By Julia Gasper
One of the highlights of this year’s Oxford Literary Festival was the award of the Bodley Medal to Professor Mary Beard, the classicist of Cambridge University.
The Bodley Medal is awarded by the Bodleian Library to people who have made “outstanding contributions…to the worlds of communications and literature” and who have helped the library achieve “the vision of its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, to be a library not just to Oxford University but also to the world”. Mary Beard certainly deserves it as not only is she a distinguished professor of Classics but she has also written best-selling books and is now well-known for her TV programmes about Roman history. Combining erudition and accessibility, she has fascinated millions of people with her fresh research into the daily lives and secrets of the ordinary people who lived in the ancient world.
Previous recipients of the Bodley Medal include Sir Richard Attenborough and the novelists Ian McEwan and Hilary Mantel.
Prof Beard spoke in the interview about what inspired her to study classics, and why it matters. When asked why we should be interested in Ancient Rome, she pointed out that it still underpins the whole of our civilisation. Our alphabet is Roman. Our European capitals are Roman cities. Roman law provided many of our own legal concepts. We are Christian because a Roman Emperor Constantine, converted in the fourth century.
When asked whether she was worried about the effect of mass tourism on sites such as Pompeii, she said she was delighted that people were going there, and far more damage had been done by the allies bombing it in World War II.
She also described the impact of the feminist movement on academia in her lifetime as “revolutionary”. When she was an undergraduate, women were only 12% at Cambridge. Now they are around half of all students at all universities, and the proportion of women dons is higher than ever before. This means that our whole viewpoint on whatever we study and research has been broadened.
It was a pity that Professor Beard had no time to discuss her recent involvement in the Defend Free Speech campaign, a very worthy cause that needs prestigious supporters such as herself. I admire her for doing that and deplore those who have subjected her to flak because of it, I hope that this award of the Bodley Medal raises her profile once more and puts her grumpy critics to shame. http://oxfordliteraryfestival.org/authors/2016/mary-beard
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