Mary Beard: ‘Everyone is policing everything, and the left are just as bad as the right’

Professor Mary Beard associates the restaurant Moro, in London’s Clerkenwell, with afternoons of flowing wine and pats on the back. It’s where her publisher takes her to celebrate when she has delivered a book manuscript. She’s nearing such a deadline when we meet there – just finalising the endnotes to her new title about Roman emperors, a companion volume to SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome, her bestselling account of the empire’s rise and fall – so she carries a bit of that demob spirit with her. She orders a glass of her favourite Basque spritz wine, txiki blanco, and a plate of Iberian pork, and settles back on a cushioned window seat into the lunchtime clatter of conversation.

At 68, Beard has lately taken compulsory retirement from 40 years of teaching classics to undergraduates at her Cambridge college; now she is concentrating full time on illuminating the ancient world for the rest of us. In the days before we meet, I’ve been catching up on her required-reading blog, A Don’s Life. In it she uses the example of Marcus Licinius Crassus, one of the despised super-rich of the first century BC, to examine Nadhim Zahawi’s shocking tax affairs; she has compared the response to a devastating earthquake on the Turkish/Syrian borders 2,000 years ago – the emperor Trajan ploughed central funds into improved rebuilding schemes – with the planning failures of the recent disaster; and she has examined the Scottish prisons controversy in light of Roman attitudes to incarceration. In a world defined by what she calls “presentism”, a blinkered obsession with the here and now, Beard offers a spirited, repeated reminder that there is nothing new under the sun.

That is the message of a series of short films she has just made for schools, which open up for teenagers “culture war” questions of free speech. Beard has lived on the frontline of that conflict for some time – cheerfully strapped to the mast as she navigates those rough seas between outrage and woke. “I don’t think university campuses are quite the nightmare of terror some newspapers want to make them,” she says. “But I think, too, it is probably easier for teachers to talk to kids about Socrates than about [social media]. He may have died 2,500 years ago, but it turns out he had quite a few of these ideas worked out. If you can encourage kids to think about the issues historically you have made a start. The ancient world can be a classic safe space.”

Beard, who is fond of Cicero’s maxim “if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it”, has been a robust defender of context and common sense in our society of easy offence. She has, from time to time, jumped in to defuse manufactured apoplexy on Twitter, only to find herself a target for mansplaining and vicious misogyny. The worst case, she suggests, was when, responding to a tweet from far-right firestarter Paul Joseph Watson, she defended a BBC cartoon for depicting a Roman governor of ancient Britain as dark skinned. She pointed to the fact of the Algerian-born governor, Quintus Lollius Urbicus, only to be faced with an unlikely pile-on of Romans-were-all-white antagonists; the Black Swan economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb then attacked her “historian hearsay bullshit”. These days, she never takes a step back, but tries to choose her battles. “Everyone is policing everything,” she says, “and the left are just as bad as the right.”

She is a little nostalgic for an era of more open and combative table talk. Ordering another glass of txiki, she recalls the bluntness of some of her mentors, who did not spare her feelings in delivering criticism, often over long lunches. “The most useful advice I ever received,” she says, “came from a man who was a real toughie. He would say things that you would never get away with now. I had written one of my first academic papers and given it him to read. We met, I remember, to discuss it in that original Pizza Express in Coptic Street near the British Museum. We were probably on our second bottle of wine and he said something about my paper which I’ve never forgotten: ‘It may be right, Mary, but it’s bloody boring.’ I was 24 or 25. I thought about it. Up until that moment I had always believed writing was just about saying what you wanted to say. But after that I realised there was someone else involved: you had to think about the reader.”

Beard has never forgotten that advice. It explains her journalistic gift for making the past truthful and vivid news. Part of her motivation as a young feminist at Cambridge in the 1970s – her walls were papered with posters of the black activist Angela Davis – was to prove that classicists needn’t wear tweeds, and that archaeologists weren’t all “bronzed blokes in khaki shorts”. She knew she would have to work twice as hard and be twice as good as her male peers to make her name, but the challenge never fazed her. Some of that determination, she says, came from the example of her mother.

“My mum,” she says, “was absolutely rock-solid Labour. She hadn’t been able to go to university because her parents couldn’t afford it. When she was a village schoolmistress she stood in the local council elections against the lord of the manor who had held the post for ever. She did it as an independent because if you wanted to win in the 1950s in rural Shropshire you didn’t mention the Labour party. She won a great victory against noblesse oblige. My dad was an old-fashioned liberal. They both hated the Tories for different reasons.”

Her mother lived to be 80, old enough to see her daughter become a published writer, but not a TV star. Did she herself have trepidation about making that latter leap, taking classics fully mainstream?

“I did when I started,” she says. “I was terribly suspicious about doing telly.” Again there was a food-related eureka moment. “One time we had about two minutes to explain the division of the Roman empire into four different parts. We were in Italy. The producer suggested we went to a pizzeria, and I cut a pizza into four and explained the history of each slice. I said, ‘You must be fucking joking. That is a bridge too far. This is complicated stuff.’ So she said, ‘OK, you do it your way. Just explain it. You have two minutes.’ I tried about three times and each time it got more boring. I could sense everyone switching off. On the fourth take I called for the pizza.”

Dishes at Moro, Exmouth Market

Beard pushes aside her emptied plate – “extremely good, and extremely calorific” – and we talk about what she’s up to after her book is done. “Right now, I want to rest,” she says. But I’m going to do a series of lectures in Chicago in a couple of months, which will become a book about why study classics.”

And what’s the answer?

She laughs, reaches for her wine. “I want to say that the kind of struggle you currently have – in most humanities disciplines, actually – between ‘classics is a bastion of white supremacy used to justify European dictatorship’ versus ‘classics is a liberalising force, showing the basis of democracy, gay rights etc’ kind of misses the point.”

It is not, she suggests, about trying to view the past through the political lenses of the present. “I think the reason to study classics is that it teaches puzzlement and wonder. Is it legitimate to say, ‘We don’t need to make a moral judgment?’ If you are in Pompeii and you touch the cradle of a baby who has died at that moment all those years ago, you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be moved. But how do you begin to explain who these people were? I think it is that just-out-of-reachness that really teaches you of the difficulties of making sense of somebody else.”

Related: Mary Beard: ‘Virgil was a radical rap artist of the first century BC’

We are pretty much the last table left in Moro, now, but she is warming to her theme. “We think of ourselves as at one end of progress and there are all sorts of reasons why that’s true – I don’t fancy going back to Rome, thank you very much – but we forget the people in Rome who critiqued what was happening at the time. The knowledge that all the battles we have today have been fought thousands of years before us. Well, to me it’s a bit humbling … and who doesn’t need to learn that?”

Emperor of Rome by Mary Beard will be published in September by Profile