Pissed-off Toff

Mary Beard – a polemical review

in Reviews

Pissed-off Toff questions the competence of the well-known telly-don Mary Beard.

Now that the television presenter and Cambridge classicist Mary Beard is yet again on the small screen, it seems a good time to review, retrospectively and in some detail, her three-part series Meet the Romans, broadcast by the BBC in 2012, and to which the now-deceased writer and critic A.A. Gill took such notable exception.

For those of you who missed the fun, Gill suggested, in his widely-read comments about the first episode in the series, that Beard should be kept away from cameras altogether, and in doing so he unleashed a media storm in which the sisterhood rushed to the female don’s defence, accusing Gill of being sexist, a woman-hater and much else besides. Such was the ensuing kerfuffle that Gill felt obliged to explain that he was simply pointing out that the television is a visual medium and that if Beard wishes to be invited into our living rooms, she owes us the courtesy of making some sort of effort with her appearance.

After which, I made a point of sitting through the remaining two episodes of Beard’s series … and at the end of it all was impressed not by any lack of charity on Gill’s part, but by his moderation and restraint; because not only is it true that Beard looks a perfect fright, but in terms of its content, her series was a succession of vacuous banalities and self-righteous prejudices enlivened only by the occasional moment of unintended hilarity.

* * * * *

A harsh assessment? Not especially. And even if it is, Beard invites it. Or should I say she “has it coming?” Because when countless innocent people lay dead under the rubble of the Twin Towers, it was this same Mary Beard who, with a nasty verbal snarl, publicly stated that the United States “had it coming.”

Elsewhere, we find her on record as saying that “a library is a place to eat, drink, smoke substances legal and illegal, and have sex.” And then there was the priceless moment on Question Time in early January 2013, when Beard, now with the air of one speaking ex cathedra, told the inhabitants of Lincolnshire that far from complaining about the mass immigration that was overwhelming them, they should welcome it unreservedly. This time, however, her sanctimonious pronouncement encountered stiff resistance from the flock assembled in front of her. 

So that’s Beard … an ageing hippy who from time to time escapes from the cloisters of academia in order to shake us out of our bourgeois complacency. As she has said herself, “I like the idea of being a bit bloody-minded and subversive.” Which is fine, and bully for her. Less attractively, though, whilst she likes to shock and provoke, she becomes the very picture of outraged innocence when the all-too-predictable reactions present themselves. It is entirely in character, for example, that having appeared on TV flaunting a kitchen-sink look which explored the very limits of dowdiness, she rounded on Gill for taking her to task, and accused him, with absurd irrelevance, of being “frightened of smart women who speak their minds.”

It was of course Beard’s physical appearance that Gill objected to; not her mind, about which I suspect he cared very little. But speak her mind she certainly does. One interviewer who met her wrote that she “swears more often, more filthily and more fluently than any 58-year-old woman I’ve ever met.” And the columnist Jan Moir got to the heart of the matter when she described Beard as “the latest media bruiser to portray herself as a victim.”

* * * * *

So here were are in Rome, at the beginning of the first episode of Meet the Romans, presented by Mary Beard. With her long grey hair all over the place, and dressed in a crumpled T-shirt and various other bits of shapeless tat, she looks like the leader of some loony sect on the fringes of the environmentalist movement. It isn’t her fault, I suppose, that she twists her mouth into strange forms when she speaks, baring crooked yellow teeth the size of tombstones. But why the ugly Estuary accent? Why the oikish glottal stop? She’s a senior member of the academic staff of one of the most prestigious universities in the world, for God’s sake; and yet she looks and talks like this. It might almost be calculated to annoy.

Anyhow, the format seems to be that the various scenes are linked by ecologically-correct shots of Beard bicycling from place to place grinning beatifically and wearing a goody-goody safety helmet. Somewhere down the Via Appia Antica, one of the consular roads of Ancient Rome, she leans breathlessly over a Latin inscription that reads: occisus est in Occitania. As anyone who did Latin at school knows, that means “he was killed in Occitania” – one would guess in battle. However, Beard, tut-tutting dramatically, translates it as “he was murdered in Occitania.” My heckles rise immediately; because unless the professor knows something that she isn’t telling us, this rendition is so hyperbolic as to be the academic equivalent of sexing-up the dossier. 

