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Lecture 6: Classical Civilisation?

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her sixth and final Gifford lectureThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Anastasia-Stavroula Valtadorou will offer her initial reflections on the lecture and some of the themes of the previous lectures. Anastasia-Stavroula is currently working on her PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her last lecture of the series that aimed to tie up the series by focusing  a little on her own biography with Classics in order to further reflect on “what we think we mean by the contested term of ‘Western Civilization’ and how, for good or bad, Classics relates to that.”

She started off by speaking about a poem, Autumn Journal, by the Irish-Oxford poet Louis MacNeice (who was also a professional academic classicist for 20 years) and the role that it has played in shaping her own approach to the study of Classics. These are the sections of MacNeice’s poem that she reflected on as she presented them:

Not everyone had
The privilege of learning a language
That is incontrovertibly dead.

And further,

. . . the classical student is bred to the purple, his training in syntax
Is also a training in thought
And even in morals; if called to the bar or the barracks
He always will do what he ought.

And lastly turning to this section of Autumn Journal,

. . . when I should remember the paragons of Hellas,
I think instead
Of the crooks, the adventurers, the opportunists,
The careless athlete, and the fancy-boys,
The hair-splitters, the pedants, the hard-boiled sceptics,
And the Agora and the noise
Of the demagogues and the quacks; and the women pouring
Libations over graves
And the trimmers at Delphi and the dummies at Sparta and lastly
I think of the slaves
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago.

As Beard explained, she first read this poem in the early 1970s “and it opened [her] eyes to a very different way of looking at the Latin and the Greek that [she] was then studying at school.” She recounted how she would often do her homework beneath a poster “of the then imprisoned black power leader Angela Davis” and that she lived a somewhat “split existence” as a “would-be-free-thinking revolutionary in her head” while she in actuality lived as a “decidedly un-revolutionary swot.” She noted that McNeice’s poem played a significant role in helping her fuse those existences and in helping her recognize the need to think about “the social and cultural capital that had traditionally gone with the study of the Latin and the Greek.” As she went on to explain, “I had never thought about the role of Classics as a gatekeeper of the British social and political elite . . . ; nor had I consciously reflected on the loaded uses to which Classics had sometimes been put, from upholding conservative styles of art to justifying empire” to furthermore noticing the relationship between “the authority of money, capitalism and the politically symbolic repertoire of Classics” as illustrated in the Classical architecture of many “big bank branches.” She also noted that MacNeice’s poem (particularly the last section quoted above) encourages the student of Classics to look for what is not always most prominently shown. As she stated, “Up till then, I had generally accepted a diet of ‘great men’, Caesars, and genocidal generals, possibly with a sprinkling of women behind the throne. . . it was this poem, more than anything else, that prompted me to realize that there are bits of the ancient world and its inhabitants that I had not been taught to see, or I had been taught not to see: the ordinary, the crooks, the fancy boys, as he put it, the women, ‘the slaves.’” The message from MacNeice’s poem that Beard took to heart and that has continued to influence her approach to the study of Classics since  is this: “look for what you can’t see in the ancient world, and always try to tell the story from the other point of view.”


She went on to note that “I now feel much bolder than I used to  in resisting the temptation to claim that the Greeks and Romans are relevant to us in any narrow sense” and that she now feels “fine about not admiring the Greeks and the Romans in any straightforward way.” However, that’s not to say that the study of Classics is useless for understanding our contemporary situation(s). The study of Classics does help us better understand “why western culture operates like it does” even if the study doesn’t provide something capable of easy emulation and appropriation for today. As she went on to explain, “I have no hesitation . . . in saying that keeping Classics in the picture hugely enriches our understanding of western social, political and cultural structures, and the often un-thought assumptions on which those structures were and are based.” But in acknowledging this one is not thereby committed to turning a blind eye to the problems in the Classical world nor to the problems that still remain today in both the study of it and in its various un-studied appropriations (a number of which Beard has pointed out throughout this series). At this point in the lecture Beard briefly spoke about the many criticisms of Classics that have arisen from Classicists themselves. She noted that while there are justifiable reasons to criticize the ways that Classics has sometimes been used, she nevertheless cautioned against a “willful blindness” to the “good” uses of Classics that can (and have) coexisted with its misuses. She then moved on to speak briefly about the historical role that learning ancient dead languages (Latin and Greek) played in both Scotland and England, but she focused mostly on the role it played in England as a gatekeeper for the elite and its role “as a practical route to power.” She further noted the etymological link between class and Classics. As she stated, “’Classics’ in other words has not just come to be defined as posh, the very word originally meant posh.”

