It’s possibly a typical day for Mary Beard. The academic and presenter has just returned from the US, where she caused an online furore by suggesting a serial sex abuser’s 125-year jail sentence was too long.
Her unpacked case is still in the hall of her Cambridge home and she has woken up to find she’s trending on Twitter. “I’ve got tweets saying, ‘Oh my God, I thought you were dead.’’ Beard says. “Because why do people trend? It’s when they die!”
She is also fielding phone calls from fellow television historian Simon Schama who, alongside David Olusoga, has joined Beard to write and present Civilisations, an ambitious nine-part BBC series surveying the high points of humanity’s cultural achievements.
Three years in the making and crisscrossing the world, Civilisations picks up from the landmark 1969 BBC series Civilisation presented by Kenneth Clark that, five decades later, is still seen as the ne plus ultra of public service television.
While clambering around ancient Aegean quarries and Buddhist caves in India, Beard also managed to write the bestselling and critically acclaimed feminist manifesto, Women and Power.
“My real job is teaching at university,” says Beard. “Telly was only my hobby. But it turns out to be a slightly time-consuming hobby. Now all I do is work. I used to watch Casualty every week but I’ve had to give it up.”
Like Mick Jagger or Richard Branson, Beard is one of those people who look like their own caricature. The straight grey hair, the Breton shirt, the glittery plimsolls; few public intellectuals are so instantly recognisable, or the subject of such widespread interest. It transpires that Beard is trending on Twitter because of a newspaper profile that, among other things, discussed her love life in the 1970s, and her relationships with older – and sometimes married – men.
“Oh, the 1970s,” she says. “That’s all right.” Still, a little disturbing to have your inner world on display? “Perhaps, if I was 20, I wouldn’t leave the house for the next fortnight, but I’m 63.”
Professor of classics at Cambridge University since 2004, Beard is married to the Byzantine art specialist Robin Cormack. “Which means,” she says, “I didn’t have to ask for outside help with the Istanbul bits in Civilisations.”
The couple have two childen, Raphael and Zoe, now grown-up academics, which has freed some of the time required for Beard’s remarkable late-career television success, making programmes such as Pompeii: New Secrets Revealed, Meet the Romans and Mary Beard’s Ultimate Rome. She’s also set to host the second series of the TV incarnation of Radio 4 arts round-up Front Row.
“I’m really, really glad that I didn’t do any telly until I was gone 50 because it meant I enjoyed it,” she says. “By the time you’ve got to my age and AA Gill has had his go at you [the late Sunday Times journalist once called Beard “too ugly for television”], you’ve got a degree of resilience. And it doesn’t matter so much, does it?”
In her book Women and Power, Beard traces such misogyny back to the ancient world, and she also encounters it in Civilisations, finding Greek vases that show women combing out wool while the men have a drink.
“It goes back as far as you can see in Western culture,” she says. What about now – did Beard and Schama receive equal pay from the BBC? “I asked the BBC. I looked those guys in the eye and said, ‘Am I being paid, pro rata, the same?’ And I’m happy to say that the answer is yes. I don’t think they’d lie to me.”
Later I ask Schama and he confirms their parity, adding, “It’s very important to me that we are paid the same.” [RT understands that Olusoga also received the same pro rata deal.]
Beard has experienced worse chauvinism than unequal pay rates. She is often the subject of abuse, on social media and in the printed press. This is in part, she says, because of her age.
“There is a problem with where post-menopausal women fit within culture; people deem you to be past your sell-by date. It’s, ‘Oh, come on old lady’. But it happens to women across the board.”
Some men, Beard says, are enraged because she is a woman who dares to have public opinions. “I see death threats on social media specifically directed at women speaking,” she says. “Things like, ‘I’m going to cut your tongue out’.” One tweet Beard received in 2013 gave the time of the explosion that was going to kill her. “You’re sitting there with your phone, and you read, ‘I’m going to blow your house up at 9.17 in the morning.’ And you just think, ‘What?’”
Beard has written before of being raped on a train in Italy when she was a student. I wonder if she despairs of men and the things they do? “I can see why you might ask that but no, I don’t.”
