Josh BeerIn 2004 Classics at Carleton seemed as if it was about to be consigned to the rubbish bin of history. Earlier the senior administration of the university had significantly reduced its program by combining it with that of Religion’s. Since Religion was, at that time, the popular flavour of the month, Classics was very much the junior partner, and prospects looked bleak.

It was like putting the clock back a hundred and fifty years to the 19thcentury when most classicists at Oxford and Cambridge universities were divines in the Anglican Church. The thought still sends shock waves down my spine and is deleterious to my health, not that the effect was ALL bad. To be fair and give one positive example: the authors of the great Greek lexicon, commonly referred to simply by the surnames of the two compilers, Liddell and Scott, were Oxford Doctors of Divinity. The lexicon has been in print continuously since its first publication in 1843. My life would have been completely different without this monumental work. In 2043, although I almost certainly will have fallen in a harvest of the Grim Reaper’s by then, I sincerely hope that the happy band of classicists who survive in this increasingly mad world will have a huge party to celebrate the bi-centennial of Liddell and Scott’s original publication.

The deleterious effect of having clergymen teaching classics was that they often interpreted the pagan Greco-Roman world through the tinted spectacles of Christian monotheism. Thanks to Jupiter however in his perfect wisdom there developed in Germany at the same time Alterumwissenschaft(‘science of antiquity’) which helped to produce towering intellectuals such as Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche. As a result, in the 20thcentury Classics was largely able to break its ties with Christian theologians, and look at pagan antiquity in all its diverse complexity including its multitude of gods. I need only mention two here: Dionysus, who relieves our cares and Aphrodite who relieves … That is of course until the benighted fathers of Carleton university in their imperfect wisdom decided to put the clock back and rejoin Classics to Religion. No wonder I almost had a heart attack at the time. As a classicist I’m not always an easy bedfellow; I’m much more full of the joys of life when, under the influence of the great Dionysus, I resort to being a simple working class boy from the suburbs of London.

By 2004 things had reached a nadir. Then, I found myself the last of the full-time classicists left at Carleton. I was like Oedipus wandering blind at Colonus with no Antigone to guide me. At that point the then dean made it known that, after I retired, Classics would be allowed to die, and the money saved would be offered at the holy altar of Religion. Perhaps the dean was even hoping that, before I retired, the Grim Reaper would cut me off at the knees with one fell swipe of his scythe. Little did he know however that like Faust I had made a compact with the devil. The dean was not a bad man, just a simple geographer who had barely got past learning amo amas amatat high school and thought that that was basically what classics was all about. I’m afraid I’ve never had a high opinion – with few exceptions – of geographers ever since I was asked as a graduate student to put one up on my living room couch for two weeks. He spent most of the time thumbing through the white pages of the Bell Telephone Directory: “Fascinating things telephone books!” he would suddenly proclaim, “You can learn so much”. I often had difficulty containing his enthusiasm. Fortunately, the geographical dean himself decided to retire in 2004. My Mephistophelian compact had worked.

As you all no doubt know, I am by nature a deeply conservative man who is the kind of academic, epitomized in the joke: “How many professors does it take to change a light bulb?”……. “Change?”  It was therefore with much consternation that I learnt that the senior administration was going to accept invitations from academics outside the university for the position of Dean of Arts and Social Sciences. This was unprecedented in the almost 40 years I had been at Carleton. In my paranoid state, I immediately smelt a rat. Such had been the buffeting classics had received from a past president who was not an academic but an outsider that I thought an outside dean was being brought in to continue the villainous work of the aforesaid president.

Dear reader, how wrong can you be? The new dean had been reared on ambrosia and nectar. He had been a student at Carleton in the 1970s and had even taken courses in classical Greek. O Brave New World! Whether the dean had ichor rather than blood flowing through his veins I cannot say, but he appeared like Jupiter, raining down a shower of gold from heaven, by restoring classics to its rightful place as a prince of subjects. New hires were made: Elizabeth Klaassen, Susan Downie and Shane Hawkins, all of them doctors but none of them Doctors of Divinity. This new Jupiter became known to the modern world as Dean John Osborne, whose name I think the current Director of the College of Humanities should put forward for an honorary degree. Once a new Greek and Roman Studies program was put in place, Dean Osborne suggested having a world famous scholar give a lecture to inaugurate it. The legendary Dr. Mary Beard, who has recently been made Dame of the British Empire, was asked to deliver and graciously accepted. Mary is arguably the most famous classicist in the world today and, at times, perhaps the most controversial. Mary gave her lecture at Carleton in 2009 on the topic of ROMAN LAUGHTER. Mary has done too much in the meantime for me to keep up to date with all her activities, but I reproduce below my introduction to her lecture of 2009.

Sixteen days, by ancient Roman reckoning, after the celebrations of the Saturnalia, on the Kalens of January, that is New Year’s Day, 12 eagles flew in a row across the Palatine Hill ; nothing had ever been seen like it, and those who witnessed the sight declared it a miraculum; mendicant soothsayers, quick to see its pecuniary possibilities, predicted that it was the harbinger of an annus mirabilis that would restore a Golden Age, once founded by Saturn. In other words life would be one big party. That miracle, in fact, did not take place in ancient times, but in the 20thcentury and, as if to commemorate the auspicious event, that great Italian lover of things pagan, Federico Fellini,  released his classic film just a few years later: La Dolce Vita, “A Don’s Life”.  Also, with preternatural foresight, on that same New Year’s Day, the tiny Kingdom of Bhutan issued its first postage stamps, and philatelists have been scrutinizing them ever since to see if they can detect any cryptic, divine signs. Well, Ladies and gentleman, I have been sent here today from on high as a messenger from Jupiter — who appeared to me in the likeness of  Dean  Osborne — to reveal  the true meaning of that miracle. The day was 1stJanuary 1955, – please, don’t ask me to calculate that ab urbe condita – a girl-child was born, in whom was reincarnated the great spirit of Ancient Rome.  Her name is Mary, and I’m delighted that’s she’s here tonight at Carleton to spread the word of the New Golden Age of Greek and Roman Studies. The Saturnalia will begin a little later. 