With this being the case, she began to reflect on whether we ought to get rid of these “class-ist associations.” She went on to explain how she doesn’t think this poses as big of a problem today as it is sometime thought to, but nevertheless she noted “that in some ways Classics has been, and maybe still is, guilty as charged.” She noted that “knowledge of Latin and Greek has operated as a gatekeeper to some types of elite privilege” evidenced by the fact that until 1960 Latin was a prerequisite to study at Oxford or Cambridge.  However, as she noted there are instances of those deemed to be outsiders (e.g. Alexander Crummell and Jane Ellison Harrison, to name just two examples) who acquired the skill set to breakthrough class, racial, and gender barriers set up by the elite gatekeepers and thereby began to transform the study of Classics from within (even if only little by little). As she further noted, “I think the ‘elite-gatekeeper’ problem for Classics is true up to a point . . . . But  it is a bit more nuanced than it looks and is constantly changing.”

At this point in her lecture she turned to focus on the perceived centrality of the notion of “Western Civilization” in the study of Classics. As she explained the issue, “Classics is charged with complicity in a version of the ‘West’ that elevates ‘Western Civilization’ in a way that is pretty much designed to conceal the value of different ‘civilizations—unseen, except as an inferior foil or as a colonized other.” In beginning to address this charge she noted two powerful charges. She briefly referenced the Harvard philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s 2016 Reith Lectures who persuasively “unpicked this amalgam of ‘Western Civilization,’ tracing it back in its highly ideological form only to the late nineteenth century . . . and showing very clearly how a grand narrative of cultural superiority was forged, that went from 5th century Athenian democracy, through Magna Carta, the Copernican revolution and son on . . . creating a vision of ‘the west’ as a perennially tolerant, democratic, rational world, while airbrushing out it’s autocracy, genocide, racism and the rest.” She also briefly noted the influence of Martin Bernal’s three volume Black Athena: The Afro Asiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, first published in 1987, that argued that Classicists have been blind to the “formative influence of near Eastern cultures and Egypt, especially, on what we call ‘Greek.’”

She then began to unpack her own “yes, but…” response. In reference to Bernal she voiced her disagreement with his approach. As she said, I don’t think that he best way of toppling the claims made for the ‘originary genius’ of the Greeks is to replace that with another, different set of originary geniuses.” Searching for the initial foundational catalyst is a mistaken way to go about addressing these problems. In reference to Appiah Beard registered concerns about throwing the baby out with the bathwater. As she noted, “It seems to me important to shed the term [i.e. Western civilization] of its hierarchical superiority and to look harder (as I have tried to do) at some of its crueler and unsettling sides. But doing that is not to deny that there is a ‘western’ set of literatures and practices, partly (only partly) defining themselves by their dialogue with what we call the classical world, that has different coordinates from say Chinese or Meso-American cultures.”

As Beard elaborated in concluding this lecture, and the series as a whole, she stated “I think there is a lot wrong with the ways Classics has been studied (I’m very much with MacNeice and others here), I’m allergic to many of the things the ancients got up to, and I shudder at what is done in the name of ‘western civilization.’ But we can’t throw it away . . . and we can’t hope to make sense of the cultural debates that the west still has (whether that is about rape or empire) without keeping the classical world on the map.”




4 replies to “Lecture 6: Classical Civilisation?”

  1. Anastasia-Stavroula Valtadorou says:

    “Look for what you can’t see in the ancient world, and always try to tell the story from the other point of view”.[1]

    In this series of Gifford lectures, Professor Dame Mary Beard has made an impressive scholarly contribution, enriching our understanding of ancient Greek and Roman civilisations and of our complicated relation to them. Beard purposely discussed many important issues that arise time and again in the study of the ancient world, but are, at the same time, extremely pertinent to our modern sensibilities, anxieties and concerns: the (disturbing) tolerance of brutal violence and mass slaughter, skin colour as a source (or not) of prejudice, the connection between sexual violence against women and political change, the admirable aspects and pitfalls of democracy, the exclusion of various people (i.e. women and slaves) from particular privileged groups.

