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Give her a snake

Mary Beard, 22 March 1990

Cleopatra: Histories, Dreams and Distortions 
by Lucy Hughes-Hallett.
Bloomsbury, 338 pp., £16.95, February 1990, 0 7475 0093 2
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... monster with writhing snakes instead of hair, deadly eyes, enormous gaping mouth, sometimes a beard. When she is done to death, she ends up as a trophy on the goddess Athena’s breastplate – her head staring out to strike terror into Athena’s enemies. The other type seems completely different. Although we know that she has the same deadly qualities ...

Don’t forget the primitive

Mary Beard, 20 August 1992

Origins of the Sacred: The Ecstasies of Love and War 
by Dudley Young.
Little, Brown, 379 pp., £16.99, May 1992, 0 356 20628 9
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... The ‘Glory that was Greece’ has had a hard time recently. Big guns have been drawn up against our accustomed admiration of the Greek genius, our collusive Philhellenism. It is very heavy artillery indeed. First, Martin Bernal’s enormous Black Athena (two volumes already, with two more to come) – a brave piece of iconoclasm that questions not only the primacy of the Greek cultural achievement over its Near-Eastern, Semitic and African neighbours, but also the bigotry and racism sheltering under the authority of ‘traditional’ Classical scholarship ...

Sappho speaks

Mary Beard, 11 October 1990

The Woman and the Lyre: Women Writers in Classical Greece and Rome 
by Jane McIntosh Snyder.
Bristol Classical Press, 199 pp., £25, May 1989, 1 85399 062 0
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The Constraints of Desire: The Anthropology of Sex and Gender in Ancient Greece 
by J.J. Winkler.
Routledge, 240 pp., £30, February 1990, 0 415 90122 7
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Greek Virginity 
by Giulia Sissa, translated by Arthur Goldhammer.
Harvard, 240 pp., $29.95, March 1990, 0 674 36320 5
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... It is against the nature of things that a woman who has given herself up to unnatural and inordinate practices ... should be able to write in perfect obedience to the laws of vocal harmony, imaginative portrayal, and arrangement of the details of thought.’ For David Robinson, writing in the Twenties and reprinted in the Sixties, the ‘perfection’ of Sappho’s verse was clear enough proof of her unblemished character ...

Cleopatra’s Books

Mary Beard, 8 February 1990

The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World 
by Luciano Canfora, translated by Martin Ryle.
Radius, 205 pp., £14.95, November 1989, 0 09 174049 5
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Herodotus 
by John Gould.
Weidenfeld, 164 pp., £14.95, October 1989, 9780297793397
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... The Aristotle ... was already burning. Meanwhile, some sparks had flown towards the walls, and already the volumes of another bookcase were crumpling in the fury of the fire.’ So, in the final pages of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco destroys ‘the greatest library in Christendom’, hidden away in the impenetrable labyrinth of his macabre abbey ...

Looking for the loo

Mary Beard, 15 August 1991

You just don’t understand: Women and Men in Conversation 
by Deborah Tannen.
Virago, 330 pp., £14.99, May 1991, 1 85381 381 8
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... Three years ago the University of Cambridge voted to revise its Statutes and Ordinances: all references to ‘he’ were to be replaced with ‘he or she’ or (mindful of the university’s responsibilities to English style) with some more elegant, non-sexist circumlocution. No longer would female students and staff be forced to assume that all the rules and regulations applied equally to them even though they were framed entirely in terms of the male gender ...
Her Share of the Blessings 
by Ross Kraemer.
Oxford, 286 pp., £19.50, September 1992, 0 19 506686 3
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... different religious movements. Kraemer opts, in an unnervingly wholehearted way, for a version of Mary Douglas’s old system of social and religious classification: ‘grid and group’. Mary Douglas mapped all the forms of social organisation onto two axes. The first, the ‘grid’ axis, represented the degree of ...

No Concubine

Mary Beard, 28 June 1990

The Oxford Book of Marriage 
edited by Helge Rubinstein.
Oxford, 383 pp., £15, March 1990, 0 19 214150 3
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The Oriental, the Ancient and the Primitive: Systems of Marriage and the Family in the Pre-Industrial Societies of Eurasia 
by Jack Goody.
Cambridge, 542 pp., £37.50, February 1990, 0 521 36574 0
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... a letter from Karl Marx to his wife Jenny following directly on Wordsworth writing to Mary; an 11th-century Chinese poet apparently voicing many of the same sentiments on the death of his wife as the very British Henry King, whose ‘Exequy’ comes next. It is, of course, the strength of any anthology that it can show us a world where, through ...

