Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations [NOOK Book]

Overview

One of the world’s leading historians provides a revolutionary tour of the Ancient World, dusting off the classics for the twenty-first century.


Mary Beard, drawing on thirty years of teaching and writing about Greek and Roman history, provides a panoramic portrait of the classical world, a book in which we encounter not only Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Hannibal, but also the common people—the millions of inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the slaves, ...
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Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations

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Overview

One of the world’s leading historians provides a revolutionary tour of the Ancient World, dusting off the classics for the twenty-first century.


Mary Beard, drawing on thirty years of teaching and writing about Greek and Roman history, provides a panoramic portrait of the classical world, a book in which we encounter not only Cleopatra and Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar and Hannibal, but also the common people—the millions of inhabitants of the Roman Empire, the slaves, soldiers, and women. How did they live? Where did they go if their marriage was in trouble or if they were broke? Or, perhaps just as important, how did they clean their teeth? Effortlessly combining the epic with the quotidian, Beard forces us along the way to reexamine so many of the assumptions we held as gospel—not the least of them the perception that the Emperor Caligula was bonkers or Nero a monster. With capacious wit and verve, Beard demonstrates that, far from being carved in marble, the classical world is still very much alive.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
This collection comprises a decade's worth of Beard's (classics, Univ. of Cambridge; The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found) book reviews, mostly from the Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books, plus one lecture not previously published. Owing to her characteristic friendly yet probing style, Beard is well known as a popularizer of classical studies. These reviews are ideal for providing a basic understanding of classical studies, as they not only pinpoint the strengths and weaknesses of the books she reviews but also elucidate the sometimes tricky nuances of current approaches in the field. Of course, much of the content is specific to the books being reviewed, but the work follows a chronological arrangement, with the first section on ancient Greece, the next on early Rome, the third on Imperial Rome, and so forth, with later pieces focusing on the classicists themselves across the subsequent centuries. Therefore the book lends itself well to reading straight through, rather than being read as a disjointed collection. VERDICT Not to be missed by fans of Beard, this will also appeal to readers generally interested in classical studies. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]—Margaret Heller, Domincan Univ. Lib., River Forest, IL
Publishers Weekly
Offering up 30 years of pointed insights and inquisitions, Cambridge classics professor Beard (The Fires of Vesuvius) returns with a collection of primarily reprinted reviews of her classicist peers’ work that somehow manages to touch on nearly every notable person, place, and event associated with the Ancient world. But for Beard, while the classics have always been a dialogue with the dead, “the dead do not include only those who went to their graves two thousand years ago.” Rather, “the study of the Classics is the study of what happens in the gap between antiquity and ourselves.” It’s the back-and-forth sparring between betweeded Oxford dons, it’s Picasso and Shakespeare, it’s Ben-Hur and Gladiator—it’s anything that engages in or, as the wonderful title suggests, confronts that gilded and gargantuan Greco-Roman world. So, the chapter about King Minos’s legendary palace is much more concerned with how and why Arthur Evans decided to elaborately, and disastrously, restore the site in the early 20th century. The discussion of Cleopatra turns around history’s ever-changing, mostly guessing portrait, and ends with Beard finally advising that we just “stick with the Augustan myth and Horace’s ‘demented queen.’” And then there’s her fascinating, gentle dig at the “obsessive, retiring Victorian academic” Charles Frazer. All in all, a smart, adventuresome read. Illus. & photos. (Sept.)
Booklist
“In this thought-provoking collection of essays and book reviews, Cambridge classicist Mary Beard explores the reasons that ancient Greece and Rome still matter…. Lively and engaging, Beard’s scholarship brings Pericles, Antony, Nero—and other ancient titans—back to life.”
A.E. Stallings - American Scholar
“Many of us studied classics not only to read what was written in Latin, but also because poets, writers, and thinkers had blazed a brilliant trail. Beard conveys in her survey of the subject and the people who study it the excitement and romance of that tradition. For someone who has argued vehemently against the need to be glamorous, she makes the study of classics irresistibly attractive.”
Nick Romeo - The Daily Beast
“Beard’s essays in this volume range from humor in ancient Greece to the reputation of the emperor Caligula to the restoration of Roman sculpture. She writes with grace and wit on a vast array of subjects, and she has a novelist’s gift for selecting odd and revealing details.”
The Economist
“Engaging…impressive… Through her lively discussion of modern scholarship, Ms. Beard succeeds in her goal of proving that study of the Classics is “still a ‘work in progress’ not ‘done and dusted’."”
Independent Sunday (UK)
“Beard is the best…communicator of Classics we have.”
Sunday Times (UK)
“Witty, erudite collection…To Beard, the classical past is alive and kicking—and she has the great gift of being able to show just why classics is still a subject worth arguing about.”
Sunday Telegraph (UK)
“Highly engaging.”
Daily Telegraph (UK)
“With such a champion as Beard to debunk and popularise, the future of the study of classics is assured.”
M. Carter - The Wall Street Journal
“Essayists are like dinner guests: The best are amusing and erudite, the worst think they are. If Cambridge professor Mary Beard's conversation is anything like her wise and elegant book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books, 31 of which are collected in Confronting the Classics, she must be very popular indeed…. Throughout, readers will learn something new or look at familiar topics afresh, alternately nodding and grinning.”
M. Carter - Wall Street Journal
“Essayists are like dinner guests: The best are amusing and erudite, the worst think they are. If Cambridge professor Mary Beard's conversation is anything like her wise and elegant book reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, London Review of Books and New York Review of Books, 31 of which are collected in Confronting the Classics, she must be very popular indeed…. Throughout, readers will learn something new or look at familiar topics afresh, alternately nodding and grinning.”
Kirkus Reviews
This collection by Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, 2008, etc.) provides a traditional classical education, and there's no need to learn a dead language. Not only do the pieces illustrate the author's extensive knowledge of all things ancient, but they could also serve as a guide to writing highly literate book reviews. Beard's clear way of explaining times and people we may or may not have heard of makes learning not only fun, but satisfying, and her prose style is easy without being annoyingly breezy. She examines books on the decline of Latin and Greek studies and wonders why we bother reading about their decline when we really don't care about them anyway. By definition, classics are in decline, she notes, since they're about the art, culture, history and philosophy of the ancient world; yet, as we see in one excellent section of this book, constantly changing views and new translations keep interest alive. Among the other topics treated with enjoyable erudition: our fascination with Alexander the Great, in a version created by Rome; Cleopatra, more Greek than Egyptian; and Mark Antony, a foolish drunk. Beard also decries the difficulty of translating Thucydides and Tacitus, reveals that most of Cicero's writing was part of a single legal case and introduces us to Philogelos' joke book from A.D. 400. (Some things are always funny.) Beard's reviews confirm her knowledgeable professionalism as she decries the conjectures of biographers who write "careful ancient history," hedging all their bets with weaselly phrases such as "would have," "no doubt" and "presumably." While we're at it, we learn that the ancients weren't that great; they just had good spin doctors. Remember, the winner always writes the history. A top-notch introduction to some fairly arcane material, accessible but not patronizing.
The Barnes & Noble Review

