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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars nothing if not critical
I enjoyed this book very much, but anyone tempted to buy it should understand what it is: a collection of review essays on classical figures and topics, sensibly organized both chronologically and thematically -- but it is emphatically NOT itself a history of the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. Those "confronting the classics" are the authors of the books that Beard...
Published 13 months ago by Stanley Crowe

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Caveat emptor!
This book is not what its summary and blurb purports; it is a collection of reviews of rather academic publications. I would have loved to have read a series of essays on the chapter headings, but the generally unfavourably comments of the undoubtedly erudite Prof. Beard got tedious. Shame on the publishers for misleading buyers. Caveat emptor, indeed!
Published 3 months ago by John Magan


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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars nothing if not critical, 13 Nov 2013
By 
Stanley Crowe (Greenville, SC) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Hardcover)
I enjoyed this book very much, but anyone tempted to buy it should understand what it is: a collection of review essays on classical figures and topics, sensibly organized both chronologically and thematically -- but it is emphatically NOT itself a history of the ancient worlds of Greece and Rome. Those "confronting the classics" are the authors of the books that Beard is reviewing, and throughout Beard reviews them with an eye to their adequacy or otherwise as historians. So the book isn't history -- it's ABOUT history and what it is to try to do history well. That means that it's about how people handle evidence, especially the very fragmentary evidence that we have from so long ago. There are documents, there are artifacts, and there are the results of archeological activity. How do we, in the 21st century, put such stuff together to tell a convincing (aspiring to "true") story about Octavius or Alexander or Boadicea? It's tempting to say that the ancient world had its historians too -- Tacitus, Suetonius, Thucydides et. al. -- but they wrote decades or even centuries after the events they relate, so they have to be looked at with pretty cool scrutiny. So -- to sum up, a general reader who is interested in history and in the problems of writing history will find this book accessible and enjoyable. And you learn things! It's something to know that we know quite a bit about Augustus's life before he took care of Antony and Cleopatra but very little about the four decades of his rule as emperor. Beard speculates interestingly on why that is so. In general, we get a sense of the fragments of knowledge that seem beyond dispute and then are brought face to face with the obvious difficulties of "connecting the dots," as we would now say. Beard also has quite a bit to say about modern representations of historical figures in popular culture ("Cleopatra," "I, Claudius," etc.) and she ties in her discussions of these with the critiques of the usually more serious scholarship represented by the books under review in each chapter. Her style is direct and engaging -- she doesn't assume a lot of prior knowledge on her readers' parts -- and she usually finds the places in the books she reviews where the writer makes plausible connections and claims, but most importantly she has a great eye for the implausible, and she is very clear about when and why we should find this or that claim about Nero, Caligula, Julius Caesar, Cicero and others questionable. And she doesn't seem to have an agenda -- she's not pushing her view of the "truth" about Alexander or Cleopatra or whomever; she's talking about how fascinatingly elusive these figures and their cultures remain. Recommended for the critical reader!
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable essays, 17 Jan 2014
By 
Mac McAleer (London UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Hardcover)
This is a book of book reviews. Their author, Mary Beard, is an academic, blogger and all-round patron saint of the classics. She has "adapted and updated" the reviews which first appeared in the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books or the Times Literary Supplement. They all concern some aspect of ancient Greece or Rome and are all of a high standard. Sometimes a single book is reviewed; sometimes two or three related ones. Usually it is the subject of the book under review that is the focus as much as the book itself. These are really essays on the current state of classical studies. Indeed, Mary Beard claims that "reviews have long been one of the most important places where classical debates take place".

The thirty-one reviews are divided into five sections: ancient Greece; early Rome; imperial Rome; ordinary Roman life; the classics from the viewpoint of tourists or scholars. The first review concerns Minoan Crete; the last is an appreciation of Astérix. In between, the articles are as varied as the classical world itself, for example: Thucydides and his impossibly difficult-to-read Greek; What made the Greek laugh?; How great was Alexander?; The myth of Cleopatra; Cicero; Hadrian and his villa; Ex-slaves and snobbery; Boudicca; Pompeii for tourists.

The New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and the Time Literary Supplement are all publications for a general but discerning readership. I assume that a discerning viewer of May Beard's TV programmes would enjoy these reviews, as would any classicist. The reviews are short, on average eight pages, so this is a book to dip in and out of. The reviews are also clever, entertaining and often surprising. Moreover, they still perform their original function of providing a critique of a selection of books on classical subjects published over the last twenty years.

