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Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations

by Mary Beard

Pub Date: Sept. 9th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-87140-716-0
Publisher: Liveright/Norton

This collection by Beard (Classics/Cambridge Univ.; The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found, 2008, etc.) provides a traditional classical education, and there’s no need to learn a dead language.

Not only do the pieces illustrate the author’s extensive knowledge of all things ancient, but they could also serve as a guide to writing highly literate book reviews. Beard's clear way of explaining times and people we may or may not have heard of makes learning not only fun, but satisfying, and her prose style is easy without being annoyingly breezy. She examines books on the decline of Latin and Greek studies and wonders why we bother reading about their decline when we really don’t care about them anyway. By definition, classics are in decline, she notes, since they’re about the art, culture, history and philosophy of the ancient world; yet, as we see in one excellent section of this book, constantly changing views and new translations keep interest alive. Among the other topics treated with enjoyable erudition: our fascination with Alexander the Great, in a version created by Rome; Cleopatra, more Greek than Egyptian; and Mark Antony, a foolish drunk. Beard also decries the difficulty of translating Thucydides and Tacitus, reveals that most of Cicero’s writing was part of a single legal case and introduces us to Philogelos’ joke book from A.D. 400. (Some things are always funny.) Beard's reviews confirm her knowledgeable professionalism as she decries the conjectures of biographers who write “careful ancient history,” hedging all their bets with weaselly phrases such as "would have," "no doubt" and "presumably." While we’re at it, we learn that the ancients weren’t that great; they just had good spin doctors. Remember, the winner always writes the history.

A top-notch introduction to some fairly arcane material, accessible but not patronizing.