A don for the plebs

Professor Mary Beard doesn’t want to talk about the Roman upper classes

“If you ask kids to shut their eyes and imagine they are Romans,” says Mary Beard, “you can bet that 90% of them will think they are the emperor or empress.” (When Beard says kids, she means undergraduates.) “We still have a very upmarket engagement with Rome.”

Beard wants to liberate classics from the grip of the nobs. Not just the upper classes who, typically, study classics in fee-paying schools, but also the Roman upper classes upon whom they lavish attention.

To address this, Beard will be putting ordinary Romans before us for the next three weeks — with particular scrutiny of their sex lives, the food they ate and how they went to the lavatory. Her new three-part series on BBC2 will be much like Horrible Histories, but for grown- ups. And in person she takes a similar line: “I don't love Rome or Ancient Greece either,” she says to me at one point, “in the sense of ‘Would I like to live there?' . . . They had no aspirin!”

Each episode will look at different aspects of life for the Roman in the street, from “child brides to pushy parents, hairdressers to the ancient equivalent of the Asbo boys”, says Beard, resolutely a don for the plebs.

By her own account she is no ordinary television presenter. In her late fifties, she has (by her own account) uncompromisingly grey hair, crow's feet, tombstone teeth and hunched shoulders (“from all those misspent years poring over a library desk”). She used to be scared of looking like this, she says, but it doesn't seem to have done her any harm: “I've been very lucky. I've done things that, 20 years ago, I could hardly have dreamt of.”

Among her adventures that might make other academics feel envious was the lecture on things that made Romans laugh, broadcast as part of Comic Relief. (Her favourite jokes feature idiotic academics — such as the one who, on hearing that one of a pair of identical twins has died, asks the survivor: “So, who died — you or your brother?”)

Then there was the documentary she made about Pompeii, based on her own acclaimed book, which won a massive audience and a Bafta nomination.

Setting her looks to one side, she brings to the screen a passion for her subject, impeccable academic credentials — she is a professor of classics at Cambridge — and strong convictions. She first came to public attention when, soon after 9/11, she pronounced in the London Review of Books that many people thought America had it coming. This caused a huge storm. She has since walked through fire again by appearing on Question Time, before unruly children at Jamie Oliver's Dream School and on the internet, where her hugely successful blog, A Don's Life, has spawned not just one but now a second spin-off book.

We are talking at the cluttered kitchen table in her otherwise beautiful Cambridge house. At her elbow lies the laptop that she checks every so often for comments on her latest post.

She has blogged for years and she is good at it, using the forum to address things that for one reason or other might not be suitable for lectures, newspaper articles or television programmes: “It's is a nice way to reach a lot of people without dumbing down.”

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In her posts she frequently brings a classicist's eye to current events. She has argued that the Somali pirates might sensibly be treated as Pompey treated pirates in the Med (give them land to farm instead); compared favourably the Roman practice of appointing two people jointly to share high office with our own politics; and proposed Latin quotes for the announcements on London Underground, such as “nil desperandum” (don't despair). The blog's thousands of followers are not shy about joining in. “Cave hiatum” (mind the gap), suggested one in response to that Tube post. “Odi profanum vulgus et arceo,” said another, quoting Horace (I hate the common mob and keep them at arm's length).

This kind of engagement is far removed from the dusty, unworldly and bloodless classics stereotype. “Traditional British education has a lot to answer for,” she agrees. “Classics became a kind of shorthand for how dull things can be.”

There is no reason why it should be like that. When Beard was a student at the all-female Newnham College, one of her near-contemporaries was Caroline Lawrence, whose Roman Mysteries novels, set in the 1st century AD, are the children's literature equivalent of crack cocaine. (My daughter has read nothing else for six months.) Lawrence remembers Beard as a bit of a star. “If somebody had said Mary Beard is going to become famous, I would have believed it,” she says. “She can make the subject appeal to hoi polloi [there's a classicist's term for you].”

Beard and her husband, Robin Cormack have a daughter, Zoe, and a son, Raphael. They are grown up now, but when they were younger they taught her a lot about how to put things across.

A lot of books don't explain, they just assert, Beard says: “But most people are intelligent and want to know why and how we know things. You need to show something.”

One of the most astonishing things Beard shows in the new series is Monte Testaccio, a hill composed entirely of broken pots. Many contained olive oil, imported from Spain to feed Rome's rapidly growing population. It is this kind of thing, she says, that makes Rome more exciting even than Pompeii (“the equivalent of Saffron Walden”). Rome grew rapidly from almost nothing to a city of 1m people, many of them immigrants. There wouldn't be anything like it again until Victorian London: “The Romans had to work out how to do things on a vast scale.” One solution was to build public lavatories in which people sat beside each other and chatted. Beard tries one in the series.

Elsewhere, to convey daily life in Rome, she relies on the locals' tendency to graffiti everything (“I f***** the landlady”, reads one) and the inscriptions on their tombs — much more informative than ours today. Dead Romans tell you what job they used to do
and much more: “The kind of information that, today, you find out from people at parties.” One of her favourite monuments, overlooked by most on the tourist trail, is the tomb put up for a freed slave who did extremely well for himself as a baker. It's huge, with baker-ish motifs. “It shows a great deal of self-confidence,” says Beard. “People must have sneered at my baker and that's what I find so interesting. Would we have admired him or despised him? Do we admire or despise David Beckham? Would we like it if he put up a huge football boot as his tomb? We don't know whose side to be on. Roman life was just as complicated as ours.”

If it is made to appear simple, she says, that is partly because children study it when they are young as part of the national curriculum and don't come back to see how complex it was.

“Romans are presented as brutal conquerors, up against Asterix, but the best critiques of Rome were from Rome itself, like when Tacitus said of the invasion of Britain that ‘they make a desert and call it peace'.”

If awareness of this is to change, Latin and Greek must come out of their rich person's ghetto. “I'm not exactly Boris Johnson's greatest fan, politically, but he is doing a lot to help in this area,” Beard says of the London mayor. The Cambridge Schools Classics Project is helping too, she adds.

What about the government? “I suspect Mr Gove [Michael, the education secretary] is rather nostalgic about classics. And I'm all for rote learning: you can't learn Latin grammar any other way, you can't do it intravenously. But one of the successes of our education system in the past 50 years is that kids want to know why they have to do something. I can persuade people to do it, but they won't do it just because I say so.”

A lot has changed since Beard, as a student, discovered that great chunks had been edited out of her classics texts by prudish editors. Like many others, she was drawn to find out what had been cut — all the stuff about sex and lavatories that is now all anybody cares about.

Will it pall? Will people start to yearn for stodgy accounts of Roman politics? “I really hope so,” says Beard. “I hope that in 50 years people will complain about the way we study this today. But you have to enjoy your fashions while they last, because they mean something to you.

“I did a talk recently with children,” she adds (and this time she does not mean undergraduates). “Everything they asked was about the things we set out to answer in this programme. What was it like to be a child in Rome? Where did ordinary people live? What did they eat? That's the kind of thing that interests people now.”

First published in The Sunday Times (of London) 15 April 2012