Mary Beard is no stranger to Podularity. In fact, she may have appeared on it more times than any other author. This however is her Podularity video debut.
Last autumn, after recording an audio interview with Mary about her book-of-the-blog, It’s a Don’s Life, I asked her to take part in my “Three Questions for” series of short films. The format is as simple as the name suggests – three questions, no tricks or traps, but no forewarning either.
So click below to find out where Mary thinks the Elgin marbles belong, why she chose the Romans over the Greeks, and which book she thinks everyone should have to read before they leave school – it’s not, it turns out, a Latin one…
“The Huns are a blank canvas. That’s what makes them so interesting. We know only one word of Hunnic, the word strava, the Hunnic word for funeral. We have no Hunnic poetry, we have no Hunnic literature.”
My guest on this edition of Podularity is Cambridge classicist, Christopher Kelly. His book on Attila the Hun and the part he played in the downfall of the Roman empire has just come out in paperback.
In the interview, we talk about the difficulty of writing about someone whose civilization is only preserved in the annals of his enemies, in which the Huns were portrayed as “the scourge of God”.
Kelly sets that against the opinion of one Roman commentator who came to know Attila and was impressed by the civilization of his court and the Hun leader’s command of Latin.
And we tackle the key question – to what extent did the Huns bring about the fall of the Roman empire?
The end result may not be a “Hun’s eye view” – that may well be impossible to recapture – but it does at least demonstrate that Rome was not the only vantage point from which to view the world. As Kelly says in the interview, the Roman empire wrought far more destruction on the continent of Europe than the Huns ever did…
“I’m interested in saying, look, how can you challenge the Asterix-and-the-Romans kind of image that we tend to have of Rome? We are determined to turn a blind eye to Roman subtlety, humour and sophistication because the Romans do a very good job for us of being bridge-builders and thugs. The Greeks are sophisticated guys who go round thinking about the meaning of life, and the Romans conquer people. And those kinds of symbols of difference are terribly convenient for modern culture to use, as you can see if you look at how Rome appears in movies.”
I’ve recently been in Cambridge to talk to Professor Mary Beard about her radical re-evaluation of one of ancient Rome’s quintessential rituals – the triumph. There are few images more evocative of ancient Rome than the triumph. It’s one of the favourite set-pieces of countless “sword-and-sandal” epics.
To be awarded a triumph was the greatest accolade for a victorious Roman general. He would be drawn through the city’s streets, dressed as a god and surrounded by his raucous troops, his exotic prisoners of war and his captured booty. Surely nothing could better sum up the raw aggression and triumphal militarism?
Hang on a moment, though, says Mary Beard, in her recent book on The Roman Triumph (Harvard University Press): Are we really sure we know what was going on? And what was at stake for the general? And what the Romans themselves thought about a practice that lasted in some form or another for over a millennium? Isn’t there a lot more to the triumph than we customarily think?
Listen to the podcast and you will hear that Mary’s answer to this last question is a resounding yes. Indeed, as you’ll hear, rethinking the triumph is a very good way to begin to re-evaluate our whole relationship with ancient Rome.
You can follow Mary’s never less than stimulating commentary on life ancient and modern on her blog, A Don’s Life.