of the inconsequentiality of it that the audience saw quite clearly the nature of the Johnsonian argument, which is to say anything that will help you win the immediate point whether it’s right or not.”

Speaking to Beard is like going back in time: not to antiquity, but to years ago, when she taught me at Cambridge University. Back then, she wasn’t quite a national celebrity; her long grey hair and enthusiastic smile were not instantly recognisable. She hadn’t yet made Meet The Romans (2012), the BBC documentary that saw her savaged by AA Gill as an older woman on television and made her a household name, or been made a dame for services to the study of classics (2018).

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But Beard was already a campus celebrity in Cambridge, where she studied at Newnham College and where she taught ancient history for almost four decades. The lecture theatre was always packed whenever Beard tumbled into the room in her flamboyant trainers (the most eye-catching pair were fluorescent pink). She once had to move a lecture to a bank holiday Monday at 9am, an hour before the timetable officially started; attendance didn’t drop.

Beard, 68, retired from university teaching at the end of 2022. Her legacy is her work championing access to classics: she is funding two Cambridge scholarships for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, to show that classics is “not just for posh people”.

She is still advocating for ancient Rome: her new book, Emperor of Rome, explores its rulers from Julius Caesar onwards. It’s hardly unfamiliar territory, but Beard is much more interested in using these ruling figures to examine how the empire itself actually functioned. “These guys were more similar to each other than they were different,” she argues, pointing out that even Marcus Aurelius (emperor 161-180 AD) recognised autocracy through the ages as “the same play just a different cast. And I think that play rather than the cast, the play of what it is to be an autocrat in antiquity, is more interesting.”

[See also: How AE Stallings joined Oxford’s professor of poetry canon]

As a teacher, Beard encouraged students to question why ancient writers, from Thucydides to Tacitus, chose to include certain details in their histories. She warns her readers to be sceptical of the anecdotes she tells – dinner parties where guests were crushed to death by rose petals, the threat of a horse being made consul. The stories may or may not be true; we’ll never know and it doesn’t matter. “Those anecdotes are telling you something, but they’re telling you something about how to think about power.” The tagline “not just for posh people” could equally refer to the book: “It’s not only about the blokes at the very very top… it’s also about the slaves and the secretaries and the cooks and the people who made that system possible. It’s about the system.”

The first in her family to go to university, Beard arrived at Cambridge 50 years ago an ardent left-wing feminist full of fiery ideas about sex, class and Latin. When she joined the Cambridge classics faculty in 1984 she was the only female lecturer. Her rebellious streak never faded: I was shocked the first time she offered me wine in a supervision (it was 4pm – I accepted); a friend recalls an introductory meeting during which Beard reclined on the sofa, put up her feet, and began: “So, Cicero. Bit of a twat, wasn’t he?”

The list of controversies to her name is long. Just after the 11 September attacks, she wrote in the London Review of Books of the “feeling that, however tactfully you dress it up, the United States had it coming. That is, of course, what many people openly or privately think.” (Today she maintains she was right to say what she did, but accepts she could have found a better, less inflammatory way to say it.) She has come under fire for expressing “nostalgia” for “the erotic dimension of pedagogy” (with regards to a mid-century classics academic who had a reputation for sexual harassment). She has also talked frankly about being raped as a student and written sceptically about the #MeToo movement; her brand of classics often flirts with the culture wars. There is a lot for cancel culture to sink its teeth into.

“Maybe I am partly cancelled,” she reflects. “Maybe there are people around the world who say don’t read this book by Mary Beard.” But overall, she finds that when she’s the subject of abuse online, she’s often able to have a productive conversation with her trolls. Does being the centre of controversy bother her? “I’m an old-fashioned girl and I think that learning to be tough, learning to be a bit resilient, is wholly to the good.”

That puts her somewhat at odds with younger generations, though she accepts “it would be terrible to imagine a world in which everybody who was 28 thought exactly the same as their parents”. But Beard has noticed a change since she arrived at Cambridge in how universities are expected to treat the young adults who attend them, protecting them from experiences they might find harmful.

Students, she argues, should be challenged. “Learning to think can be very uncomfortable, very destabilising. And in some ways it has to be destabilising… Arguments have rough edges.” We reminisce about the supervisors who brought us to tears in pushing us to think harder. The point, she argues, is not whether a teacher might sometimes make a student cry (she admits she has done on occasion), but that the student feels that the teacher is on their side so the encounter, however challenging, can be a positive learning experience. “It’s always men and de,” she says – a Greek grammatical construction meaning “on the one hand, on the other hand” (something I did not expect to be quizzed on more than a decade after graduating). “That binary – should you be tough with students or should you be more supportive – that isn’t the issue… There’s a difference between supporting students and always being ostensibly very nice to them.”

With arguments raging over the value of humanities degrees, classics needs its ambassadors. Beard has “millions of arguments” about why Virgil and Homer are relevant to life today (“put the penny in the slot and you’d get them”). But even more valuable than the texts themselves are the tools students gain by reading and discussing them – tools that are “absolutely fundamental in responsible democratic discourse”. 

“It teaches you to argue responsibly on the basis of inadequate evidence… to talk constructively about questions that have no answers,” she says. Students can then apply these skills to far thornier present-day political issues, such as Brexit. “There wasn’t enough information to know whether Brexit could be a success or not. But there are ways that you could think about how you can productively argue about that in order to arrive at a better place.” 

The ancient world can also provide a “safe space” to consider contentious topics constructively. To introduce schoolchildren to concepts of free speech, Beard turned not to anti-vaxxers or rows over JK Rowling’s views on trans rights, but to the trial of Socrates.  

“It’s really interesting talking to kids when you say: let’s go back 2,500 years, we’ve got the same issues,” Beard says, pointing out that Socrates was executed because what he said was considered so dangerous. “You get a much more productive kind of discussion. Socrates is dead and gone, we can’t do anything to hurt him now. He’s ours, we can use him as we like. It takes the emotion out.” (Arguing responsibly, taking the emotion out of politics… I wonder how Boris Johnson would have fared as Beard’s student.)

“The process of saying what do we think is going on here,” Beard says, reclining on the sofa like she’s back in a supervision room, “that is what a democracy needs.”

[See also: Latin and Greek are not just for the elite]

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This article appears in the 27 Sep 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Right Power List