History is all in the telling. I’ve always enjoyed a good work of history, especially ancient history, but can understand if others are a bit hesitant. If a history book is an unending list of dates, a dry rendition of ‘what happened,’ or just an academic author trying to prove a point it can be annoying and, worse yet, deadly dull even if you enjoy the topic. The best way to guard against selecting historical duds, I’ve found, is to discover an exciting and intriguing history writer.
Mary Beard is one such author. A bit of an institution in the UK, Mary Beard brings a fresh perspective on classical history with everything she writes. She does this by bringing forward the stories of those groups often forgotten in history, classical or otherwise, and by showing history to be an ever-changing debate amongst those doing the telling. Being skeptical and critical of consensus when it comes to the stories we are told is her default position it seems.
So clearly, I like her stuff. But will you? Long works of history can be intimidating so why not try something shorter to start. Mary Beard has an excellent blog if you want to start electronically sampling her work. If a book is more your style might I suggest the very short, almost a pamphlet really, Women & Power: A Manifesto. Based on a series of lectures, this book is crammed full of intriguing concepts about the way classical ideas about women in power continue to affect our current culture, including the last presidential election. Try this excellent book and you will never look at Medusa (not a good thing to do to start with) the same way again.
Now that you have gotten your feet wet, it’s time to delve into a longer work. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome is one of Beard’s best. Don’t be put off by the long time frame, almost 1000 years of history, since this is not a chronicle of what happened when. Instead, Beard illuminates the ideas and controversies that the Romans argued over and debated as they went from small city-state to far-flung empire. Many of these ideas have great resonance with issues we face today. The icing on the cake is how she clues you into the way historians actually put together the facts and lets you make your own decisions about what might have really happened and its significance.
There are many great books to highlight in Mary Beard’s collection, but let me just suggest two more that are exceptional:
Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations is an outstanding collection of essays on a diverse and intriguing number of topics related to the ancient world. She brings her signature wit and depth of knowledge to each essay and is always entertaining. Plus how can you resist essay titles such as ‘Alexander: How Great?’, ‘Who Wanted Remus Dead?’, ‘Bit-Part Emperors’, and ‘Married to the Empire’?
The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found is an attempt, with no claims of certain knowledge despite what some other historians and archaeologists might state, to figure out how the residents of Pompeii lived before Vesuvius buried the town in ash. It was a city full of bright colors, noxious smells and sculpted phalluses, placed for luck that clearly ran out, everywhere. Who better than Mary Beard to guide you through this fascinating, yet disturbing, place?
So there you have a few suggestions to get you started. Choose one that appeals and be confident in the knowledge that you will be in the hands of a master storyteller.