That the review is being written means the book has been finished, which is a shame. You want it to go on, like 1001 Nights, to keep delivering the pleasures of an entertainment that lifts you to higher ground. So read it again. Read it from start to finish, or finish to start, or inside out — for this collection of Mary Beard's book reviews can be consumed in the order you wish and nourish you time and again with insights and provocations you missed the first few times through. These are Book Reviews among book reviews: incisive rather than mean, exacting but not prim, generous with acuity, as inviting as Robert Frost's "The Pasture," and blessed with a good storyteller's instinctive connection to the audience.

Confronting the Classics showcases Beard's familiarity with antiquity, its thoroughfares and back alleys, or at least what can be known of them, for Beard will be the first to admit that much can't. That doesn't mean there is no place for conjecture, it just needs to have footing. There are elemental rules at play: do the research, appreciate what you can of the surrounding circumstances, join the dots, and if you have something new to add, make it work. Otherwise, hope Beard doesn't review your book.

It is not that Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge and the classics editor at the Times Literary Supplement, is always serious. She has a bright humor to complement her rangy curiosity and razory skepticism; a dose of playfulness and mirth inhabit the obvious feeling of joy she finds in her work. On the other hand, in her view certain essentials are at stake in the study of antiquity. Of course if we can find a way to make the ancient world make sense to us, it might help us better understand our world. But there is something more fundamental than that, something that touches on loss and longing: "the terrifying fragility of our connections with distant antiquity...the fear of the barbarians at the gates and that we are simply not up to the preservation of what we value."