FOR EXAMPLE, number 17, "Bit-Part Emperors", is an 8½ page review of Cynthia Damon's book Tacitus: Histories I. The first page describes Nero's suicide in 68 AD, the "year of the four emperors" that followed and the final the triumph of Vespasian. Tacitus is first mentioned on the second page. The next few pages discuss Tacitus as an historian of the early imperial age and how his "Annals" are more widely read than his "Histories". It is not until the sixth page that Cynthia Damon's book is mentioned. Mary Beard then discusses the difficulty of translating the Latin of Tacitus without losing its power and subtlety. Galba was the first emperor after Nero. He lasted only a few months before being murdered but he did have enough time to adopt Piso, who was murdered with him. The articles goes on to discuss Piso's family and how a century later it produced the emperor Marcus Aurelius. Cynthia Damon's book is never mentioned again. This is an extreme example. In other reviews far more attention is given to the book under review but it does show the primacy of the subject over the reviewed book.

ANOTHER EXAMPLE is number 23, "South Shields Aramaic", which reviews J. N. Adams's Bilingualism and the Latin Language. This 8-page article starts with a discussion of some late Roman school textbooks, notable for being written in both Latin and Greek. Adams's book is first mentioned on the third page where it is praised as a "marvellously informative study". The discussion of the use of languages other than Latin continues for the rest of the article with frequent references to the book under review. The article's title comes from a Roman tombstone found in South Shields. It was erected by a man from Palmyra to commemorate his British wife. The inscription on the tombstone is in Latin and Aramaic. A photo of the tombstone is reproduced.

A THIRD EXAMPLE is number 7, "Hannibal at Bay", a 5½ page review of two books: Robert Garland's Hannibal and D.S. Levene's Livy on the Hannibalic War. The first two pages discuss Hannibal's successful invasion of Italy and how he was eventually defeated not by the heroic Roman generals who confronted him face to face in battle but by Fabius Maximus, who used guerrilla tactics to force him out of Italy in a very un-heroic and un-virtuous way. Robert Garland's book receives its first and only mention on the second page, noting that the eventual loser, Hannibal, is still popularly remembered whereas the victor, Fabius, is popularly forgotten. Levene's book is first mentioned on the third page. Mary Beard goes on to discuss the Roman historian Livy's account of this war and its continuation out of Italy into Sicily, Spain and Carthage. Livy has gone out of fashion. His reliance on secondary sources, his complicated prose and his uneven handling and sometimes misunderstanding of his sources has not helped his reputation. Levene wants to rehabilitate Livy both as a writer of history and as a writer of literature. Mary Beard agrees, but with reservations.
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37 of 39 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Confronting the Classics - Mary Beard's latest hardback, 9 Mar 2013
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This review is from: Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations (Hardcover)
This book is the fruit of many years of scholarship: it is, primarily, a collection of essays and reviews which deal with aspects of classical culture. This is not a book intended for undergraduates or scholars per se: it is not a heavyweight purely academic tome but accessible to all. The extended essay/review format allows for the treatment of many subjects but these remain reviews: this is Prof. Beard of the London Review of Books / TLS rather than the bright TV presenter cycling round Rome or the chatty tone of A Don's Life.

I would recommend this to anybody whose interest has been piqued by Mary Beard's TV programs and wants to explore aspects in a little greater depth - all the chapters contain end note references to the books reviewed.

As noted elsewhere in her blog, Prof. Beard paid tribute to her editor, Peter Carson. This book was edited by him up until his death and he is the dedicatee. It is beautifully printed and in a good quality binding and a tribute to a great editor, whose own translations of Tolstoy are about to be published.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Raisin-laden muesli, 31 Oct 2013
By 
F. R. Jack (Dorset, England) - See all my reviews
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A series of edited book reviews and by its nature breakfast rather than dinner. Neatly divided into themed sections. Slightly too much focus on the perceived limitations of the reviewed texts but for the most part a delightful romp through a breathtaking range of topics. A light, down-to-earth and humorous experience as always from Professor Beard, a National Treasure IMHO, peppered with amusing anecdotes and observations. Dodgy foundation myths of Rome, roving arms of Roman statues, The Golden Bough and Asterix. Hugely enjoyable in the round and I think probably taught me much more than I realised as I went along for the ride. I would definitely recommend this book.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great introduction, 22 May 2014
By 
Apf (Harrow, Middlesex United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
That shows just how wide and how deep the study of the classics is, can be and has been over the years. A great place to find interesting articles, books and authors and to challenge a few mis-conceptions along the way.
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4.0 out of 5 stars An enchanting anthology of pices offering am appealing insight into the study of the classics, 11 Dec 2014
A few months ago I chanced to remark to a fellow official in the Department for Education as we queued at the coffee stall in Sanctuary Buildings that I now felt that Latin was the most useful subject that I had learned in school. I hadn't realised that the former Secretary of State, Michael Gove, was standing right behind me, so I was unprepared for the sudden fusillade of questions that he levelled at me, wanting to know where and when I had learned it, and why I had found it so helpful. To the great amusement of my colleague he led me off to one of the nearby tables and grilled me with his customary zest.

