I'm really enjoying this even if it is not at all what I expected. Essentially, this book is a collection of articles and book reviews that Beard wrote, which address some of the personalities or aspects of the classical world, but mostly focus on the difficulty posed to historians, archaeologists, biographers etc. in interpreting and explaining what people and life was really like in the classical world.
Still, I love the way that Beard dissects some of our modern images of Ancient Greece and Rome, and traces some of the trends and themes that seem to be recurring attitudes.
"As Tacitus, and other ancient writers recognised, historians are by definition excluded from the decision-making that takes place behind the closed doors of an autocracy.
Women close to the man in power may, of course, capitalise on that proximity to promote their own interests. At the same time, they also provide the analyst with a handy – and untestable – explanation of why the man acts as he does. Just as the modern press has found Nancy Reagan or Cherie Blair convenient explanatory tools, when all else fails, in accounting for their husbands’ policy decisions, so ancient historians could always fall back on Livia or other imperial women when it came to making sense of the vagaries of the emperor’s actions. There is no way of telling if they were right. Charges of poisoning are a particularly loaded example of just this problem. Women – from Livia through Lucretia Borgia to Harriet Vane – have always been victims of accusations of this type (a typically sly female crime, and a neat perversion of the woman’s role as cook and housekeeper). But who could tell whether a poisoned mushroom was really that, or just an innocently unrecognised toadstool? And should we always assume that sudden deaths were brought about by those who ultimately benefited from them? Such assumptions produce tidy history, but they may not be correct."
I'm particularly entertained at the moment by Beard taking apart I, Claudius, and pointing out the extent of the creative licence that was taken with the book and, even more so, the BBC series.
It just comes back to this: TV series and historical fiction are great for getting people interested in history etc., but they must not be mistaken for fact.
I'm really rather enjoying these articles.