The Roman Empire as eye-opener and the importance of antiquity

Dame Mary Beard


Is the study of antiquity old-fashioned or outdated? Far from it, says Dame Mary Beard of Cambridge University. She is one of the most famous classics scholars in the world, who has succeeded in popularizing the study of the humanities. And in the meantime, she also enriches debate on topical issues. Ghent University awards an honorary doctorate for her achievements.

Academics are not outside society, but in the middle of it, she believes. Mary Beard is also a prominent figure in the public debate through her blog A don’s life, books, BBC documentaries, etc. On her Twitter account @wmarybeard she often enters into a dialogue with people who have diametrically opposing views.

The fact that, as a fervent opponent of Brexit, she has had lunch with a UKIP politician to exchange views, typifies her adogmatic outlook on life.

Atypical academic

As an academic, too, she has followed an atypical path. Her open-mindedness has led to various publications that have provided new insights. How classics scholars study some historical texts today is largely down to her, emphasizes Professor Lieve Van Hoof (History Department): “I see your article on the letters of Cicero as revolutionary. You questioned the prevailing view. By reading the letters as they were transmitted through the manuscripts, you discovered what the intention was, what image Cicero wanted to put forward and what this said about the concerns of the people in the late Republic.”

The faculty of Arts and Philosophy, which nominated her as honorary doctor, strongly recognizes her commitment. Professor Koen Verboven (History Department): “Our faculty actively participates in the social debate. We strongly emphasize the importance of the human sciences. We are more than just entertainment, we make an important contribution to how our society views itself. Studying antiquity is still relevant because as individuals and as a society, we carry the legacy of those Greeks and Romans with us. In very bizarre ways sometimes. By looking back at the past, we can better understand today.”

Lieve Van Hoof responds: “Do we want to live in a society where we only choose things that are immediately useful? Or where we immediately notice their usefulness? The corona crisis has shown how strongly people long for culture: for theatre, for concerts, ...”.

Mary Beard
"Art and human sciences are needed to look at problems in a different way. To ‘frame’ them differently, as it were."
Honorary doctor Mary Beard

Research on women

Mary Beard: “It goes beyond that. Art and human sciences are needed to look at problems in a different way. To ‘frame’ them differently, as it were. When I was a student in the mid-70s, we hardly paid any attention to Roman women. Women were a niche subject. Studying women was seen as radical. That has completely changed today.”

In large part because of her contribution. “In the mid-70s, the ‘cool guys’ started doing research on women in antiquity (laughs). I found it interesting research to explore further, to discover for myself how I relate to the subject I’m studying as a woman and as a political being. That attitude led, among other things, to the publication of ‘Women & Power: a manifesto’.” The 2018 book was described by The Guardian as one of the ‘100 Best Books of the 21st Century’ and ‘A modern feminist classic’.

Antiquity as a mirror for today

Putting gender on the map as a research topic has not been her only contribution. “We have a different attitude to cultural diversity, to slavery or cruelty, racism ... It is a huge eye-opener to look at the Roman Empire and discover a world full of prejudices. Romans were not nice tolerant people, they hated foreigners as much as some do today. But they did not divide the world along racial lines. Entrenched racism was absent then.”

That therefore did not make the Romans better people, she stresses. “But they help us to see a world where prejudice was handled differently.”

Lieve Van Hoof: “When you read Greek or Latin texts, you are very removed from our contemporary world. But you learn to look from a different perspective. To understand the other person’s perspective without having to agree with it. This is what we teach our students and it’s one of our greatest contributions to society. And as academics, we must set an example in this.”

"It is a huge eye-opener to look at the Roman Empire and discover a world full of prejudices. But they did not divide the world along racial lines."
Honorary doctor Mary Beard

Debate on a higher level

Is it also a moral imperative that academics should participate in the public debate? Mary Beard: “Not necessarily for each individual academic, but for academia as a whole, I think so. Without wanting to dominate or control it. Know your place, be modest. I am convinced that academia can greatly enrich the debate.”

“Take the so-called ‘statue wars’. Should you remove statues of slave traders or not? The discussion on this is very polarized. The academic perspective can lift the debate to a higher level. By saying: shouldn’t we first look at what statues are for? What is their function in public space? At the end of the day, you may come to the same conclusion, but you will have provided more context, a broader vision.”

Keeping the dialogue open

It seems almost ironic that she is such a big fan of a channel like Twitter, which is notably polarizing. “It is certainly exhausting to be so active on social media,” she admits. “You often feel resistance from people who believe that academics in their ivory towers are know-it-alls. But that’s what I like about channels like Twitter, people come into direct contact with you and share their opinions. I don’t think anyone wants a world where everyone thinks the same.”

Lieve Van Hoof: “That’s what I love about Mary, she keeps the dialogue open. Even with people with whom you strongly disagree, or with people who insult you in a rude way. That is an essential task of the humanities.”

Koen Verboven adds: “In the department of History we organize — in normal times — a debate on current topics twice a year. Should we return collections from the former colonies or not? Is Zwarte Piet racist? That is how we keep our finger on the pulse. Our dean as well is committed to promoting the social importance of humanities in this and other ways. Fortunately for our faculty, the rector himself is very much on the same line. I notice that we have become much more present in recent years. That is a good and necessary evolution.”

The Roman Emperor in Trump

Mary Beard is currently writing new material. “I am currently working on a book to look at the Roman emperor in a different way. To find out what autocratic power meant in ancient Rome. It is not as if the past four years in the US have given me that idea (smiles). But of course, there is a link. Thinking about the nature of authoritarian power in ancient Rome is, for me, a way of looking for answers.”

Koen Verboven wants to know which emperor Trump resembles. Mary laughs: “Journalists ask me that question too. The real answer is that I don’t think he acts like a Roman emperor. But I always answer Elagabalus*. I don’t think he’s really like him, but it means that the journalist has to look him up. You could also call that educational education.” (general hilarity)

*Elagabalus, a third century emperor. Well worth looking up!

Dies Natalis 2021

In a unique, online edition of Dies Natalis, we awarded 8 exceptional honorary doctorates for their scientific and social achievements. For Dare To Think, the promotors and honorary doctors sat down for a (digital) conversation. Read their stories here.

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