Mary Beard (classicist)

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For the American historian and women's rights campaigner, see Mary Ritter Beard.
Mary Beard
Mary Beard filming in Rome.jpg
Beard filming in Rome, 2012
Born Winifred Mary Beard
(1955-01-01) 1 January 1955 (age 61)
Much Wenlock, Shropshire, England
Awards Wolfson History Prize (2009)
Officer of the Order of the British Empire (2013)
Princess of Asturias Awards
Bodley Medal (2016)
Academic background
Alma mater University of Cambridge
Thesis title The state religion in the late Roman Republic: a study based on the works of Cicero (1982)
Academic work
Discipline Classics
Sub discipline Ancient Rome
Roman art
Classical archaeology
Institutions King's College London
Newnham College, Cambridge
Notable works The Roman Triumph
SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome

Winifred Mary Beard, OBE, FSA, FBA (born 1 January 1955)[1] is an English Classical scholar.

She is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge,[2] a fellow of Newnham College, and Royal Academy of Arts Professor of ancient literature. She is also the classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog, "A Don's Life",[3] which appears in The Times as a regular column. Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as "Britain's best-known classicist".[4]

Early life[edit]

Mary Beard was born, an only child, on 1 January 1955[5] in Much Wenlock, Shropshire. Her mother, Joyce Emily Beard, was a headmistress and an enthusiastic reader.[4][6] Her father, Roy Whitbread Beard,[6] worked as an architect in Shrewsbury. She recalled him as "a raffish public-schoolboy type and a complete wastrel, but very engaging".[4]

Beard was educated at Shrewsbury High School, a private school for girls. During the summer she would join archaeological excavations, though the motivation was, in part, just the prospect of earning some pocket-money.[5]

At eighteen she sat the - then-compulsory - entrance exam for Cambridge University, and its dreaded interview, to win a place at Newham College.[5] She had considered King's, but rejected it when she learned the college did not offer scholarships to women.[5]

Although hers was a single-sex college, in her first year she found that some men in the university[who?staff?students?both?] still held very dismissive attitudes regarding the academic potential of women, which only strengthened her determination to succeed. She also developed feminist views that remained "hugely important" in her later life, although she later described "modern orthodox feminism" as partly cant.[4] Beard has since said that "Newnham could do better in making itself a place where critical issues can be generated" and has also described her views on feminism, saying "I actually can't understand what it would be to be a woman without being a feminist."[7]

Beard graduated with a BA (Hons), which was, in due course, converted to an MA.[8][9] She remained at Cambridge for her 1982 Ph.D. thesis entitled, The state religion in the late Roman Republic: a study based on the works of Cicero.[6]


From 1979 to 1983 Beard lectured in Classics at King's College London. She returned to Cambridge in 1984 as a Fellow of Newnham College and the only woman lecturer in the Classics faculty.[4][6] Rome in the Late Republic, which she co-wrote with the Cambridge ancient historian Michael Crawford, was published the same year.

Beard became Classics editor of The Times Literary Supplement in 1992.[6] In 1994 she made an early television appearance on an Open Media discussion for the BBC, Weird Thoughts,[10] alongside among others Jenny Randles and James Randi.

Arms of the University of Cambridge

Shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Beard was one of several authors invited to contribute articles on the topic to the London Review of Books. She opined that many people, once "the shock had faded", thought "the United States had it coming", and that "[w]orld bullies, even if their heart is in the right place, will in the end pay the price"[11] (the so-called "Roosting Chickens argument"). In a November 2007 interview, she stated that the hostility these comments provoked had still not subsided, although she believed it had become a standard viewpoint that terrorism was associated with American foreign policy.[4]

In 2004, Beard became Professor of Classics at Cambridge.[2][6] She also was elected Visiting Sather Professor of Classical Literature for 2008–2009 at the University of California, Berkeley, where she has delivered a series of lectures on "Roman Laughter".[12]

In December 2010, on BBC Two, Beard presented the graphic historical documentary, Pompeii: Life and Death in a Roman Town, submitting remains from the town to forensic tests, aiming to show a snapshot of the lives of the residents prior to the eruption of Vesuvius.[13] In 2011 she took part in a television series, Jamie's Dream School on Channel 4, and for BBC Two in 2012 she wrote and presented the three part television series, Meet the Romans with Mary Beard, which concerns how ordinary people lived in Rome, "The world's first global metropolis". Beard is a regular contributor to the BBC Radio 4 series, A Point of View, delivering essays on a broad range of topics including Miss World[14] and the Oxbridge interview.[15]

Beard received considerable online abuse after she appeared on BBC's Question Time from Lincolnshire in January 2013 and spoke positively about immigrant workers living in the county.[16][17] Beard quoted abusive comments that she had received on her blog as a result,[18] and reasserted her right to express unpopular opinions and to present herself in public in an authentic way.[19] On 4 August 2013, she received a bomb threat on Twitter, hours after the UK head of that social networking site had apologised to women who had experienced abuse on the service. Beard said she did not think she was in physical danger, but considered it harassment and wanted to "make sure" that another case had been logged by the police.[20]

In April 2013, she was named as Royal Academy of Arts professor of ancient literature.[21] In July 2013 Beard admitted that she knowingly, repeatedly, and illegally rode her bicycle the wrong way down a one-way street.[22]

