The classicist and Cambridge professor reveals her disdain for the mythos of Alexander the Great, and why she hunts for stories of forgotten Romans
With classicist Mary Beard
Mary's latest project is Civilisations, a ten-part BBC Two series examining art and visual culture from around the world, co-presented by fellow historians Simon Schama and David Olusoga. It airs in spring 2018.
Q If you could turn back the clock, which single event in history would you want to change?
I rather fancy turning Alexander the Great into a hopeless military disaster. It is partly the glamorisation of Alexander's success, and the (probably false) sense that he was on some heroic mission to take culture to the East, that has so firmly embedded that clash of cultures. West versus East. In reality, I suspect that he was a brutal young man with a drinking habit. I would rather like to take him down a peg or two.
Q If you could meet any figure from history, who would it be?
I would always want to swap notes with a woman. One favourite would be Agrippina, Emperor Nero’s mother. She has had a very bad press, accused of wheedling her son onto the throne and of having an incestuous affair with him; he soon tired of her, the story goes, and had her murdered. It is part of a pattern with the high-ranking ladies of imperial Rome – they are always treated as treacherous (and as a dab hand with poison). It is a dreadful stereotype, I suspect, but I need to come face to face to be quite sure.
Q If you could visit any historical landmark in the world tomorrow, where would you go?
Back to Pompeii. That’s not very original, but it is one place where you can really feel you are in the Roman world. It is not so much any single building in particular – though there are some wonderfully preserved bathing complexes, where you really get a feel for what it must have been like. It is more the fact that if you are lucky you can still wander down backstreets and see nothing from the 21st century. You can still hop across the streets on the famous stepping stones, as if you were there in AD 79.
Q Who is your unsung history hero?
Mine are all the unsung cleaners, bath attendants, nannies and laundry workers of the Roman world. We know much less about them than we do about the socalled ‘great men’, but we can discover more than you think. Perhaps my favourite is a woman from Rome itself called Allia Potestas, who is described at length on her tombstone. From that we learn that she lived in a ménage à trois with two young men, and that she was always the first one up and the last to go to bed. Predictably, when Allia died the guys went their separate ways.
Pompeii was a Roman town close to Naples, buried by ash from Vesuvius in AD 79