Having subsequently studied English and maths in two discrete dalliances in higher education, I was able to explain how my understanding of grammar owed far more upon the relentless (and largely unacknowledged) exertions of Mr Stone, my Latin master for three years at Loughborough Grammar School, than to any of my English teachers or lecturers. Similarly, my (perhaps ill-judged) foray into postgraduate study of philology could not have extended much beyond the starting grid without the headstart in etymology that familiarity with Latin facilitates. Similarly, the habits of deconstruction and rational processing that are such a prerequisite (I'm sorry but I couldn't recall the Latin for 'sine qua non' …) instilled a certain mindset that proved invaluable when studying the arcana of mathematics.

All this, of course, proved to be terrific grist to Mr Gove's mill, though the impact proved short-lived, and did not stop him rejecting some of my draft letters in the most peremptory manner later that same day.

Still, that is all merely preamble to give some vague context to why my eye was caught in Waterstone's recently by the sight of this intriguing volume by Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge. This book is really more of an anthology of various reviews and articles that Professor Beard had published in various periodicals over the last few years (and the civil servant in me was especially impressed by the shameless recycling of previous work for a new market - we do that all the time!), but they demonstrate a great cohesion, fizzing with enthusiasm for her subject and conveyed with an enviable lucidity of thought.

She addresses a wealth of aspects of classical study, and renders the subject immediately accessible without ever patronising her 'civilian' readers. She briefly reapitualtes Greek and Roman colonial expansion, the history of philosophy and, to a considerable extent, the philosophy of history. She manages to debunk Cicero - largely viewed today as a great orator and statesman, though Professor beard suggests that that impression is mainly a consequence of his successful career as a dedicated self-publicist. She also suggests that Shakespeare's representation of the assassination of Caesar might have been closer to the truth than was known at the time. Consideration of contemporary accounts shows that the murder on the Ides of march was almost farcical in its incompetence, similar to the near debacle of the assassination of Archdule Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo 1958 years later.

All too often we seem to feel that an non-fiction work can be either academically rigorous or entertaining and accessible. In this book Professor Beard deftly demonstrates that those characteristics need not be mutually exclusive.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent for both newcomers and those with prior knowledge, 14 Sep 2013
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I do have some background, having studied Latin and Greek as far as a first year reading classics at Cambridge. (It was 30 years ago that various circumstances - not dissimilar to those being encountered by young people today - forced me to change to law.) For me the book worked very well as an update of issues and controversies. However it is so engagingly and accessibly written that I am sure no previous background knowledge would be needed to enjoy it as an overview of contemporary classical scholarship and indeed for the insights this can give into our present world.
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5.0 out of 5 stars The Prof tells it like it is, 13 Oct 2014
By 
Timbo (Coalitionsville, UK) - See all my reviews
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Professor Beard has a friendly but no-nonsense style of writing which is far closer to journalism than academe. But that's a plus point in my book. This book is not a fresh opus but a collection of her book reviews, some twenty years old. But unless you are dedicated to reading every book review in the TLS & London Review of Books (which would be similar to listening to all the songs by Kanye West - in both cases, why on Earth bother?) you won't have seen these before.

And she really is a good writer. One can rattle through her reviews and be tempted into purchasing some of the quite obscure books mentioned. She doesn't pull her punches but will lavish praise from her Cambridge eyrie if due, even on as controversial a figure as R.G. Collingwood, an Oxford stalwart.

If you think this book sounds too smug and self-satisfied for you, please be assured that this is not a solemn Mandelsonian tome. Those reading forensic medicine at her University could learn plenty from her calm dissections. Her Newnham students are the luckiest in Cambridge to have her as their down-to-terra-firma guide to the ancient world.

There's even a chapter on Astérix...
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Ave Beard, 6 July 2013
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Although I was not sure about the TV series, I enjoyed the book on Pompeii. So I thought I'd try this compilation of review essays spanning a range of classical topics. And am I glad I did? Yes, definitely. I read this from cover to cover (if one can do that on a Kindle) and it is a great read for anyone with an interest in the Classics and ancient history. Bravo.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Caveat emptor!, 25 Aug 2014
By 
John Magan (Brussels, Belgium) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This book is not what its summary and blurb purports; it is a collection of reviews of rather academic publications. I would have loved to have read a series of essays on the chapter headings, but the generally unfavourably comments of the undoubtedly erudite Prof. Beard got tedious. Shame on the publishers for misleading buyers. Caveat emptor, indeed!
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