From Swindon to Swindon

Mary Beard, 17 February 2011

Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us 
by Ferdinand Mount.
Simon and Schuster, 438 pp., £20, June 2010, 978 1 84737 798 2
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... When only halfway through, he notices that he is pissing on a plastic statuette of the Virgin Mary (‘I have got through life so far without pissing on the Virgin and I don’t want to start now’). Further exploration reveals all kinds of religious bric-à-brac and memorials (‘In Loving Memory of Pearl, 1923-2006’) on the trees round about. It ...

Bound for the bad

Mary Beard, 14 September 1989

Loss of the Good Authority: The Cause of Delinquency 
by Tom Pitt-Aikens and Alice Thomas Ellis.
Viking, 264 pp., £14.95, July 1989, 0 670 82493 3
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... Alice Thomas Ellis has a delicate touch with her fictional delinquents. In The Birds of the Air, her second novel, Sam, the nearly criminal son of a respectable academic couple, reveals all those conflicting qualities that make the young offender so hard to deal with and to understand. We feel at the same time revulsion and a sneaking admiration. True, Sam is in many ways an offputting specimen: he dyes his hair virulently green; he talks in an almost incomprehensible adolescent jargon; and he gets his kicks from stealing bicycles and from other kinds of petty juvenile dishonesty ...

What belongs

Mary Beard, 7 April 1994

On the Museum’s Ruins 
by Douglas Crimp.
MIT, 348 pp., £24.95, November 1993, 0 262 03209 0
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... There are more than ninety Holocaust Museums in the United States. Thousands of Americans, it seems, are forsaking their traditional Sunday-afternoon session of art-appreciation or dinosaur-gazing, in favour of an hour or two in front of some of the most horrifying images of the 20th century: naked corpses, emaciated survivors, gas chambers. Film footage, of murder, death and dying, that would cause an outcry if shown in the local cinema (let alone on prime-time television) has become ‘family viewing’ in the safety of the museum ...

‘Cancer Girl’

Mary Beard, 6 July 1995

The Diary of a Breast 
by Elisa Segrave.
Faber, 287 pp., £9.99, April 1995, 0 571 17446 9
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... Cancer must sell almost as many books as cookery: not just old-fashioned self-help guides to detection or prevention, tips on how to survive the chemotherapy or colostomy (now lavishly illustrated with the kinds of photograph that were once allowed only in medical textbooks), but also a vast range of new-style ‘cancer journals’. These are first-person accounts – diaries, memoirs or letters – that chart the progress of ‘me and my cancer’ from the moment of discovery, through diagnosis and treatment, to life again on the other side ...

Diary

Mary Beard: On Moving, 4 April 1996

... The American Dream starts from a covered wagon; it takes mobility for granted. Recent censuses show that more than 43 million Americans move house each year. This is an annual migration roughly equivalent to the entire population of Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio and Wisconsin (or, alternatively, every single American in their twenties) relocating every 12 months; and it all seems to pass relatively unnoticed ...

Not You

Mary Beard, 23 January 1997

Compromising Traditions: The Personal Voice in Classical Scholarship 
edited by J.P. Hallett and T. van Nortwick.
Routledge, 196 pp., £42.50, November 1996, 0 415 14284 9
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... For more than two thousand years, classical culture – as a set of institutions and as a way of life – has been lamenting its own imminent extinction. By inventing the idea of ‘barbarity’ to be the antitype of their own ‘civilised’ values, the ancient Greeks prompted the fear that those barbarians (real or, for the most part, imaginary) would sooner or later triumph ...

Speaking up for Latin and Greek

Mary Beard, 9 May 1991

Changes in the Roman Empire: Essays in the Ordinary 
by Ramsay MacMullen.
Princeton, 399 pp., $35, December 1990, 0 691 03601 2
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... Twenty-five years ago M.I. Finley made a plea in the TLS for ‘unfreezing the Classics’. The discipline of ancient history, he argued, was in crisis: submerged in the stultifying traditions of old-fashioned Classical philology, cut off from dialogue with ‘proper’ history, political science and sociology, it was no longer part of any wider cultural debate ...

Sun and Strawberries

Mary Beard: Gwen Raverat, 19 September 2002

Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections 
by Frances Spalding.
Harvill, 438 pp., £30, June 2001, 1 86046 746 6
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... The ghosts we deserve’ was the Listener’s headline for Simon Raven’s review of Gwen Raverat’s Period Piece in December 1952. Most reviewers had gushed with sentimental enthusiasm for these memoirs of a late Victorian academic childhood in Cambridge, so helping to make them one of the most ‘unlikely bestsellers’ of the later 20th century (the book has never been out of print and in Cambridge, at least, still sells briskly to locals and tourists alike ...

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