If you happen to be speaking with someone who is unfamiliar with Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire Mary Beard, it may take you a few tries to convey her cultural post. “Classicist” doesn’t quite capture it. “Celebrity historian” inches closer. In a Guardian profile, a colleague of Beard’s recalls a crew of English schoolgirls glimpsing the scholar, a longtime pillar of Cambridge’s faculty, as she prepared to film a documentary about the lost city of Pompeii. “They went insane,” the colleague said. “It was like they’d seen a boy band.”
Stateside, Beard may be best known as the author of “SPQR,” a doorstop Roman history, and “Women and Power,” a trenchant study of ancient and modern attitudes toward female speech. She also contributes criticism to the London Review of Books and maintains a blog, “A Don’s Life,” for the Times Literary Supplement. On television, whether narrating the reboot of the BBC’s series “Civilisations,” demystifying classical attitudes toward immigration, or staging cultural debates from her study, Beard, now sixty-six, seems perfectly cast in the role of the public intellectual: incisive, personable, just shy of charmingly unkempt. She exudes modesty—she could not have been more polite when I mixed up Leonidas, the king of Sparta, with Scipio Africanus, a Roman general who lived some three hundred years later—and her voice slips easily into a storyteller’s rhythm. Online, Beard is a frequent user of Twitter, and as Rebecca Mead observed in a 2014 Profile, she’s found an unlikely hobby in taming Internet trolls. (“She should be able to analyze Augustus’s dictums, or early A.D. epithets / Without having to scroll through death, bomb, and rape threats,” a spoken-word poem uploaded to YouTube goes.) Yet Beard seems delighted to edify and even befriend her haters. Several years ago, a former Twitter adversary asked her for a job recommendation letter. She said yes.