An interview with Mary Beard

March 2022, no. 440

An interview with Mary Beard

March 2022, no. 440

Mary Beard is one of the world’s leading classicists and cultural commentators. She is professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. Her most recent book is Twelve Caesars (2021).


If you could go anywhere tomorrow, where would it be, and why?

That has a very particular resonance as we approach what we all hope might be the beginning of the end of Covid. I can’t wait to get back to Rome. I’m currently writing a very different book on Roman emperors from Twelve Caesars, looking back to the ancient world itself and trying to think harder about what life was really like for them: what they did all day, etc. So, I really want to get to Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli again soon.

What’s your idea of hell?

A walking holiday! 

What do you consider the most specious virtue?

It has to be ‘sincerity’. It’s not that I want to advocate ‘insincerity’ as such, but I dislike the way we let bad arguments off the hook on the grounds that that they are sincerely held!

What’s your favourite film?

Usually it’s the last one I enjoyed. But if I was choosing one for my ‘desert island’, and allowing myself a bit of sentimentality, I think I would go for Casablanca.

And your favourite book?

That really is impossible!

Name the three people with whom you would most like to dine.

I am afraid this is for curiosity value (it would probably make for a dreadful party and some terrible table manners): Boudica, the famous British rebel against the Romans; Mary Wollstonecraft; and any Roman slave you could persuade to come along and tell us about antiquity from their point of view.

Which word do you most dislike, and which one would you like to see back in public usage?

I can’t stand the word ‘woke’, whether it is used as a compliment or an insult (though full disclosure: I do use it myself!). I would bring back the adjective ‘Vitellian’ after the Roman emperor Vitellius, to mean a particularly sumptuous banquet.

Who is your favourite author?

There are too many to list. But I am very conscious that I was drawn into the Roman world by reading the second-century ce historian Tacitus, who analysed the early Roman empire. I vividly remember, when I was at high school, reading his biography of his father-in-law, Agricola. There, in the mouth of one of Rome’s enemies, he describes the effects of Roman conquest on the conquered: ‘they make a desert,’ he wrote, ‘and call it peace’. I don’t think anyone has summed up empire better.

And your favourite literary hero or heroine?

From my childhood, I have a huge soft spot for Jane Eyre. She taught me to admire wry resilience. 

Which quality do you most admire in a writer?

Taking infinite care with the words. I admire writing where every word is in the right place, and where the prose ‘works’, whether it is on the page or read out loud. That takes time (I don’t believe that good writing is ever quick). Take a look at Philip Pullman or Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie if you want to know what I mean.

Which book influenced you most in your youth?

When I was a student, the books of Moses Finley taught me that it was possible to work on the ancient world and to be politically engaged.

Name an early literary idol or influence whom you no longer admire – or vice versa.

I used to be very keen on Iris Murdoch novels. It’s not that I don’t admire them any longer, but I don’t admire myself for admiring them. Too much upper-class adultery.

Do you have a favourite podcast?

There are some great history ones: Dan Snow’s ‘History Hit’, or Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook’s ‘The Rest Is History’.

What, if anything, impedes your writing?

Twitter and email. I am very easily distracted,

What qualities do you look for in critics, and which ones do you enjoy reading?

Expertise and wit. I like them to see more in, and about, the book than I could. There are a handful of reviewers whom I would read no matter what they were reviewing. Ferdinand Mount is one.

How do you find working with editors?

I feel so grateful to the editors I have worked with. They have saved me from any number of errors and infelicities.

What do you think of writers’ festivals?

I have had great fun at many festivals – the less posh they are, the more I like them. 

Are artists valued in our society?

Valued? Yes. Adequately remunerated? No.

What are you working on now?

I am writing a (sort of) sequel to SPQR. The book takes the story a bit later, but more to the point it looks at the figure of the Roman emperor (which I didn’t much do in SPQR). I am trying to stand back from the usual biographical format, one ruler after the next, with their anecdotal idiosyncrasies. I’m looking at what emperors in general were all about.

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