Ignoring the feminine

Mary Beard is, of course, a well-know classicist, and it’s a personal life mission of mine to read all of her books. Even the dry academic ones – they’re quite interesting, if you’re curious about life in the Ancient Roman or Greek worlds. This is not one of those.

Women & Power is a very slight book – less than 100 pages – that is basically a transcript of two speeches she gave about just how deep silencing women goes in Western culture. Spoiler alert: the first example of silencing a woman in a written text is the Odyssey, which is possibly the oldest written text there is.

There are examples of powerful women in ancient texts, but these women are never portrayed as positive role models – think of Medea and Medusa – and even Athena is problematic. The feminine is secondary to the masculine by default.

This was a quick but illustrative read. Definitely recommended.

Everyone has their own filter

SPQR

SPQR is and is not a history of Ancient Rome. It does not cover the entire 1200+ years of the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire. It’s almost more of a media study of Ancient Rome. The fact is that there are few sources, and they’re difficult to verify against each other. In fact, before about 300 BCE, it’s all legend; there are no records of any kind. But we do have the stories, and how people tell the stories say a whole lot about the time they’re writing in.

Augustus burned all of Cleopatra’s records; we don’t get anything of her that didn’t pass through his filter. So what do we know of her? What does that tell us about Augustus, the first emperor of Rome? That’s the kind of history this is – it’s different than others and useful as a result. I thought about Rome differently.

Recommended.

 

Coloring ancient Rome

fires of vesuvius

 

What’s it about?
Mary Beard is a famous Cambridge classicist (if such a thing exists). She’s hosted television shows and written books and published papers and taught many students about the ancient world. The Fires of Vesuvius is her studying the Pompeiian ruins and sharing what we can learn about ancient Roman society from them. So what did I learn? Phalluses were everywhere; people ate fancy dinners reclining on couches arranged in a group of three in a c-shape; people ate regular dinners on chairs and tables; women were second class citizens (sigh); and no one knows where ancient Romans slept. Seriously – beds weren’t a thing, so…. did they sleep on the couches? On the ground? No one knows.

Why should you read it?
Well, *I’m* clearly fascinated by ancient Rome. I love learning about it and I love the stories. Modern society has a stereotype of the ancient world being very serious and no color at all. In fact, there’s color everywhere in the Pompeiian ruins, and the graffiti makes it clear that these were people just like we are. There are political slogans and advertising on the walls; there’s evidence of a child’s lessons on the walls; even some random doodling. It was, apparently, very stinky. The Pompeiians didn’t brush their teeth, and there’s no evidence of soap at the baths. No wonder perfumes were used.

The Fires of Vesuvius makes my views of the ancient Roman world richer – it’s not just Julius Caesar and Nero fiddling while Rome burns. It’s real people living their lives, making money, having babies, worshipping gods. I quite enjoyed it.

A building with a long history

The Colosseum

What’s it about?
The Colosseum is an entire book about the building in Rome. The book covers the building from before it was built – back when the land was a pond in Nero’s palace – through the gladiatorial games of the Ancient Roman empire to its repurposing in the middle ages for various purposes and finally to the tourist attraction we have today.

Why should you read it?
The Colosseum has had a remarkably long life that covers a wide swath of history. It is fascinating, to me anyway, to read about the repurposing of private land (Nero’s palace) into public land (the Colosseum was open to everyone) as a political tactic, even in ancient times.

The success of the film Gladiator shows that we are still fascinated by them – Hopkins and Beard go over the lives of actual gladiators, discussing how often they fought, how likely were they to live, how they fit into the economy as a whole. It should be noted that there is no record of Christians being put to death in the Colosseum – those were stories put about after the end of the gladiatorial games.

Into the middle ages, we see that it was treated a bit like a quarry. Many stones were removed to build other, more immediately necessary buildings. It was also used as a place of business by various people. In the 1800s Lord Byron wrote verses about it and archaeologists began to study it. It’s apparently interesting to botanists as well; there are unique plants that grow in the Colosseum. Who knew?

Overall, if you’re planning a visit to Rome and want to see the Colosseum, I’d recommend reading this.

Media Studies in the Ancient World

Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard

What’s it about?
Confronting the Classics is a series of book reviews written for the London Review of Books, the New York Review of Books, or the Times Literary Supplement over the years by the author. Mary Beard is a famous classicist (if there is such a thing as a famous classicist), and her reviews are all trying to answer the question: why does this particular book she’s reviewing matter to you, a non-classicist?

Why should you read it?
I loved it for a few reasons.

  1. I have a not-so-secret fondness for Ancient Rome. Mary Beard has a great skeptical eye through which to take a second look at some books I’ve read.
  2. Not to mention suggestions for all kinds of new books to read. Seriously, this one made my to-read list grow.
  3. She asks the serious question: why is Asterix so funny? Why do so many people (including me) love Asterix?
  4. I like her approach to book reviewing – asking why a particular book matters to someone who isn’t a classicist allows her to explore all kinds of questions. What was the woman’s voice in Ancient Greece (about Sappho)? What did the ancients find funny? Why do we still find most of those jokes funny?
  5. So much of what we know about the ancient world is because of what’s been written down. That’s biased in certain ways, with certain people wanting to influence how someone else was perceived. (e.g. Augustus burning anything about Cleopatra that didn’t fit how he wanted Roman society to see her). She takes a critical eye that reminded me a lot of modern media studies – there’s a thread in common with, say, Anne Helen Petersen.

Overall, I enjoyed it. You might too.