A Conversation with Professor Dame Mary Beard on Feminism, Philanthropy, and the Future of Classics

A Conversation with Professor Dame Mary Beard on Feminism, Philanthropy, and the Future of Classics

  • Mary Beard

Renowned Cambridge Classics Professors Mary Beard and Simon Goldhill will be appearing at an event held by Cambridge in America and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on September 21. Click here for more details.

A Conversation with Professor Dame Mary Beard on Feminism, Philanthropy, and the Future of Classics
By Melissa Peche

Dame Mary Beard, Professor in the Faculty of Classics and Fellow of Newnham College, has been called the world’s most famous classicist. She spoke with us about her career, her emergence as a feminist icon, and the role of philanthropy in classics, as she approaches her retirement on September 30, 2022.


What inspired you to pursue Classics as an academic discipline, and also as a profession?

I’ve only a very boring answer to that, which is that I was very good at Latin and Greek as a high-school student. When you’re good at things, you concentrate on them, and you get even better. On some level, that’s the true answer.

On the other hand, I think that misses something. Ever since I was a kid, I was excited by ancient things. When I was five, my mum took me to the British Museum. We visited the “Everyday Life in Egypt Room” because I liked mummies. At the back of this very high, grownup case, there was a piece of 4,000-year-old carbonized Egyptian cake. I knew I had to see it. My mum tried to hold me up, but struggled, as we had bags with us. It was a complete mess. At that point, a curator walked by with some keys. He opened the case and brought the cake out for me. That man changed my life, really – he started me thinking that the ancient world was (A) something you could explore and (B) people could help you. People could open cases for you. That was very meaningful. I hope I’ve opened a few cases in my time.

How have you seen the field of classics evolve since you started in your career?

It has changed dramatically. There are some basic skills that remain important, for instance, reading Latin and Greek. But just to give one example, when I was a student, it was really all about men—male politicians in the ancient world, battles, and a little bit of economic history. Now the idea that you could teach the ancient world from an entirely male point of view just seems unbelievable. 

Some of the very difficult debates that people have been having about binary and nonbinary sexuality have made me think differently about my teaching and especially about ancient Greece and Rome. Because the past is always engaging with the present, I see that the debates that we’re having today about binary sexuality were there in the ancient world. It’s just that we didn’t recognize them, because we were never taught to recognize them. I’m looking at different ways to think about sexuality and that is reflected in what I do and what I say and what I teach about antiquity.

We are also starting to see that that the ancient world was not totally white. The Roman Empire was multicultural and that has been much more stressed recently. Studying Greece and Rome means not only studying Italy and mainland Greece, but Egypt and other areas, and even Italy and mainland Greece were a lot more mixed than we imagine. I think that’s very important.

Why is the study of classics still important today? 

Look, I’m not a hardliner who insists that everyone should study it, but I want it to be an option for people. I want it to be an option because it helps you think about now as well as the ancient world. It helps you reflect on ‘us’ and what we’re doing, as well as what happened in the past.

Let me give one example of that. What’s the first work of western literature? Homer’s Iliad. How does the Iliad start? With a plague. It starts with a pandemic. Much of western culture is founded on plagues and pandemics. We’ve been debating it and wondering about it for 2 ½ thousand years, at least. It’s about how you think about world pandemics. Oedipus Rex -- in some ways the most famous Greek tragedy – how does it start? A plague.

This is not to say that the classical world has solutions to our modern problems. It doesn’t, and there are no off-the-peg solutions. But classics helps you look onto the world in a different way; it shows some of the reasons why you think as you do. It offers a framework for discussing and understanding what’s happening.

Over the past year, it’s been extremely interesting getting together with alumni of very different career trajectories. It’s a selective group obviously, but people in the media, medicine, banking, finance, and the law. 95% agree that what was crucial about their classics degree is that it helped them to think differently.


You’ve emerged as a feminist icon and role model for women. How did this come about? 

It really started when I wrote Women & Power: A Manifesto. My mum was a feminist and I’ve always defined myself that way, but I never thought about being public about it until I was asked to do some lectures for the London Review of Books. The editor chose the title “The Public Voice of Women” and I agreed to it. And that got me particularly interested in women’s voices and how women were heard, all from the point of view of someone who works on antiquity. I was lucky that it hit a chord, although I hadn’t exactly planned that.