In fact, Beard jokes, she would forgive men for many of their crimes if they would simply stop doing bad things. “If the price for getting men to stop was an amnesty then I would take that, I would wave the magic wand and make it happen.”
She also thinks most men who threaten her are “probably” not evil. “There must be some who are, the really nasty ones, but most are a bit sad, lonely or drunk. I don’t tweet my best when I’m drunk. I don’t think anybody does.”
But it’s not just men who are sometimes infuriated by Beard’s tweets. Many women were incensed when, in January, she questioned the 125-year jail sentence for former USA Gymnastics doctor and sexual abuser Larry Nassar because it prevented the possibility of “redemption, forgiveness and making amends”.
“[In the debate] everybody thought redemption should be extended to some people. What interested me was where they drew the line. Some said not for child abusers, others not for terrorists. My logical position was ‘yes’ for everybody, in theory. But it’s easy to say everybody is capable of redemption. You then have to think, ‘How would I recognise it?’”
The same question could be asked of civilisation – how do we recognise it? The answer, according to Beard, is not in a society’s technological advances, or systems of government, but in its art.
So, in the two episodes she presents, we variously see her standing at the feet of giant statues on the Aegean island of Naxos, studying Roman graffiti in Egypt and transfixed beneath Tintoretto’s turbulent 1565 depiction of the crucifixion at the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, where, she appears to be transported by the divine.
“I don’t think the divine comes into the painting,” Beard snorts. “It’s the clever old artist that does it. But I wouldn’t say I was an atheist. The religion of atheism is almost as dangerous as the religion of religion. I’m a bet-hedger.”
In 1969, Kenneth Clark attempted to improve the public’s minds by showing them a sparkling array of mainly white male European culture. In Civilisations, Beard, Schama and Olusoga look further afield, opening up the civilisations of Africa, the Americas and Asia to our gaze.
But Beard is at her best in her own area of expertise: the artefacts and literature of the classical world – objects that often speak to these confused times. Our civilisation has swapped goddesses for music and film stars but, as we are learning, they too attract unwanted attention.
“It’s hard to not feel slightly pleased about the fall of Harvey Weinstein,” Beard says. “He was so big. He was brought down, and that was empowering. But my aim isn’t just to collect scalps but to make sure that this doesn’t happen again.”
Won’t #MeToo ensure that?
“#MeToo is useful, it puts the problem in the public domain. But a hashtag doesn’t solve the problem. Hollywood is very important, but there’s the ordinary office where this is happening as well… the cleaners, the supervisors, the technicians. We are all interested in what happens in hotel rooms in Hollywood, but we’re also interested in what happens next to the photocopier in your average office.”
Does she look back at incidents in her own career and think, “Actually, that was wrong, what he did to me?”
“That’s difficult because we were living in a totally different culture. I think there is a tendency to cherry-pick events and take them out of context. Perhaps we are too worried about isolated examples of inappropriate behaviour by men. We all have bits of mistaken casual behaviour that we regret, right?”
The problem is, where do we draw the line? Beard offers another Greek artefact as a guide – a wine cooler decorated, as she puts it, with “scenes of half-animal, half-men getting pissed and balancing cups on their erect willies”. The tableau so shocked Victorian officials at the British Museum, says Beard, that “they covered the willies up with black paint”.
But the ancient Greek artists didn’t intend their works to be offensive – the debauched scenes had a purpose. “Three thousand years ago, the pots served as a public health service. They warned, ‘Don’t get too drunk, otherwise look what foolish things you will do.’ But the pots also asked the people who used them, ‘Where’s the boundary between civilisation and non-civilisation? How do you know which side of the boundary you are on?’”
The question seems especially pertinent today – clearly there were no warning pots on the table at the Presidents Club. Have we really progressed since the Greeks and the Romans? “Most civilisations think they’re about to collapse. Everybody thinks they’re going down the tubes, even the Romans thought that. But what the Romans had was the ability to imagine how other people saw them. To imagine you were the barbarian, not those on the outside.”
We’re not very good at doing that, are we? “Some of us are still trying.”
Civilisations begins on Thursday 1st March at 9pm on BBC2
This article was originally published in the 24 February-2 March 2018 issue of Radio Times magazine