I shall not call Mary Beard a Rara Avis, “a rare bird”, I will call her a Rarissima Avis, “a very rare bird”. (There seems to be a lot of bird imagery in this). In her youth Mary developed a passion for archaeology and found herself with a wonderful flair for the Greek and Latin languages; of these adolescent years she has described herself to the British press as “a very naughty girl”, so shunning admission to the sacred priesthood of the Vestals, Mary, instead, did the next best thing and won a classical scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. In going to Newnham she was following in the pioneering footsteps of the legendary Jane Harrison, one of the first female students at Cambridge in the 19thcentury, who today is probably most well known as one of the so called Cambridge ritualists. If you want to know more about this fascinating woman, you should read Mary Beard’s book on her: The Invention of Jane Harrison which reads at times like a mystery novel with Mary herself as a modern day sleuth reinvestigating the truth behind the myths of Jane’s life. It has a large cast of famous characters, including one Isaac Newton, mistakenly identified by an American visitor, as still alive over 150 years after his death.  Mary’s book is in the Carleton library, (much better go out and buy a copy).

After graduating with a doctorate from Cambridge, Mary had a liaison with King’s (King’s College, London that is) before she was awarded a fellowship at her old college of Newnham in 1984 and, later, becoming Professor of Classics at Cambridge. In 1985, she married the eminent Art Historian, Robin Cormack who I am pleased is also here tonight. They have two children. Distinguished works of scholarship and literary journalism began to flow from Mary’s pen (I suppose that’s an archaic image these days):  works on the Parthenon and the Roman Colosseum, the last co-authored with the late Keith Hopkins, who once gave a very interesting lecture at Carleton on the origins of sexual guilt. I’m still wrestling with that problem – the origins I mean.  Most recently, Mary has published the excellent The Roman Triumph (2007) and Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008). Among her many journalistic writings I particularly enjoyed her Diary in The London Review of Books on the experience of being on a film-set in Tunisia that produced a replica of much of ancient Rome, though I found her details of Roman crucifixions rather gruesome, but, since The Life of Brian was also filmed in Tunisia, I shall always look on the bright side of life. I thought we might ask Dean Osborne and Mary to sing that as a duet at the Saturnalia later.

In 1993, Mary was appointed classics editor of the prestigious Times Literary Supplement. Founded in 1902, the TLS for over a century has provided an outlet for the opinions of many of the most significant scholars and thinkers of the modern world. While there, Mary was invited to create a blog which she called A Don’s Life. This has helped to bring her both fame and not a little notoriety. She has been described as a “maverick, dangerous, and wickedly subversive” all of which terms I wish were applied to me. In this blog Mary has spoken her opinions frankly and freely. On some days she has received as many as 40,000 visits to her website.

Most recently, this academic year, Mary Beard has been the Sather  Professor at Berkeley, University of California. The Sather lectures, arguably the most distinguished in the classical world, were founded in 1915, and were designed to bring to Berkeley, one per year, a world renowned scholar who would give a series of lectures that would then be published as a book. And there have been many brilliant scholars who have produced many excellent works. To be invited to be a Sather Professor is a signal honour, and it aloneis a measure of the esteem in which Mary Beard is held.

We are here to celebrate the renewal of Greek and Roman Studies at Carleton. If the discipline is to play a vital role in our society in the third millenium as I hope it can and think it should, we classicists need to be more publicly visible. We must not let the likes of religious fundamentalists, the fraudulent financiers and the journalists monopolise the public agenda as if the modern world had invented everything except the proverbial wheel. We owe far too great a debt to the Greeks and Romans for that. Of course, we must not, as the Victorians did with the Greeks especially, over-romanticize them.  Many of their shortcomings and mistakes were gross and palpable. But, as L.P. Hartley once famously wrote “the past is another country; they do things differently there.”  And I would remind you that the Greek word for truth, aletheia, means “not forgetting”. The Greeks and Romans, by the very alterity of their world, can still teach us much. Ancient polytheism can still provide some useful correctives to the fanatical monotheists without us necessarily over-indulging in Dionysus. How the Athenians, in their democracy, made their multi-millionaires cough up their wealth for the greater benefit of society could usefully be adapted to today’s obscenely rich.  Demosthenes and Cicero could still teach modern journalists more than a thing or two about the art of spin.  If, at times, we classicists may seem to be oddballs and eccentrics,  so much the better. We don’t want a gray uniformity.

In short, we need more classicists like Mary Beard who combines deep scholarship with brilliant literary journalism, a truthsayer, who tells it like she sees it;  who cuts through the cant of hypocrisy; who tears a strip or two off an august institution like the BBC when its world reporting is not up to scratch; who tells us to get rid of the fascist insignia of the Olympics; who fearlessly crosses swords with the high and mighty: but who, most of all, inspires us with her great learning; who stimulates us to joy and laughter; and who gives a voice to countless people throughout the world through her blog. Dean Osborne, distinguished colleagues, past and present, honored students of Greek and Roman Studies who are our future, friends of Classics it is with much admiration, a profound sense of humility and deep sense of honor that I ask you to welcome Dr. Mary Beard to talk to us on Roman Laughter, and laugh I’m sure we will.


Josh Beer