Over a career spanning more than four decades, Mary Beard – the preeminent British classicist, historian, and public intellectual – has reshaped the way people engage with ancient history. Born in Shropshire in 1955, and educated at King’s College, Cambridge, she’s established herself as a leading authority on the enduring relevance of Roman culture.
Beard’s prolific scholarship has garnered international acclaim, with books like 2008’s Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town and 2015’s SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome becoming seminal texts in the field. With a keen focus on gender and identity, she traces misogyny’s ancient roots in the popular 2017 tome, Women & Power. Beyond her academic work, her engaging television presentations and influential blog have bridged the gap between classical knowledge and a broader audience.
In an interview with Five Books, Beard outlined the literature of her life, underscoring the importance of understanding the past to make sense of present problems. From the irrationality of the ancient Greeks to the epic chronicles of the great Roman historian, Tacitus, explore her recommended reading below.
Mary Beard’s Reading List
The Greeks and the Irrational by E.R. Dodds
“What is interesting is that you can take one of the most formative intellectual cultures and show that just underneath that sparkling surface is a seething heart of irrationality that results in madness and murder. Dodds wrote this book just after the Second World War and I think one of the questions in his mind was…. how could European society have gone so mad that it did what it did. I wouldn’t say there are direct links between Hitler’s Germany and ancient Greece, but there are indirect links about where the non-rational elements are in any culture and how they work, how you can understand them and what difference that makes.” -MB
The Annals by Tacitus
“This is the best work of history ever written… What he does is seduce you with an extraordinary tale, but there is also a cynical, hard-hitting analysis of corruption. Reading Tacitus in Latin is like reading James Joyce. It’s language which is really at the margins of comprehensibility, as well as being very exciting. But, actually, he wants to talk about the corruption of autocracy. It’s about one-man rule going bad.” -MB
The Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer Lytton
“It’s the classic Pompeii disaster story everybody replays when they write about Pompeii. When he went to Pompeii it was a ruin. These days they’ve done a lot of work on it. What Lytton did was build it up layer by layer. And what you get is a fantastic reconstruction of the ancient world. Christians who are going to escape, the nasty priest of Isis, the sacrifices and the gladiators. The cultural backwash that came out of it was extraordinary. The characters, statues, movies.” -MB
Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology by Moses Finley
“When I read his books it was the first time I realized that there could be, and ought to be, an explicit connection between a modern political stance and the ancient history that I was studying. Greece and Rome were one of the few mass slave-owning societies that there have ever been. What Finley was interested in doing was looking hard at ancient slavery and thinking about how it was the same or different from modern slavery… He was the first person I had read who looked ancient slavery in the eye and said it was something really terrible.” -MB
Purity and Danger by Mary Douglas
“It’s a book that really opened my eyes. It showed me that you could theorize about things that you had always taken for granted and thought didn’t need explaining. Douglas set out to defamiliarize our own culture. One of her favorite party pieces is she goes through all the dietary prohibitions in Leviticus. She said, look at these carefully and you will see there’s a logic to them. What’s being prohibited in terms of eating is very often those animals or foodstuffs which don’t fit into a set category. For example, pigs don’t fall into any particular category because of their feet. In order to make sense of society, cultures like to group things. When objects fall outside those groups they are either reviled or revered.” -MB
(via Five Books; photo by David Levenson)
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