In August 2014, Beard was one of 200 public figures who were signatories to a letter to The Guardian expressing their hope that Scotland would vote to remain part of the United Kingdom in September's referendum on that issue.[23]

In December 2015 she was again a panelist on BBC's Question Time from Bath.[24]

2016 saw Beard present Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard on BBC One in March.[25] While May 2016, brought about a four-part series shown on BBC Two, titled Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit.[26]

Approach to scholarship

According to University of Chicago classicist Clifford Ando, Beard is noted for two aspects of her approach to sources:

  • she insists that ancient sources be understood as documentation of the attitudes, context and beliefs of their authors, not as reliable sources for the events they address
  • she argues that modern histories of Rome be contextualised within the attitudes, world views and purposes of their authors.[27]



Personal life[edit]

Mary Beard married Robin Cormack in 1985. Their daughter was born later that year and their son in 1987.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Prof Mary Beard, OBE Authorised Biography | Debrett's People of Today". 1955-01-01. Retrieved 2015-07-29. 
  2. ^ a b "Appointments, reappointments, and grants of title". Cambridge University Reporter. CXXXV.20 (5992). 2 March 2005. 
  3. ^ "A Don's Life". Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Paul Laity (10 November 2007). "The dangerous don" (interview). The Guardian. London. Retrieved 16 July 2008. 
  5. ^ a b c d "Interview with Mary Beard, the classical world's most provocative figure | Books". The Guardian. Retrieved 2015-07-29. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "BEARD, Prof (Winifred) Mary". Debrett's People of Today. 2008. Retrieved 16 July 2008. (subscription required (help)). 
  7. ^ Story: Ashley Chhibber  . "Interview: Mary Beard | Interviews | The Cambridge Student". Retrieved 2014-08-26. 
  8. ^ "The Cambridge MA: : Student Registry". 26 January 2012. Retrieved 19 November 2012. 
  9. ^ Collins, Nick (12 February 2011). "Oxbridge students' MA 'degrees' under threat". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  10. ^ EOFF, accessed 5 January 2016
  11. ^ Mary Beard (4 October 2001). "11 September". London Review of Books. Retrieved 16 July 2008. 
  12. ^ "The Sather Professor". University of California, Berkeley Department of Classics. Retrieved 16 July 2008. 
  13. ^ Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008); ISBN 1-86197-516-3 (U.S. title: The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found; Harvard University Press)
  14. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - A Point of View, On Age and Beauty". 2011-11-13. Retrieved 2015-07-29. 
  15. ^ "BBC Radio 4 - A Point of View, The Oxbridge Interview". 2011-11-27. Retrieved 2015-07-29. 
  16. ^ Dowell, Ben. "Mary Beard suffers 'truly vile' online abuse after Question Time". The Guardian. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  17. ^ "Cambridge professor under fire for Boston immigration comments on BBC Question Time", Boston Standard, 21 January 2013
  18. ^ Beard, Mary (27 January 2013). "Internet fury: or having your anatomy dissected online". The Times Literary Supplement. Archived from the original on 7 August 2013. Retrieved 7 August 2013. 
  19. ^ Lark Turner (15 February 2013). "In Britain, an Authority on the Past Stares Down a Nasty Modern Storm". The New York Times. Retrieved 16 February 2013. I've chosen to be this way because that's how I feel comfortable with myself," Beard said. "That's how I am. It's about joining up the dots between how you look and how you feel inside, and I think that's what I've done, and I think people do it differently. 
  20. ^ "Bomb threat tweet sent to classicist Mary Beard - BBC News". Retrieved 2015-07-29. 
  21. ^ "Mary Beard named as Royal Academy of Arts professor of ancient literature", The Independent, 10 April 2013
  22. ^
  23. ^ "Celebrities' open letter to Scotland – full text and list of signatories | Politics". 2014-08-07. Retrieved 2014-08-26. 
  24. ^ 18:00 (2015-12-13). "BBC One - Question Time, 10/12/2015". Retrieved 2016-03-03. 
  25. ^ 21:00 (3 March 2016). "BBC One - Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed with Mary Beard". Retrieved 3 March 2016. 
  26. ^ "Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit - BBC Two". BBC. Retrieved 2016-08-10. 
  27. ^ Ando, Clifford (29 February 2016). "The Rise and Rise of Rome". The New Rambler. Retrieved 24 May 2016. 
  28. ^ [1] Archived 24 June 2012 at the Wayback Machine.‹The template Wayback is being considered for merging.› 
  29. ^ Vanessa Thorpe (29 April 2012). "Mary Beard: the classicist with the common touch". The Guardian. 
  30. ^ The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 60367. p. 9. 29 December 2012.
  31. ^ Kirsten Reach (14 January 2014). "NBCC finalists announced". Melville House Publishing. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  32. ^ "Announcing the National Book Critics Awards Finalists for Publishing Year 2013". National Book Critics Circle. 14 January 2014. Retrieved 14 January 2014. 
  33. ^ "Mary Beard joins list of famous names including Stephen Hawking and Hilary Mantel to receive Bodleian Libraries medal". Oxford Mail. 22 February 2016. Retrieved 24 February 2016. 

External links[edit]