    One of the most significant contributions of Beard’s Gifford lectures is her insistence to “look hard”, as she often put it, at these ancient texts and objects and endeavour to reflect on them critically and constructively. As Beard showed in these six lectures, this sort of scrutiny often reveals that our widespread assumptions about the Greek and Roman civilisations, and the beliefs that we attach to them, are sometimes misleading or even wrong. To give some examples, in her second lecture Beard showed that, for Greeks and Romans, dark skin colour was never intrinsically associated with their notion of slavery – and more generally, their categories and conceptions of colours do not quite overlap with ours. What is more, in her fourth lecture Beard discussed the fundamental difference between “the free Athenian male citizen” and “the enslaved/excluded Other”, but she also rightly noted that sometimes slaves were better off than free destitute people; I shall briefly mention the famous cases of the slave-bankers Pasion and Phormion in fourth-century BC Athens, who, in addition to freedom, were also granted Athenian citizenship.[2]

    Moreover, in her sixth lecture Beard argued that (especially in Britain) Classics was typically “a gatekeeper of privilege”, yet this interconnection between Classics and elitism was not always either so unbreakable or so successful, as is thought to be. She discussed the case of the determined African-American Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), who, breaking the boundaries, learnt Greek and the use of Classical models by working-class people and trades union movements,[3] while she also mentioned the noticeable difference between the Scottish and English educational systems in this regard.[4] I would add the examples Greece, Holland and Italy,[5] where ancient Greek and Latin have been traditionally taught (at least until recently) in free-from-charge state schools and have thus been accessible to all students regardless of their parents’ income and status.

    In her lectures, Beard also successfully showed that Classics has been appropriated by different groups of people and for different purposes (as was put in the Gifford seminar, in the past centuries there have been many “competing Roman empires”). Be that as it may, this does not mean that Classics is an inherently “toxic” subject matter: as all academic subjects, “it has been put to good uses and bad”. The texts themselves and the other traces of these ancient civilisations have actually allowed people to tell different and competing stories about them. Below I discuss two particular issues that came up in the lectures and the online discussion, and I show how this existing tension in the sources allows for different interpretations.

    First, regarding the sexually assaulted Lucretia who was (shockingly but still familiarly!) negatively judged and even condemned by some critics in the past, Jo Thor stated in her thought-provoking blog post that Lucretia’s suicide betrays her “internalisation of guilt” often found in cases of rape victims, while the whole episode reveals how “the objectification of women is ingrained in our history and culture.”[6] Of course, the appropriation of Lucretia’s horrifying experience as a tool for political change is appalling. However, I shall raise some doubts regarding Thor’s aforementioned claims. First, one aspect of Lucretia’s suicide that has not been discussed in detail this week was her mode of suicide with the dagger (cultrum in the Latin text). As the French historian Nicole Loraux has shown, at least in Greek culture, committing suicide by hanging is considered a feminine death, while the shedding of blood denoted bravery and was thus normatively connected with masculinity.[7] Thus, it is not perhaps a coincidence that in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Antigone and Euripides’ Hippolytus Jocasta, Eurydice, and Phaedra respectively commit suicide by hanging, while in Euripides’ Alcestis and in Neophron’s fragmentary Medea (fragment 3 Diggle) the rather feminised Admetus and the triumphantly defeated Jason are also imagined and prophesised respectively as committing suicide by hanging.[8] Therefore, Lucretia’s choice to kill herself with the dagger is perhaps presented by Livy as a flag-bearer of her own exceptional courage and determination.

    Second, what emerges more than once in Livy’s text is Lucretia’s subjective sense of, and claim to, honour.[9] Quite importantly, as Beard herself hinted at, in Livy’s account Lucretia does not succumb to her rapist because of fear for her life, but in fear of a greater dishonour (Livy, History of Rome 1.58.4: ubi obstinatam videbat et ne mortis quidem metu inclinari, addit ad metus dedecus, “When he found her obdurate and not to be moved even by fear of death, he went farther and threatened her with disgrace”, transl. by B.O. Foster). The fear of disgrace, and not fear of death, immobilises her. What is more, Lucretia commits suicide in spite of what her father and husband think (Livy, History of Rome, 1.58.9). In other words, she decides to die, since, in contrast to her male relatives, she believes that she has lost by force her claim to honour (pudicitia later in the text, 1.58.7). Consequently, I do not here want to give the impression that Thor’s claims are misleading, but rather that Livy’s text (also) provides arguments to afford Lucretia with female agency, bravery and admirable dignity within her society. In this way, it makes more sense that the rightful avenging of the rape of this admirable woman is seen as a catalyst for establishing the Roman Republic (i.e. for positive political change).

