A shorter version was originally published on Blogcritics
Mary Beard is pretty well public intellectual of the year, after her spirited performance on Question Time, and strong-minded reaction to the flood of misogynist vitriol she received as a result. I was really looking forward to her new Confronting the Classics, but I was a little disappointed on opening it to find a little-edited collection of book reviews.
As I got into the book, however, on a long train journey from Madrid to London – appropriately a swoop through a large expanse of the Roman Empire – my disappointment vanished. Sure the loose thesis that ties it all together – really we can know little of the actual lives of the Ancients, and often what we say has more to do with our “life and times” than their’s – is hardly earth-shattering.
But the ascetic wit and brutal honesty we expect from Beard shines through (she’s an entirely fair reviewer, but doesn’t pull punches or suffer foolish theses gladly) – commenting on Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica, she notes that the fiction writer of a series about the leader, Manda Scott “comes over as something of a nutter: ‘she now practices and teaches shamanic dreaming and spirituality’ and ‘she firmly believes her subject was given to her by the spirits’ … After this warning… The third volume of her series, comes as a relief (or at least the spirits we sensible enough to finger someone who could write”. (P. 156)
And Beard provide some fascinating details that we do know of ancient lives, and some great anecdotes that we don’t but are worth reading anyway,some supplied by the reviewees, some by Beard herself.