Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Classical History – Is it still relevant? by Prof. Mary Beard: Review

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I am delighted to welcome my very first guest writer to the blog. Aaron David McIntyre is an undergraduate student at The School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, QUB. His research interests include Lisburn in the Gaelic period and the archaeology of the Plantation era. He is also involved in politics with the Alliance Party. You can also follow him on Twitter.
Robert M Chapple

Aaron David McIntyre and Mary Beard

BBC Northern Ireland, in association with the Heritage Lottery Fund hosted the ‘Festival of History and Broadcasting’- a series of talks, discussions and lectures hosted by William Crawley between 21st and 23rd February 2012.

As an undergraduate archaeology student my interests are eclectic to say the least, but Rome and Classical archaeology never captured my imagination - so it was with some trepidation that I signed up to the ‘Rome module’ during my first year at Queen’s University, Belfast. It was here that I was converted to Roman archaeology by authors including Amanda Claridge and Alison Futrell. However the most influential author in my ‘conversion’ was Mary Beard and so when I heard that she would be talking on the issue “Classical History – Is it still relevant?” – I jumped at the chance to attend.

William Crawley introduced Professor Beard, describing her as a celebrity academic, public intellectual and, to some extent, a media don. When asked if she enjoyed this public persona she replied nervously “in a way”, relating to the audience how her blog had developed from an outlet to vent about her everyday experiences, to one which students, academics and the general public followed. This medium, alongside her publications catapulted her into the public domain and onto our television screens.

William Crawley moved the discussion towards Pompeii and Professor Beard’s recent BBC series (Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town). Beard recounted the story of her first visit to Pompeii as a student, describing the town as “gob-smackingly amazing.” However she was unable to “fit in any of the stuff [she] had learnt back in Cambridge” into the town itself. Over the next twenty years she believed that she had been unable to grasp the academic literature, until a “light bulb” went off in her head and for the first time it was clear that these previous studies where wrong, simplifying complex issues and papering over the cracks with unsubstantiated conclusions surrounding issues that, even today, are not fully understood.

As an example Professor Beard, with all her flamboyancy, stressed the fact that there were not 87 brothels in Pompeii, but only one. This overestimation she explained, came about due to “over eager archaeologists” claiming that each building with an erotic wall painting must indeed have been a brothel. In conjunction with the wall paintings, graffiti found in some buildings in Pompeii, along the lines of “You can have Tracey the bar maid for a six pence” were also a contributing factor to the belief in 87 brothels.  An older lady friend of Professor Beard mentioned that her local bus stop has similar graffiti, but that did not make it a brothel.

Professor Beard then broached the criticisms she has faced from other scholars for her particular use of language in the BBC series Pompeii, emphasising that her language is based on the way she would write. One such example was her use of the word “shit” while recording a piece in a Roman Sewer. Professor Beard qualified the issue with the audience stating “What was I meant to say? Here I am in a Roman sewer standing in excrement? No one talks like that”. Another scene filmed in the brothel about graffiti described “just what you’d expect [to find in a brothel]” and Professor Beard explained how when she translated the Latin she kept it in the vernacular and William Crawley praised her “use of language that is not dusty and driven by foot notes.”

The first thing that Professor Beard “put on the counter” during the discussions surrounding her BBC series was two-fold: “no dressing up… and no CGI”. She argued that b-grade ‘oh Marcus’ actors where not what she envisaged nor did she want CGI as there is “so much of Rome that really survives, there are so many paintings that the Romans did” – the collection of scenes of the Forum in Pompeii illustrate “a guy putting his shoe stall out and we have a slightly posh older lady giving some money rather remotely to a beggar with dog…  and you think, look - if we didn’t have this then we might as well reconstruct with CGI.”

During the filming of her Pompeii series, a parallel show was recorded for the Discovery Channel in a “complicated financial deal” that she was “too young to understand.”  Following both a clip from Professor Beard’s series and one from the American documentary “Pompeii: Back from the Dead” - it was clear to see the ‘Americanisation’ of story of Pompeii through the use of dramatisations, CGI and the amateurs quest to find out long lost secrets, when compared to the more intellectual and scholarly approach of the BBC series; which due to the direction of Professor Beard had been focused on the lives of those who lived in Pompeii prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.  Yet, Professor Beard believes that the American documentary does have a place, due to the entertainment factor of television in the USA, and it is tailored to suit that audience. She stated it is “pretty upmarket and you can see exactly why I hate it” with William Crawley describing such shows as the “Jeremy-Kyle-isation” of television. Beard highlights what she views as the main “faults with popular writing about the ancient world and popular broadcasting; is what it tries to do in papering over the cracks” by simplifying issues and describing theory as fact which does a “tremendous disservice” to the public.

