Early on in Confronting the Classics, Mary Beard tells the story of the Roman Emperor Elagabalus, who "used to seat his dinner guests on cushions that, unbeknownst to them, were full of air. As the meal progressed, a slave secretly let the air out, so Elagabalus could enjoy the sight of his companions subsiding, until they slid beneath the table."
Beard takes a similar joy in deflation, from common misconceptions about the classical world to puffed reputations. A merry contrarianism runs through many of these book reviews, which careen almost recklessly through antiquity, from Hannibal to Asterix to a famous classical scholar with wandering hands.
That scholar was the legendary classicist Eduard Fraenkel – celebrated for his many and distinguished contributions to the field, but generally given a pass on his habit of groping students. In college, I encountered Fraenkel's analysis of a mythical attempted rape, in which he posits that the woman, "with all her resisting," must have nevertheless been drawn to the god's "irresistible radiance." It is illuminating, if not exactly surprising, to learn that Fraenkel considered himself similarly irresistible.
Of the oft-heard claim that the Greeks "invented democracy," Beard says, "Put like that, it is simply not true. As far as we know, no ancient Greek ever said so; and anyway democracy isn't something that is 'invented' like a piston engine. Our word 'democracy' derives from the Greek, that is correct. Beyond that, the fact is we have chosen to invest the fifth-century Athenians with the status of 'inventors of democracy'; we have projected our desire for an origin onto them."
Indeed, projection is a central theme of the book, which might easily have been titled Creating the Classics. Beard shows, with extraordinary deftness, how we construct versions of the classical world to suit ourselves, from Robert F. Kennedy quoting (mildly mistranslated) Aeschylus after the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. to the literal reconstructions that occur at museums and archeological sites. "Classics," she notes, are "as much about us as about the Greek and Romans."
Reading is always, in a way, a collaboration between reader and author, but this is particularly true when there are seductive lacunae in a poem or a limbs missing from an ancient sculpture, forcing us to become literal collaborators with the ancients.
One such collaborator was Sir Arthur Evans, whose imaginative restorations of a palace at Knossos, Beard says, "have only an indirect connection with the second millennium BC." His restoration of an idyllic painting of a young boy picking saffron fit well into his vision of the peaceable, nature-loving Minoans — though it fit less well when it turned out the painting was actually supposed to be of a bright blue monkey.
Similarly, Thucydides' edicts on power and politics are "repeated in international relations courses the world over," but Beard illustrates how many of these maxims are the result of too-liberal translations. She writes, "As a general rule, the catchier the slogans sound, the more likely they are to be largely the product of the translator rather than of Thucydides himself."
In a work of such sprawling ambition, mistakes are inevitable, though they're generally not so much errors as small elisions: Beard, like her ancient colleagues, can be the victim of narrative gaps. In leaping cavalierly from place to place, she occasionally leaps over scholarly debate. On the one hand, this is liberating – on the other, it feels a little irresponsible.
One such elision marks the beginning of her essay on Thucydides. She writes that Thucydides was "aggressively rational" in his approach to history, unlike Homer and Herodotus who explain human conflicts "by referring to quarrels among the gods on Mount Olympus." Homer does imagine scenes in which the gods argue over the fates of humans, but something like that is unthinkable in Herodotus, who, in pointed opposition to Homer, grounded his stories in historie (Greek for "research," and the origin of English "history") and rarely mentions the actions of the gods except in reported speech.
Does this matter? Not especially. It's half a sentence in a long and very smart essay on Thucydides. And she's right that Thucydides' methods were unlike either Homer's or Herodotus'. But these tiny, occasional inexactitudes are nagging burrs in an otherwise sophisticated collection of essays.
But perhaps elision is the price to pay for a book that so expertly straddles the line between scholarly and accessible. In a field that can so often be dominated by minutiae, Mary Beard is unafraid to go big.