* * * * *

Let us look more carefully at occisus est in Occitania. As both online-latin-dictionary.com and own Smith’s Smaller Latin-English Dictionary (1968) make clear, the transitive verb occidere is associated with killing in battle; and when used intransitively, it refers to to the setting of the sun. Think of the etymology: occidere (Latin) … occidentale (modern Italian), meaning ‘west’ (the sun sets in the west) … and therefore the idea of falling … and by extension, to fall in battle.

Whereas the ordinary transitive verb, in Latin, for ‘to murder’ (as in the sense of assassination, cloaks and daggers, and underhand skulduggery) is necare. Therefore, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, the best translation of occisus est in Occitania must surely be “He fell in Occitania.” Or, perhaps (more dramatically, but still fine): “He was slain / cut down in Occitania.” 

But “murdered?” No.

* * * * *

Shortly afterwards, we are back in the centre of Rome, where our friend is now bicycling blithely over the pitted cobblestone surface of the huge and lethal roundabout in front of the Vittoriano, the monument to Italian national unity. She seems quite unaware that no sane Roman would dream of going round this death-trap on a bicycle, with or without a safety helmet. We also witness Beard attempting to exchange pleasantries with a local resident, and I get the impression that she is not very proficient in the language of the country whose history is her life’s study.

What else? Well, at some stage we follow her as she bicycles around Trastevere, a formerly working-class area of Rome that rising property prices have now taken beyond the reach of all but the most prosperous Italians. Warming to her theme of how groovily cosmopolitan Ancient Rome was, Beard informs us that Trastevere has a reputation for being an immigrant area even today. I don’t think so. Unless, of course, she is referring to the rich expats who have moved there in droves; but she isn’t.

She then opines that “two thousand years ago Rome must have felt a bit like Dubai.” Really? Two thousand years ago Rome, as Beard well knows, was a mature imperial capital, centuries old, and nearer to its collapse than to its birth – unlike Dubai, which sprang up yesterday. In any case, not even half way through the first episode in the series, I am irritated to the point of distraction.

However, the opening episode is just an amuse-bouche, a taste of the ordeals that lie ahead. Because in episode two, she’s at it again, poring over inscriptions – this time, concubina amatissima, which, she tells us, means “much loved partner.” No it doesn’t. It means, obviously, “much loved concubine.” But that doesn’t fit in with Beard’s pious left-wing agenda. So rather than serving up the historical truth, she doctors it. Rewriting Shakespeare, so to speak.

* * * * *

Again, let us go into this a bit more. In the ancient world, a concubine was, typically, a slave girl whose function was to provide sex. She was not, by any stretch of the imagination, the equivalent of the so-called ‘partner’ in the modern world, in other words someone with whom you share your life exclusively, publicly, and on an equal footing.

As online-latin-dictionary.com says, the Latin word concubina means ‘concubine’ or ‘kept mistress, one living in concubinage’.  Not ‘partner’, therefore. And as my Smith’s Smaller Latin-English Dictionary says, the word concubitus has to do with ‘lying together’ … i.e. sex. Again: ‘concubine’. But ‘partner’? No.

Still not convinced? Let’s look at the Latin words for ‘wife’, as opposed to ‘mistress’ or ‘concubine’. There’s uxor (thus our word ‘uxorious’) … and coniux, meaning ‘conjoined’. And this latter was the ordinary word for ‘spouse’ or ‘wife’. Consider, for example, this tombstone from Magnis dedicated to the wife of a 3rd-century soldier (for this I am grateful to the historian Norman Davies and his The Isles, p. 109, publ. 1999):


Short for (I highlight the relevant word in bold):


Meaning (relevant word again in bold):

By the hand of Fate, Aurelius Marcus, Recorder of the Century, [set up this stone] to Aurelia Tita, daughter of Aia and a native of Salonas, his most holy spouse who lived without any stain for 33 years.

So by translating concubina as ‘partner’, Beard is forcing her own left-wing agenda onto a historical reality that is entirely at odds with it.

* * * * *

Anyhow, shortly afterwards, we see her inspecting the huge model of Ancient Rome that is housed in EUR, the suburb that Mussolini built to the south of the city centre. But she is unhappy. Why? Because this dumb artefact “doesn’t answer the questions we want to have answered.” These, apparently, are: “What was it like to be a Roman?” And: “What did Rome smell like?”

