Thank God for Mary Beard. Sure, she’s wrong about Jeremy Corbyn. She was wrong about 9/11. She’s wrong about plenty. But let’s talk about what matters. She’s right about Ancient Rome.
It’s rare to see Boris Johnson lose a popular vote. Last night, Beard trounced him at the Intelligence Squared Greece vs Rome debate, winning the day for Rome with a 9% swing. This was also a fundraiser for one of the most worthy educational charities I know: Classics for All encourages access to ‘elite’ classical subjects in state schools, teaching teens that you don’t have to be Bullingdon material to ‘get’ Boethius. So there was something uncomfortable, not just about Boris’ presence, but in the showbizzy nature of such a celebrity wrestling match, all this intellect as conspicuous consumption (2000 tickets flogged at £50, the price of looking cultured). It’s always fun, though, to see Boris put through his paces by a pro.
Defending Greece, Boris based his pitch on an idyll of liberal, democratic Athens (as Beard noted, he had less to say about Sparta). Boris may have a europhile background, but he’s been flashing increasing lengths of eurosceptic leg recently, in the direction of the Tory grassroots. Tonight we got more of the same: Rome, we are told, invented the idea of ‘pan-European’ hegemony, since advanced by Napoleon (boo!) and Brussels (double boo!) Mary Beard came in with the usual attacks on Athen’s faux-liberalism (trial of Socrates! massacre at Melos! they even made their women veil!)
But the real drive of her argument, and the reason she convinced, is that those of us who love Rome never shy away from its brutality, its filthy urbanism, the necessary realism of its poets. Inherent to Roman literature is the sheer pressure of human population on Rome’s city streets — a population peaking at a million, compared to classical Athens’ probable 400,000. As Beard has argued before, the buzzing imperial capital grew primarily out of Rome’s generous extension of citizenship rights, a calculated strategy to give conquered peoples a stake in the system. (No dig was resisted last night: ‘Athens under Pericles had such tight meaning of citizenship that I’m not even sure Boris would be British by their definition!’, Beard crowed. ‘And what we would have lost!’)
There’s something bitterly dangerous about people who imagine historical moments as philosophical ideas made flesh. (No wonder Boris approvingly quoted Sophocles, a playwright whose characters are philosophical positions pretending to be people). There’s a lack of honesty to it — our politicians are rarely abstract expressions of the best of our thought. Nor did orators on the Areopagus move like pawns in a computer game, enacting an algorithm of liberal democratic coding. Public historians, at their best, don’t make our understanding of the world simpler, but more complicated, more textured. So I was surprised to see that Beard’s appearance on Channel 4 news, immediately preceding the debate, caused outrage. When terrorists murder their own compatriots, carrying French or Belgian passports, it’s not unreasonable to suggest we talk in terms not just of ‘clash of civilisations’, but of civil war.
Of course, Greece v Rome is a simplistic dichotomy, foolish as any Twitter outrage. The two civilisations were always co-dependent. As both speakers flailed around trying to convince us that either was any good for women, Mary Beard introduced a satirical Roman poem, voiced by a fiesty, fantasy prostitute, and beautifully read by Niamh Cusack. She didn’t give us the name of the author, but I’m sure this was Thais’ letter to Euthydemus, from Alciphron’s Letters of the Courtesans. Is Alciphron a pinnacle of Roman culture? He was probably writing under Roman hegemony in the Second Sophistic, (there’s very little conclusive evidence about his life), but he was of course, writing in Greek. Cheating, Professor Beard? Perhaps just proof that drawing clear lines between civilisations is as foolish in the ancient world as it is for those today.