The world is in a state of upheaval at the moment, and we’re all looking for things to make us feel less anxious. Maybe Classics can help.
Today’s interview is with Mary Beard
Is there a source from the ancient world that you find yourself coming back to when you want to feel better?
I am not sure that there is a single one, or that much of classical culture etc. makes me feel ‘better’ in the way that a good movie does! But if I was to choose an object, it would probably be the so-called ‘Tomb of the Baker’ in Rome. This is a wonderfully self-confident tomb in the shape of a bread oven, to commemorate a rich but definitely not-posh baker. The hutzpah always makes me smile (there is even a sculpted frieze showing not mythological battles, but work in the bakery).
As for a work of literature, it would have to be the Odyssey.
When did you first come across the Odyssey?
I knew some of the stories from it when I was very young, from what must have been a ‘Tales of Ancient Greece’ book. But I first came across it in Homer’s version when I was at high school. I was lucky enough to learn Greek at school… and the Circe book (Book 10) was one of the first bits of real Greek I read, aged about 14.
Can you tell me a bit about the Odyssey and its context?
The Odyssey I suppose counts as the second earliest work of western literature, going back to the 8th century BC. Whatever its origins in ‘bardic performance’, in the form that has come down to us, it is an extraordinarily sophisticated text weaving together two different stories: the long homecoming of Odysseus after the Trojan War and the fate of his family as they wait back in Ithaca. It includes some of the most memorable (and most reworked) episodes in Greek literature – Odysseus’ cruel encounter with the Cyclops, or the sorceress Circe turning Odysseus’ men into pigs (a story recently told from Circe’s point of view by Madeline Miller).
What is it about the Odyssey that appeals to you most?
Its brilliant complexity and self-awareness. Take the episode with the Cyclops, for example. It really undermines our certainty about the very definition of ‘civilisation’. Is it simply a clash between the heroic Odysseus and the barbarous cannibal? Or should we be calling into question quite how heroic the trickster Odysseus is? It is no surprise, I think, that this part of the Odyssey, in particular, has been seen as an uncomfortable model for the colonial encounter.
And finally… what do you do, outside of Classics, to cheer yourself up?
As I said, it is a good movie for me.
Mary Beard is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge; and author of SPQR and Women and Power. She is presenting a new series of Front Row Late on BBC2 from 16 April at 11.30 pm. Under current restrictions, she is presenting from her study at home (and is also standing in as camera person, sound engineer, floor manager and make-up artist). Wish her luck.
Check out, too, the BBC Titian documentary from last weekend, in which Mary Beard talks about Titian and Ovid.