    Another point that reveals a sort of tension in the sources is the representation of the virgin goddess Athena. According to Beard’s statement in her fourth lecture, the goddess of war Athena constitutes a “wishful fantasy of the misogyny of the Athenian man”.[10] It is indeed true that the permanently virginal, warlike Athena may seem to reflect misogynistic ideals. However, as is often the case with the Greeks and the Romans, things are not as simple as they look. I shall mention two aspects of this goddess that I find particularly interesting: 1) Athena is not Zeus’ only child that is born out of his male body. The god of wine, Dionysus, is also born from his father’s thigh, after his mother, Semele, was accidentally killed by Zeus’ lightening. Therefore, quite intriguingly, Athena as the female child of Zeus and his first wife, Metis (NB in Greek μῆτις means skill, wisdom), is the one born out of his head and thus unbeatably wise (something that does not apply to her half-brother).[11] Another element that strikes me as significant and perhaps weakens the argument about Athena’s association with misogyny is that she is also the protector of handicraft and the weavers,[12] an activity that was considered typically female in antiquity. This sort of diversity in the character and activities of one goddess can remind us of the virgin huntress goddess, Artemis, who is simultaneously the protectress of adolescent, virginal girls, but at the same time, is the goddess that oversees locheia, i.e. childbearing, that is of course an activity that pertains to full-grown women.[13]

    In conclusion, I think that in the totality of her lectures and, particularly, in the last one, Beard has shown that the study of Classics should not die out, despite being often wrongly appropriated by various groups (e.g. white supremacists) and for less than honourable reasons. Indeed, Classics is a subject “more nuanced than it looks and constantly changing” and, as we additionally saw above, it offers legitimisation to contrasting views – depending upon one’s interpretation – and thus deserves to be studied.

    [1] Quote from Beard’s last lecture.

    [2] For more details on these cases, see J.K. Davies, Athenian Propertied Families, 600-300 B.C (Oxford, 1971), at 11672; OCD4 s.v. Phormion, s.v. freedmen/freedwomen. Besides, as Professor Douglas Cairns also underlined in the (unrecorded) Gifford Seminar regarding the (not so unbridgeable) gap that separated free people and slaves, slaves are often presented in Greek texts as “potential bearers of rights.” See also the cautions raised by Dr. Sara Parvis about this in her Gifford post:

    [3] For the AHRC-funded research project “Classics and Class”, run by Edith Hall at King’s College London, see

    [4] Although the Scottish educational system was more egalitarian than the English, there has been a decline in the teaching of Classics in the last fifty years. On the concerted effort to re-introduce Classics in Scottish state schools, see

    [5] I thank my friend, Dr. Davide Amendola, for providing me information about the educational system in Italy.

    [6] For this post, visit the website

    [7] See N. Loraux, Tragic Ways of Killing a Woman (Cambridge and London, 1987), 7-30.

    [8] See J. Diggle (ed.), Oxford Classical Texts: Tragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta Selecta (Oxford, 1998). For Neophron’s less-known drama, see the online English translation and notes of Celia Luschnig (with further bibliography):

    [9] On the different nuances of female honour related to women’s marital sexual life, see D.L. Cairns, “Off with Her ΑΙΔΩΣ”: Herodotus 1.8.3-4, Classical Quarterly 46.1 (1996), 78-83. The notion of honour in ancient Greece is currently being researched at the University of Edinburgh by a group of scholars (Honour in Classical Greece, ERC Project 2018-2022:

    [10] Those interested in this approach can also look at N. Loraux, The Children of Athena: Athenian Ideas about Citizenship and the Division Between the Sexes (Princeton, 1994).

    [11] On Metis and metis, see M. Detienne and J.-P. Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society (Chicago, 1991).

    [12] For Athena’s destructive rage against the skilful yet hubristic weaver, Arachne, see Ovid Metamorphoses 6.8.

    [13] On Artemis’ multifarious jurisdiction, see C. Calame, Choruses of Young Women in Ancient Greece (Maryland, 1997), 92-100.

  2. Superb series of lectures by Prof Beard. Thank you to all involved in Commentaries and those involved in organising these series of lectures Much food for thought. Here’s to next year

    1. Mary Beard says:

      Thanks all for these really thoiughtful comments. It is really interesting to see how much MEAT there still is in the Lucretia story

  3. Gerard Vila says:

    These lectures are so excellent that, very ungratefully, I find myself wishing for more!
    Two things struck me:
    1. On the “unimaginable strangeness” of the ancients. I’m no expert, but this seems to me to be a legitimate subject for anthropological study. Or its equivalent (it’s a bit late for a field trip.)
    2. On the “niceness” of Asterix: you wouldn’t really expect a children’s comic – whose starting point was similar to “1066 and all that” – to go into all the gory details of roman warfare, law enforcement, etc. But to my mind, the really interesting thing here is how “nice” we ourselves have become, compared to the routine sadism and brutality of even 200 years ago. This has been well proved by Steven Pinker, I think; but as an illustration, consider that the first people who objected to animals being mistreated, in 18th Century Britain, were considered both mad and tremendously funny by just about everyone. Our ancestors were not inherently evil – they just couldn’t afford to be nice in order to stay alive, before the industrial and scientific revolution came along and made everything easier for everyone.

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