Quite how Beard expects a plaster model of an ancient city to reveal the innermost thoughts of its inhabitants or the smell of its streets a couple of thousand years ago is not clear. But she swallows her disappointment gamely and toddles off to the ruins of Ostia Antica to admire a series of holes in a raised U-shaped construction that are presumably the remains of a communal latrine. “This is how we have to imagine the ancient city,” she declares triumphantly. “Everyone shitting together.” Worse, even, is the scene in which Beard talks us through a painting of a woman being pleasured from behind by a well-endowed male. I do not wish to inspect erotic art with Mary Beard.

And all the time, this ridiculous glottal stop, the vulgar mannerisms, the loutish turn of phrase, and an apparent determination to dumb down everything to the lowest level while at the same time attempting, unsuccessfully, to sex it up. We are also exposed, relentlessly, to Beard’s right-on political views, as she makes an endless succession of sneering left-wing references to the “toffs” and the “big guys” and the “politicians in their togas.”

“Rome was a society where the rich dominated the poor,” she pronounces, in a statement of astonishing banality. And here, to prove it, are the remains of a large wall that was perhaps a barrier between the overcrowded and fire-prone tenement blocks of Suburra and the rest of the city. But this couldn’t be just a fire-wall, pure and simple, could it? A sensible precaution? Oh no. For Beard it is, of course, evidence of  “attempts to divide the toffs from the poor.”

Not only is this stunningly bigoted, not only is the soixante-huitard rhetoric utterly passé, but it is also breathtakingly hypocritical. Because as a well-paid professor with a gold-plated university pension and a lucrative sideline in television documentaries, the privately-educated Mary Beard is nothing if not one of the fat-cats she professes to despise. She is, indisputably, at the top of her pile. Yet she invites us to sneer at the well-educated and civilised Romans who were at the top of their own pile. 

All this is bad enough, as is the distinct hint of Jacobin thuggery in the persona that Beard presents to the world. More importantly, though, it is by this stage clear that Meet the Romans is, in the main, a failure even by its very own terms, because for a documentary that sets out to explore the everyday reality of life in Ancient Rome, it is curiously vague and uninformative about the very things it is meant to be revealing. We are told, for example, that Rome was multinational (really?); that it was terribly crowded (you don’t say!!); that it was also terribly smelly (no!!!); that there were no ‘social services’ (how shocking!!!!). But we learn disappointingly little about, say, the daily routine of a typical Roman; or about the nuts and bolts of a visit to the baths; or about what people ate. Long on easy generalisations, in other words, but short on the more demanding specifics.

By the end of episode two, therefore, I found myself entertaining the fantasy that Beard would depart for a prolonged sabbatical in Hades. Because if our ageing hippy don was so concerned about social justice, why had there been absolutely nothing – thus far, at any rate – about slavery, that iniquitous engine of Ancient Rome (and also, incidentally, the one thing that Rome did have in common with today’s Dubai; though Beard neglects to draw this parallel)? 

In episode three, however, the professor did partially redeem herself. She did in the end talk about slavery, and she did so with ordinary humanity. A strange thing, too: at precisely the point when one might have expected Beard to turn up her moralising to maximum, and just when she would have had an excuse to do so, she chose not to, and let her material speak for itself.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis this series isn’t really about Ancient Rome at all. It is, principally, an ego-boost for a bigot who is incapable of seeing the world – or the Romans – except through the prism of her own stale prejudices. For a view of Rome which is altogether more informative, entertaining and convincing, as well as one that spares you the presence of Beard in your house (a by no means minor consideration, this), you are far better off with the Asterix books.

Which raises an interesting question. Why, when the BBC could have commissioned any number of genuinely worthwhile documentaries on the Eternal City, did they go for this? Could it be that in order to prove that they are not sexist or ageist or judgemental or discriminatory in any way whatsoever – except of course towards vile toffs like Edward Stourton … could it be that in order to demonstrate that their view of absolutely everything is politically correct to the nth degree, the BBC is only too happy to foist Beard on us, despite her maddening self-righteousness, her all-pervasive vulgarity, and no matter how second-rate the result?

No other plausible explanation comes to mind.

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