Book Review: ‘Confronting the Classics’ by Mary Beard

I may be a student of English rather than classics, but I’ve loved learning about the ancient cultures of Greece and Rome ever since I went to the Roman baths in Bath about 10 years ago, so I was very happy to receive Mary Beard’s book, ‘Confronting the Classics’ on Christmas Day. The cover image, a statue’s head sporting fetching red sunglasses, catches the eye immediately, and sits above the book’s bold description: ‘A provocative tour of what is happening now in Classics – learned, tranchant and witty’.

The irony of this review is that every chapter in the book is entirely based on one of Beard’s own book reviews that have been written in her career as an academic and as the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement. The book is divided into sections – Ancient Greece, Heroes and Villains of Ancient Rome, Imperial Rome, Rome from the Bottom Up, and Arts and Cultrue; Tourists and Scholars – and each of these sections contains several chapters, each dealing with a different sup-topic and focusing on a book concerning that subject.

Most of the books have been written in the last 10 years or so, and all have been written or edited by academics, but some of the books are pushing the boundaries of what I would consider the ‘now’ of classics. That said, I like the approach that Beard has taken, and by choosing a different book for each chapter she ensures that the book is full of opinions and voices other than her own. Many of the books chosen are biographies of famous figures from Greece and Rome, but there are other types as well, such as a Dictionary of Classics and a commentary on Thucydides’ histories. The overall result is the broad look at the academic field that the book promises.

As for the writing style, it’s certainly very readable. Beard avoids overusing academic jargon, adapting her reviews for a wider audience, and there are the aforementioned moments of wit. The text is quite small, which can make the book seem a bit dense at times, but at 285 pages long it’s by no means a whopper. Whilst I read it over three or four days, there’s also nothing to stop someone picking it up every now and then over a longer period or time to read a chapter or two, and on reflection this is what I’ll probably do if I come back to it again.

The main downside of this book, for me, is more a matter of personal opinion. Only the first of the five sections deals with ancient Greece, whilst the other four deal with Rome, and I would have liked to have seen more space given to the former. There are certainly big aspects that don’t get a look in. It would have been nice to see a bit more about epic poems and tragic plays, either focusing on the translation/performance of these (though the performance of plays post 1900 is addressed in one chapter), or on the lives of the people who wrote them (a chapter on the theories of Homer’s identity, for example, would have been good). However this is just a matter of my personal preference, and it may be the case that Beard feels more comfortable talking about Rome than Greece anyway, which is fair enough.

The other point for this book is its accessibility. I’m not going to call this a positive or a negative because it could be seen as either. If you are buying this book as an introduction to the subject you’re going to be disappointed. Whilst Beard doesn’t go fully into academic mode there seems to be an assumption of some familiarity with the topics that she’s discussing. For me, A level Classics and some other prior knowledge was essential in following what she was going on about in some of the chapters (for example, it helped that I already knew a bit about what the Minoan language, Linear B, was, and that I had read one of Tacitus’ books). I’m not saying that it’s impossible to enjoy this book as a complete newcomer to the subject, but I think the people who enjoy it most will be those who have either studied Classics in the past or who are reasonably well read in the area before coming to this book.

I hesitate to call this a negative because it means that as someone who has studied Classics previously I get to learn a lot that’s new, rather than rehashing things that I already know. I found the majority of it very, very interesting in the light of what I already know and was glad of the opportunity to think about some of the topics again after leaving them on the side since leaving sixth form. I would definitely recommend this book to, for example, certain friends from my Classics A level class, as I know there’s a lot in it that would interest them. But would I recommend it to someone who wants to start learning about the subject? No.

On the whole, this is a very well written, engaging book that should appeal to people who already know a little bit about the subject. It can feel a bit dense at times, and Beard possibly focuses on Rome too much over Greece, but for what the book sets out to achieve, it achieves admirably.

My rating: 7/10

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