Augustus was an ‘old reptile’. Interview to May Beard, that makes ancient Rome funny and entertaining


The title couldn’t be more clear: SPQR, the book on ancient Rome by Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, is a vast (544 pages) but incredibly readable and entertaining history of Classic Rome. It has been recently translated in Italian and published by Mondadori. But shouldn’t be the other way round, shouldn’t the most complete book about the history of Rome be written by an Italian and translated in English? Shouldn’t be the Italians the ones who knows their history deeply and are eager to tell it to the world?

Where does it come your love for classic Rome?
I think it all started when I was five years old and my mother took me to the British Museum, where we saw the sculptures from the Parthenon. I was amazed that anyone could do something that good so very long ago. Later on, when I started to learn Latin and to explore the Roman sites near where I lived, I became even more interested in the Romans and the history beneath my feet, as it were.

You have been named the academic Italy lacks (but strongly needs). How do you engage such a wide public on a such a peculiar subject like ancient Rome?
It really isn’t hard. The important thing for me is not to talk down to a general audience. I try to share exactly what I talk about with my academic colleagues - simply avoiding technical language. It is very good training for any academic to do that.

You have written 14 books, one of them on being a working mum. Can you tell us more about that?
In that book I just wanted to share some experiences and tips (I had two children under 3 at the time!). It remains hard to have children and a full time job. That is true right across the board, especially those who are more disadvantaged. In a way, people like me, who can afford full time childcare have it easier, but it is still hard.

In Italy we have the art, the beauty, the heritage but people do not care about all that. Why are the Britons much more passionate about ancient Rome and history in general than the Italians?
I wonder if that is true. The British make a big noise about it, but we don’t always do better. I like to remind the Brits that it was the allies who bombed Pompeii in World War II.

You had a traumatising experience when backpacking in Italy in your twenties. This could have put you off Italy for the rest of your life. You have decided instead to dedicate your work and your time to a country that did not treat you well (Mary was raped on a train in Milan by an Italian man when she was a young backpacker). Can you tell us more?
It was a very long time ago…. and the man in question (lets say it, ‘rapist’) was an architect designing a biscuit factory in Naples. The experience hasn’t put me off Italy, Naples or Italian biscuits. I don’t mean to sound flippant, but it really is important to move on.

Modern Rome seems not able to regain the ‘grandeur’ of its ancient times and is today a deeply corrupt and badly governed city. Rome is deciding on its next mayor as we speak. Do you follow Italian (and Roman) politic? Do you know that Rome could have its first female mayor, a young  lawyer with a very small experience in politic?
I follow Italian politics a bit, but I am not involved at all (and not enough to comment really). What is clear that there are similar changes going on in various places in Europe. Maybe it is the beginning of a bigger change in the politic class… or maybe not!

Are you pro or anti Brexit?

What is the TV series you are working on?
I am part of a team who is making a new version of a famous TV series from the 1960s, ‘Civilisation’. That looked at European civilisation from the Middle Ages on. We are broadening the time frame (to include Classical antiquity, for a start) and moving a long way beyond Europe.


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