What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in academia as a woman?

Being able to speak at a seminar was my biggest challenge. People don’t believe me when I say this, because right now, I feel confident to speak (some people might say too confident!).  But for the first 10 to 15 years of my academic career, I would go to seminars, which I would enjoy and get a lot out of, but when it came to the discussion afterward—which can be where academic reputations are made and lost—I could never get my point in. It was the same for a lot of other women. It felt as though we were in a strange and foreign world; we had lot to say but couldn’t speak the language. Eventually, somehow, the penny dropped and I did find a way of doing it, though I’m still not sure exactly how.

Any idea on what might have changed for you?

One thing was that I stopped bothering to be fluent in “their” language. I thought: I will say it my way. I wasn’t going to pretend to be a man; I would be myself. I think that helped hugely. This may sound a bit romantic (all about personal authenticity), and it’s not meant to sound like a self-help guide, but I think for a long time I was pretending. I thought that academic success rested on being “not me.” But I discovered that it actually rested on being “me”. In some ways, that was the turning point.

What advice might you give to women—or anyone—navigating a career today?

I think that you have to find a voice that works for you. I don’t think anyone can give you a template for this. There isn’t a magic bullet that will solve it. But when you find out how you can speak in a way that you are happy with, then you’ve won.

I find this in writing, as well as in speaking and television. It gives you confidence. Sometimes you say stupid things; the fact that you’re speaking authentically doesn’t mean that you’re being intelligent. Sometimes it doesn’t. But I tell you, it’s a lot nicer to say something stupid when it’s you, than to say something stupid when you’re pretending to be somebody else. Feeling ok about being wrong is terribly important.

I feel particularly pleased when people come up and want copies of my books signed for their daughters—but also when they want copies signed for their sons. It’s quite moving really. If feminism has a point, which it does, it’s about making things better for men also. It’s about making things better for everyone. Still today, you can walk by a playground and hear someone tell a boy who has fallen down that strong boys shouldn’t cry. And they’re meaning to be helpful! Feminism has to be partly about rescuing men from themselves.


What challenges do you see ahead for the field of classics?

I think lately there has been a broad attack on the humanities. There is a sense that an education is an instrument for getting a career, and that you judge an education’s success by what salary your graduates earn. My argument would be that a classics education helps you to think differently. The degree is about thinking outside the box; it’s about thinking about hard things and getting to the point where you don’t even know where to go in your head. It isn’t easy. But those kind of skills—and I think they are skills—are undervalued. 
I think my worst nightmare is that classics will go back to being like it was in the early 20th century, which is something that you only do if you’re posh. Probably male, certainly white. And we’ve got to stop that.  

What is your hope for the Faculty of Classics in the future? What kind of role can philanthropy play in that?

My ambition is that classics should always matter. Philanthropy could play a hugely important role in this. I believe part of ensuring that the study of Classics endures is the ability to attract new constituencies. We now offer a full linguistic training course for students who don’t have the languages when they come to Cambridge. We will teach you Latin and Greek, from scratch, in an extra year. It has been hugely successful. Some of the people who have the best first-class degrees this year have taken these courses. But it’s very expensive—for both the students and our faculty. If we want classics to be more diverse in every way, we need money to support that new aspect of the program. 

We also have a hugely successful master’s course, bringing in people from all over the world to do a one-year program in classics. Some of them go on to do PhD work, some don’t, but again the cost is huge for students from outside the UK. If we want to continue to be a global center for classics, and we want to classics to reflect the diversity of the world, then we have to accept the brightest and the best, regardless of their background or financial situation. 

What do you see as being your legacy at Cambridge?

It’s very hard. Because your legacy is up to other people to decide. I think that over my career, I have done a lot to change things in the Faculty and its curriculum. Some of the things we now take for granted, for instance, studying the history of classics—which was actually frowned upon previously—is now part of the degree. I feel proud to have been part of changing that.

What do you see in the next phase of your career? 

At the moment, I’m finishing a book about Roman emperors. I’m going to do some television. I’m giving so many lectures! The aim was—just occasionally—to put my feet up but I won’t be doing that soon. Cambridge is very good to people in my position in that I can still be part of the community, use the library, attend seminars. When I walk out the door on September 30, my feeling is I’ll still have a community I’ll be a part of, but in a different way.