In addition to being a classics professor at the University of Cambridge, a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of ancient literature, Mary Beard is also a best-selling author whose most recent opus, >SPQR, shines a fresh light on ancient Roman history. She’s also the host of various TV programs, such as Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed. All of which would make you think she’s not one to be messed with when it comes to arguing over the past. But that doesn’t stop game mansplainers from having a crack...
A prominent UKIP donor brought high school history to a gunfight
Arron Banks is a British businessman who isn’t very keen on immigrants or Britain being part of the EU. And when he blithely declared on Twitter that “the Roman Empire was effectively destroyed by immigration”, Beard took exception. That’s when things got interesting, with Banks telling her he “studied Roman history extensively” and she doesn’t “have a monopoly on history”. Beard replied, “sorry Mr Banks, but this might be a subject on which to listen to experts!” and after invoking his high school recollections of “savages beyond compare falling down on Rome and destroying the empire,” things descended into farce as Banks declared his love for I, Claudius and Gladiator in the face of Beard’s withering barrage of facts and theory.
TV critic AA Gill unleashed her fury
It isn’t often you find television criticism aimed at male presenters’ looks, so when Beard’s first televisual outing, Meet the Romans, screened, it was disappointing to see that the most prominent review didn’t tackle the content of the program so much as her physical appearance.
Mary’s very Roman revenge appeared in a Daily Mail column titled “Too ugly for TV? No, I'm too brainy for men who fear clever women”, where she said: “Throughout Western history there have always been men like Gill who are frightened of smart women who speak their minds” and “even the greenest of my students would not present me with an essay as ill-argued and off the point as Gill’s critique.” (Read the whole thing, it’s brilliant.)
Her public support of immigration brought out the trolls
Back in 2013, Beard appeared on UK debate show Question Time, where she argued that immigrants weren’t a burden on the economy. As you may imagine, the online response to this opinion was far from polite and reasoned. One commentator referred to her as “a vile, spiteful excuse for a woman, who eats too much cabbage and has cheese straws for teeth”, while another Photoshopped female genitals onto her face. Beard’s response? She posted said photo on her blog and suggested her followers flood the Don’t Start Me Off message board with Latin poetry. Soon, after the story made headlines, Don’t Start Me Off was shut down.
The “Oh Do Shut Up Dear” lecture showed misogyny’s nothing new
In February 2014, Beard delivered a lecture at the British Museum. Entitled “Oh Do Shut Up Dear”, it explored the history of literary misogyny and the silencing of female voices, beginning with Penelope and Telemachus and ending with Twitter. Only a historian of Beard’s particular background and skill could use a televised lecture to associate the language of antiquity with the tools used to keep “strident” women from “whinging” today.
She knows where the real power is – with Mum
Mothers exert a great deal of influence in Roman history, from Cornelia Africana to Livia. When a 20-year-old student tweeted “You filthy old slut. I bet your vagina is disgusting” at our hero, she replied that he should take it down. But it wasn’t until someone threatened to tell his mum that the horrific message disappeared and Beard received an apology. This would seem like a mundane story, except that she ended up meeting her attacker for lunch, and even writing him a letter of recommendation when he went for a job. “He was a disinhibited, drunk young bloke on a holiday with his mates,” she later said in an interview about cyberstalking. “I’ve had some tough times on Twitter, but I’ve concluded that more of the sexism on Twitter is by the disinhibited than it is by the very nasty.”
Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed is streaming now on SBS On Demand: