Confronting the Classics

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This wasn’t really the book I expected. I can’t recall for certain the circumstances of its purchase, but I thought I had an introduction to classics. The blurb on the back says “In Confronting the Classics, one of our leading academics takes us on an eye-opening tour through classical history…”. I studied classics and Latin at school (to my astonishment I passed O level Latin), but now many years on it’s all got a bit jumbled in memory; I’d not be able to explain the difference between The Iliad and The Aeneid. Perhaps I was expecting Confronting to sort out some of the jumble.

In fact, it’s a set of book reviews written by Mary Beard over many years. She had taken a selection and put them in roughly chronological order of subject (not publication) so we do indeed get a tour from Minoan Crete to biographies of 20th century classists. As such it was quite interesting. We are hoping to visit Crete next year, so being forwarned about Sir Arthur Evans’ “reconstruction” of Knossos is useful (and I’ve made a mental note to apply some scepticism to similar things).

But it’s not (thank goodness) a simply review of the book (it was in/accurate; well/badly written; I dis/liked it) but a discourse on the subject from Prof Beard’s own perspective. This did make it an interesting read, with lots of background, context and discussion about the subject; for example, was Caligula as crazy as he was portrayed in BBC’s  I CLAVDIVS. The references to the book being reviewed were usually brief and didn’t leave me with a feeling of whether I’d like to read it. Most of the reviews were quite disparaging anyway.

Each of the reviews was interesting as a glimpse of some part of “classics”, but overall it feels a bit patchy. I suppose in around 280 pages it’s impossible to give a full account; Prof Beard’s book just on Rome (SPQR) is more then 500 pages.

So I’m pleased to have read it  – I like Prof Beard’s style of writing – but glad it wasn’t any longer. I’m left with a smattering of increased knowledge about bits the classical world, but the format was just a bit odd. In due course I’ll move on to SPQR (bought by Janet not me), which I assume is much more focussed.

Summary: Finished; liked, but a little grudgingly.