In April, Howard University announced that it wasdissolving its classics department, a move that punctuates a heated debate about whether Greco-Roman history should be taught separately or differently from the history of other ancient societies. A new wave of scholars, such as Princeton’s Dan-el Padilla Peralta, view the discipline asinextricable from the imperialist mind-set thatcreated it; they claim that classics sustains a mythology of whiteness. As the field’s most famous practitioner, and a dedicated anti-racist and feminist, Beard takes a middle position: she believes neither that classics deserves a pedestal nor that it must be destroyed.
I want to ask you about whether you think that our approach to the past, or maybe our goals in studying the past, are shifting. It seems like contemporary historians are often trying not only to reconstruct history but to remake what the discipline does. There seems to be a strong corrective impulse, and more space for imagination or speculation. Does that sound off base to you?
I think that’s true. But I’m old enough to say that every generation has that corrective impulse, and that’s part of what keeps history on the move. I remember when I was a student and the person speaking to us in Cambridge was Moses Finley, a great historian of ancient Greece. And he just exuded that sense of wanting to rework the way we think about the past, by looking at slavery, debt, poverty, the fragility of democracy. History would be very dull if we weren’t always trying to change how it was done. It’s our conversation with the dead, and we practice a kind of ventriloquism in order to hear from the other side.
How has the field changed since you began?
Oh, it’s changed in all kinds of ways, hugely. For me, obviously, the history of women is one thing which comes to mind. When I was a student, I was at a women’s college in Cambridge, and so I was sensitive to the idea that there might be a history of our own. Back then, though, you would do work like that in the summertime, when the real work had finished. You knew that it wasn’t really serious. And that has been revolutionized in a way that is really productive, because it’s hard to think of a subject that’s more important than gender. The move from total marginalization to the history of specific women to something much broader and more challenging, which is the history of gender, the ideas and conflicts around gender. . . .
How do you feel about canons? As a proposition.
They’re always changing, aren’t they? And what’s almost more important than what’s in them is the dialectical element: they’re what you react against. I know I sound like a tricksy academic, but in some ways a canon reveals to you not so much whatisthere as what’snotthere. And so it changes itself; it’s self-destructive. The problem, of course, is that we can’t read everything, and so we have to be aware of what we are and aren’t reading, and why we are or aren’t reading it.
Obviously, there is conservative support for a particular version of the canon, and I think we all know what that looks like. But if you think about some of these apparently conservative institutions more radically, coming face-to-face with them makes you question what you ought to read. And so I think that paradoxically, although it’s easy to get upset about the dead hand of the canon, all the dead white men of literature, et cetera, I also, looking back, can start to say, “But that’s the canon doing its job.” It’s making me ask, “Why is it like this?”
The extent to which the left versus the right has drawn on classical traditions—has that been stable over time? Like, the scholars of the Enlightenment who more or less invented classics would have considered themselves liberals, right?
The classics have always been fought over. I don’t think there’s something more interesting about the Greeks and Romans than there is about the Persians. It makes little sense to give one culture a star and another a C-minus. But it so happens that the classics have been deeply debated, and because they’ve been deeply debated, they’ve been very important to the European and then the transatlantic West—and to a kind of a conservative, fascist autocracy, which has conscripted classics. But that’s only one side of the story. People have also said, “Look, there’s a way here of thinking about human freedom, democracy, et cetera.” There’s no doubt that Mussolini’s cultural hegemony rested on classics, and I think it’s important to remind people of that; the same would be true of Hitler. At the same time, many others were using the classical tradition to undermine a fascist ideology. So I don’t think it’s intrinsically radical, conservative, liberal, or oppressive. There’s a lot of people who want to use the discipline to discuss precisely those issues, and in some ways the two sides are symbiotic.
I think that, at the moment, there is an over-tendency to come down on the negative side of the history of classics. I suppose that’s balanced by the odious approach that says classics is the foundation of Western culture—so, you know, Athenian democracy, with no women and a load of enslaved people, is where it’s at.