But although our links to it might be ever tenuous, for Beard antiquity is never far away. Aristophanes, Boadicea, Thucydides, Cicero, Korinna, and the "bit-part emperors" may have lived thousands of years ago, but we have held an abiding engagement with them and their classical world, and we have engaged with our predecessors' engagement with the classics, all that has happened in the space between antiquity and ourselves. "It would be impossible now to understand Dante without Virgil, John Stuart Mill without Plato, Donna Tartt without Euripides, Rattigan without Aeschylus." Sever the classics from the modern world and it "would mean bleeding wounds in the body of Western culture."

Some of the reviews here are demolitions. Shoddy scholarship gets straightforwardly called out: "[Vanessa] Collingridge seems to have done quite a lot of her research by long-distance phone calls or steaming around the country talking to 'experts,' " she writes of Boudica. Of T. P. Wiseman's Remus, A Roman Myth: "A whole series of Roman plays are concocted out of next to no evidence at all, and then made into major agents in the transmission of the myth." Of David Mattingly's estimate of 100,000 to 250,000 killed out of a population of 2 million during the Roman conquest of Britain: "Sounds bad. But where on earth do these figures come from? There is no good evidence whatsoever for either." Of Anthony Birley's chronology of Hadrian: "These are harmless enough questions: the problem is that there is virtually no evidence from which to answer most of them." That's the nub: Ask a question with a shot at an answer, then follow, if any, its trail of crumbs. Show Beard the money: "If the splendor of the show seems almost beyond belief, that is most likely because it is not to be believed."

She also finds plenty to laud in a number of the books. Credit goes where credit is due, and Beard finds in others' intelligence a synergy that ignites her own. Something is always jumping up and biting her on the knee. She may come to the defense of Sir Arthur Evans's perceptivity or weigh in on the pure and elemental importance of Sappho's work as a woman's voice, a voice mostly unheard in public discourse, with its "radical subversion of the male literary (epic) tradition." It may be that we can still laugh at ancient jokes because "it is from them that we learned what 'laughing at jokes' is," or be reminded that Cicero's caricatures were no more truth than political prejudice.

She takes measure of Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, "to fix the dividing line between the upmarket elegance of an emperor and the decadent vulgarity of the tyrant"; there is Tiberius' refusal to partake in the dissimulation and hypocrisy of Roman imperial doublespeak, revealing the autocratic reality beneath the Augustan democratic veneer. Milk the primary sources, she writes, don't bemoan their paucity. Consider the "whole variety of material...that brings the world of the poor, the humble, and the disadvantaged back to life," the butcher, the baker, the squaddy patrolling Hadrian's Wall, for whom she taps the ancient source of W. H. Auden: "Over the heather the wet wind blows / I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose."

It is a sight to see Beard bump heads with the classics, treating them as alive, stirring them up, trusting they will reveal something. She's not above stern interrogation in her pursuit of the truth, and though her reviewees may tremble, you've got to be tough if you want to keep those barbarians at bay for another little while.

Peter Lewis is the director of the American Geographical Society in New York City. A selection of his work can be found at writesformoney.com.

Reviewer: Peter Lewis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780871407474
  • Publisher: Liveright Publishing Corporation
  • Publication date: 9/2/2013
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 484,810
  • File size: 2 MB

Meet the Author

A professor of classics at Cambridge, Mary Beard is the author of the best-selling The Fires of Vesuvius. A popular blogger and television presenter, she contributes frequently to the New York Review of Books. She lives in England.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2013

    A good review, but could have been much more...

    Starting with thought provoking introduction on the future of classical studies, this book is primarily an interesting collection of book reviews. Beard's introduction on classical studies was based on quite a bit of qualitative information and references, and worth of more thorough analysis. For example, how many classical studies majors are awarded now compared to 20 or 50 years ago, what would be an objective measure of the quality of those students and their work? With the growth of new fields over the past 200 or so years from astrochemistry to nuclear physics it is clear some of the older fields will attract a smaller proportion of new graduates. But what is not clear is the impact of new educational trends such as STEM who's goal is to focus study on specific fields.

    That note aside, I found it a good source to build my winter reading list.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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