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4.3 out of 5 stars57
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32 of 34 people found the following review helpful
on 13 November 2013
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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14 of 15 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 17 January 2014
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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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 16 July 2013
Among the countless little gems sprinkled throughout this marvellous book is the news - to me, anyway - that despite his reputation as a persecutor and slaughterer of early Christians, the Emperor Nero, according to an obscure tradition, had Pontius Pilate put to death, and was even regarded in some quarters as a defender of the faith. Which begs the question of whether the man was indeed as villainous as he is often painted. One of the beauties of studying ancient history and the Classics is that one can never be certain of anything (except perhaps that Thucydides is a bugger to try to understand); so much myth, legend, misinformation and hyperbole has been thrown into the melting pot over the centuries that separating the actual truth from what we want the truth to be has become a daunting, Herculean task. This is a theme that pops up frequently in Professor Beard's book; we know practically nothing about Boudica to this day, for example, and I personally would be a happy man were Mary Beard to write an entire book about her. Confronting the Classics is a collection of book reviews - or rather, a collection of essays inspired by the books under review, as many are so riveting - and so beautifully written - that one often forgets that one is reading a review. For those who have no knowledge of the Classics, it is an excellent introduction, and Mary Beard is a witty, wise and above all warm companion to have along on this endlessly fascinating journey through the ancient world.
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43 of 47 people found the following review helpful
on 9 March 2013
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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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 22 May 2014
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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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 31 October 2013
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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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 16 May 2013
Professor Mary Beard has a reputation for writing books that are accessible to the general public while still being academically rigorous. This book is no exception. Over the years she has been writing reviews in a variety of publications. This book is her selection, ranging from a book on Sir Arthur Evans and the Minoan Myth to the Asterix books, covering both the Greeks and the Romans. Nothing is new, all the reviews were freely available when first published. What Professor Beard has done is collect them into one easily accessible volume. The reviews are thorough, well balanced, and entertaining. She has such a wide ranging expertise she can confront the many experts writing the books on their own level. But more than that, she can introduce them to a whole new audience - those non academics whose interest in the classics has been piqued by Mary Beard's well-respected television appearances. Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2013
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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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 March 2015
Having studied Latin and Greek as part of an ecclesiastical education, an almost monastic world as alien to me now as Pax Romana, I found the passion of Mary Beard for Cicero, Plato, Seneca, Tacitus, Horace Euripides and the rest, and her understanding of their divided and savagely ruled societies enlightening. In the 1940s and 50s I grew to love some of those writers and their works, even Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, in spite of myself. She brought that back putting it into a very different context. Fascinating.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 July 2013
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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