Acclaimed Classicist Mary Beard: "What Can We Learn from the Classics"

Mary Beard discusses what we can learn from the Classics during three Berlin Family Lectures.
Mary Beard discusses what we can learn from the Classics during three Berlin Family Lectures.

Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures 2023

These lectures challenge some of our assumptions about Classics. In an age in which the humanities are said to be increasingly under threat, it is all the more important to confront the basic question of why on earth we should be bothered with what happened (or was written) 2,000 years ago.

What do we mean by Classics and what do we hope to get out of it? These lectures puncture some of the myths of the subject, both ancient and modern. There will be no bathing in the well-springs of “Western Civilisation” here, no celebration of “timeless” values—but equally no claim that Classics has had a uniquely reactionary voice in modern cultural conversations. In exploring the fun, the dangers, and the heady uncertainties that Classics bring, Mary Beard argues that it can help us to think differently, to look at the world with new eyes, and to understand better where our own assumptions come from.

During the three lectures, a cast of characters will be introduced that range from ancient gladiators to Marxist theorists and 20th-century poets, and the audience will tour Rome with Hitler and Mussolini, while also glimpsing the role of the ancient world in modern liberation movements. But the Berlin Family Lectures will start off with a carbonized piece of Egyptian cake, more than 3,000 years old.

Presenter: Mary Beard

Lecture 1: A Piece of CakeSold Out for In-Person Registration. 

The first lecture begins with the piece of cake that was Mary Beard’s first encounter with the ancient world, and the wonderment that it instilled. That one small object launches a series of questions about what Classics is and the contests over its definition that go back centuries. This year is the 50th anniversary of Beard’s entry into the subject as a Classics major, and she uses that occasion partly as an opportunity to reflect on what has changed over the last half-century, and how differently she approaches the piece of cake now.

April 20, 2023, 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT
David Rubenstein Forum, Friedman Hall

Moderator: Anne Walters Robertson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities at the University of Chicago

Lecture 2: The Shock of the OldSold Out for In-Person Registration. 

The second lecture takes (and adapts) its title from Robert Hughes’s book on modern art, The Shock of the New. It asks what is “old” or “new” about Classics, from the art of antiquity to modern times. It is also about the central role of the humanities (of which Classics is the most extreme example) in facing up to the dilemmas of modernity, in celebrating complexity, and in undermining self-confident presentism. One of the most important things that Classics can do is help us to discuss productively questions to which there are no right answers.

April 25, 2023, 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT
David Rubenstein Forum, University A and B

Moderator: Clifford Ando, Professor and Chair in the Department of Classics at the University of Chicago

Lecture 3: Fear and LoathingSold Out for In-Person Registration. 

The third lecture takes a more ethical turn. Starting from the days in 1938 when Hitler toured the monuments of Rome, it asks first about the conscription of Classics to the causes of fascism, dictatorship, and far-right politics. But it goes on to ask how we judge the ancient world itself, and how far the crimes of antiquity implicate the modern world too. Are we as far from those who sat in the arena watching human slaughter as we like to imagine?

April 26, 2022, 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT
David Rubenstein Forum, University A and B

Moderator: Patrice Rankine, Professor in the Department of Classics at the University of Chicago


About Mary Beard

Mary Beard by Robin Cormack

Mary Beard is one of the most original and best-known classicists and is distinguished as an English scholar of ancient Rome who shares her knowledge broadly on the BBC and in the classroom. She is a professor emerita in Classics at Newnham College at the University of Cambridge; the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, where Beard writes a frequently published blog called “A Don’s Life;” and a frequent host of BBC broadcasts about Pompeii, ancient Roman history, and historic figures such as Julius Caesar and Caligula.

In 2018, she became Dame Commander of the British Empire for her services to the study of classical civilizations. Among many honors, Beard received the Wolfson History Prize in 2009 for her book Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008), the Bodley Medal in 2016 for her outstanding contributions to the world of books, and honorary degrees from Oxford University, Yale University, and University of St. Andrews, among others.

Her broadcasting career took off in her mid-fifties, when Beard smashed through boundaries of gender and even of appearance for learned commentators, naming herself "a craggy white woman" and working in the midst of she describes as "craggy white men." She believes that looking closely at Greece and Rome helps us to understand more about ourselves and recognize how we have learned to think as we do. Beard has an uncanny ability to make classical studies, ancient Roman history and life highly intriguing and relevant for current times.

The Humanities in Practice

The Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures bring to campus individuals who are making fundamental contributions to the arts, humanities, and humanistic social sciences.

Each visitor offers an extended series of three to five lectures and develops a book for publication with the University of Chicago Press.