William Crawley then approached the subject of Professor Beard’s pieces to camera, and how she seems to exude confidence, to which she replied “I treat the camera like a student. People often say you teach at Cambridge but you say doing television is like talking to your students but they’re all a) terribly clever and b) committed and knowledgeable and a captivated audience. I say: you come along to Cambridge and get an audience of 100 first years and you see if you think they are knowledgeable or captivated. You don’t win them by CGI tricks; you win them by saying: this matters.” The rawness of her dialogues to camera illustrates her genuine enthusiasm for Pompeii and the Romans, which was evident to all those in the audience.

Coming back to the television series, William Crawley questioned Professor Beard on the differences between the two audiences, in terms of the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Professor Beard explained that television holds a greater place in American national culture than it does in Britain and “by and large the intelligent person wanting to find out things, doesn’t think that American television is where they’d go. It is much more for entertainment, much more commercially driven.” This led the conversation towards the issue of advertisements, which Mary is thankful that she was able to avoid thanks to the BBC and the license fee, which gave the programme “59 solid minutes with no let-up” compared to “Pompeii: Back from the Dead” which was filmed in several eight minute segments.

Mr Crawley asked Professor Beard what impact the experience of television had on the way she lectures at Cambridge to which she replied “almost nothing because I think it came the other way around.” Although her students have asked her to wear her now (in)famous red coat from the show and sheepishly ask for her to sign copies of her book thinking “god, they’d make great Christmas presents for mum and dad.”

There then followed a ‘Question and Answer’ session:
Q) How do you feel about being awarded the accolade of hatchet job of the year?
A: Professor Beard clarified that she was shortlisted for the title, but thankfully didn’t win it, describing this as the “perfect position to be in, being on the short list but not actually winning the hatchet.”  It was her review in ‘The Guardian’ of the book Rome by Robert Hughes that led to her shortlisting. The number of mistakes in the first three chapters should have caused them to have been “pulped” as “BC was confused with AD, emperors come in the wrong order and the emperor Antoninus Pius is said to be a Christian when he would be horrified to have been Christian. Basically every page had a howler.” Professor Beard concluded stating that someone had to say “this won’t do! But I was relieved not to be holding the hatchet.”

Q) When you say historians say there are so many brothels in Pompeii, did this have anything to do with the number of phalluses that were found?
A: “It was certainly all connected. One of the ways we want to imagine ancient Rome, and partly the Romans encouraged this, is as a fantastically oversexed place – so you get brothels everywhere, you get phalluses above the bread ovens… in the pavement.”
“I think for me, and I don’t know how you really work that problem out, but I think it isn’t quite about the ‘sexual-everything-going kind-of place’ that we imagine.” However Professor Beard went on to justify how people from modern societies come to this conclusion due to the amount of phallic symbols and erotic wall paintings. However taking her “absolute feminist line” on the issue, the phallus is the Roman way of saying “power, success and maledom … the sheer celebration of being a bloke.”

Q) What are your thoughts on the reasons for the decline of the Roman Empire? I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it was the sheer decadence of the woman …
A: “One of the paradoxes about patriarchal culture is that these guys in control are busy justifying the Roman tradition by imagining women as fantastically dangerous and in need of all the kind of male control that men can actually offer them, so what you have to remember is that there are loads and loads of images in Roman literature of women going wild and oversexed. Messalina, the wife of the Emperor Claudius, apparently challenged the prostitutes in Rome to a competition of how many encounters they could have in one night and of course Messalina won. You could fill ten volumes with pretty raunchy stories and every single one will be written by a man. We have almost no writing surviving from the Greek or Roman world written by women – imagine what we would understand about women in 21st century Britain, from simply having a collection of Page 3 of The Sun.” Mary concluded “if I really had a problem with working on patriarchal cultures I would never have decided to work on Rome.”

Following the Q&A session, the audience were shown a ‘first look’ clip from Professor Beard’s new BBC series, which is based on “real ordinary Romans” and their lives, through artefacts as well as descriptions on their tombstones, which describe amazing details about individual lives. However I shall not go into any more detail about the series, as have no wish to spoil anything for those anxiously awaiting its arrival onto our television screens.

From one twitterer to another
Following the talk I shiftily made my way out of the hall in the hope that I would be able to catch Professor Beard and ask her to sign my copy of her book, ‘Pompeii:  The Life of a Roman Town’ and I was not disappointed! While waiting across the corridor for Professor Beard to finish a conversation with a producer, she then approached me and said that she had seen that I had been ‘tweeting’ about her and the event. I have to admit that I was slightly star-struck at this point, but it was a pleasure to talk with such a distinguished academic who played such a crucial role in my appreciation of classical archaeology.

Finally, after walking back to my car in torrential rain, I opened my copy of Pompeii to see that Professor Beard had not only signed it, but personalised the inscription “With best wishes – from one twitterer to another Mary Beard.”

Note: It is difficult to convey Mary Beard’s flamboyant personality and dry humour in text. It was clear from the talk that Professor Beard is driven by enthusiasm and passion which will already be evident to her readership and I hope I have not done Professor Beard a disservice in this write up.

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