If you were to think of the study of Ancient Romans, it may evoke mental images of stuffy old men in
dusty libraries with their heads buried in books. Though if you were to learn about English classicist
Mary Beard and her work – that might change.
Working primarily as academic, Beard lectures and holds professor positions at the Royal Academy
of Arts and, her alma mater, Newnham College Cambridge, as Professor of Ancient Literature and
Professor of Classics respectively. Building a media career upon her encyclopaedic knowledge of
Ancient Rome, Beard has worked in literary journalism at The Times Literary Supplement, authored
18 books and more recently, has written and presented several television documentaries. As a
result, Beard has become somewhat of a figurehead for the classics.
Though a highly respected woman at the forefront of her field, this respect for her intelligence did
not come naturally at first. After being accepted into Cambridge’s single-sex Newnham College at 18,
she quickly discovered her male peers’ resistance to acknowledge the full learning capacity of
women. It was through this that Beard began to call herself a feminist, an experience and viewpoint
that that would go on to inform her life and work.
Beard has faced criticism since moving further into the public eye, and it is her distinctly feminist
response to this that sets her apart from the rest. Since her first television appearances she has been
criticised for her looks, from her hair, to her teeth to her clothes. Instead of changing her
appearance, she instead chooses to underline the importance of her being a visibly older woman,
without the aid of make-up, styling and Botox and how it presents to audiences another way to age.
As an active user of Twitter, she faces her fair share of online criticism and trolling too. Again, she
does not shy away from insults and threats, but responds with kindness and polite words, to engage
the trolls meaningfully, humanising both parties. Through this Beard brings to light the cyberbullying,
misogyny and harassment that women face online and illustrates how both the troll and the trolled
can learn and move on positively.
Beard was named in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2018 for her services to the Study of Classical
Civilisation and one would have to acknowledge how deserved it was. Not only does Beard make her
expansive knowledge about the Roman world accessible and relatable to a modern audience, but
also through her life in the media she teaches us how to exist positively and respond constructively
to a life lived online – particularly for women.
Buy her book Women & Power: A Manifesto here.
By Francesca Butler.
Francesca is a London based writer.