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Classicist Mary Beard on Feminism, Online Trolls and What Ancient Rome Can Tell Us About Trump

Mary Beard is reclining at such a steep angle that her toes hang several feet above her head. Typing leisurely on her laptop, the Cambridge University historian is polishing off a paragraph of her next book on Ancient Rome. It’ll be one more to add to the hundreds of hefty volumes on classics that jostle for space with mock-Greek busts on the walls of her light-filled home office. When she finally swings back into a more conventional relationship with gravity, she tells TIME that her devotion to the ancient world doesn’t mean she’s out of touch. “I wouldn’t work on Rome if I didn’t think it had something to do with the present. Why would you spend your life buried in the past?”

Over the last decade, Beard’s ability to seamlessly weave her knowledge of Ancient Rome and Greece into lessons on modern politics, culture and society has turned her into the world’s most famous classicist. She has written 18 books and hosted nine TV shows. Along the way, she’s gained a reputation for upending assumptions: that academics are boring and serious; that women on TV should be petite, blonde and under 35; and that public figures should ignore their online trolls.

Though she has been working in academia ever since graduating from the University of Cambridge, U.K., herself in the mid-1970s and became Classics editor at the prestigious Times Literary Supplement in 1992, Beard didn’t become a household name until 2012. She had appeared in a few television programs when British art critic A.A. Gill criticized her for being too unattractive to appear on the nation’s screens. Beard penned a response in conservative British tabloid the Daily Mail and received an outpouring of positive support. “I had thousands of middle-aged women, most of whom wouldn’t agree with me on other things, saying ‘that’s what I look like.’” It was heartwarming,” she says. A feminist icon was born. 

Since then, she has grown ever more popular, developing a loyal Twitter following, appearing in a string of successful history shows, including the BBC’s 2018 documentary series Civilisations and its PBS version, and publishing two New York Times bestsellers, SPQR and Women & Power: A Manifesto. In June, Queen Elizabeth II made her a Dame of the Order of the British Empire, an honor bestowed on Brits who make the greatest contributions to public life.

In Beard’s new book, How Do We Look: The Body, the Divine, and the Question of Civilization, a companion to Civilisations, she turns her typically provocative perspective to art history. She argues that popular culture today has “an exclusive, almost obsessive focus” on the artists behind the art, at the expense of understanding how art forms a part of society. “Art becomes meaningful and classics become masterpieces because of the people who judge them, look at them, write about them.” Beard says. “If you leave those people out of the story you get a very skewed view of what art is.” ...

Read entire article at Time Magazine