Mary Beard interview: 'I hadn't realised that there were people like that'

The star classicist began by challenging sexism, and is now squaring up to internet trolls

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You get to Mary Beard's front door by walking through a bower. It covers the whole path leading up to her house and makes you feel as if you've wandered off a busy Cambridge street and into an enchanted world. When the door opens, you feel it even more. Everywhere there are books. Everywhere there are rugs, and pictures, and flowers. There's Chopin. There's coffee. Freshly made, in a kitchen with a gorgeous tiled floor. If this is a don's life, you find yourself thinking, it looks very nice indeed.

And here she is, the author of A Don's Life, the blog about academic life that she does that gets about 40,000 hits a day. Here she is, the chair of classics at Cambridge who's currently academia's biggest star. Yes, she has the long, grey hair. Anyone who has watched her on telly knows she has the long, grey hair. If you gazed at her closely, you could, I suppose, see the “uncompromising double chin” she has talked about, and the “big tombstone teeth”. But actually what you see, in this beautiful kitchen in this beautiful house, is a surprisingly youthful, and incredibly energetic, woman.

“Yes, it is very nice,” she says when we're settled by the fire in her book-lined front room. She isn't, it turns out, talking about the room – which has stuffed birds as well as a shiny green dinosaur on the mantelpiece – but about the hot-off-the-press copy of her new book I've just got out, and which she hasn't yet seen. “Can I,” she says, leaping up out of her chair, “just show it to Robin?”

Robin is Robin Cormack, the art historian husband she's been married to for 28 years. He has just made me cappuccino, with the air of someone who's used to making cappuccino for a steady stream of guests. They have two grown up children who may or may not be cappuccino-trained, but who are not, as far as I can tell, here now.

“We thought,” she says, when she's back in her chair, and gazing at the statue in red sunglasses on the cover of her book, “that what you want to do is to capture antiquity, but with a modern, slightly edgy engagement.” What you want, in other words, is to do what Mary Beard has been doing throughout her career: bringing the classical world alive to students, scholars, classicists, and interested non-classicists, like me.

For many years, she did this quietly enough. She taught at Newnham College, where she's still based. She became classics editor of the TLS. She wrote scholarly books: on things like religion and power in the ancient world. And then, just after 9/11, she was asked to contribute a piece to the LRB about the attack on the Twin Towers. She said that “the United States had it coming”, and all hell – all Hades, she would probably say – broke loose.

Beard weathered the storm. She emerged from it, in fact, as triumphant as one of the generals in her book, The Roman Triumph. And if it put her off the media spotlight, there hasn't been much sign of it. In 2010, she presented a documentary, based on a book she published two years before, on Pompeii. In 2011, she took part in the Channel 4 series, Jamie's Dream School. In 2012, she presented a three-part TV series called Meet the Romans with Mary Beard. When you get equal billing with an entire civilisation, it's probably a sign that things are going pretty well.

In her new book, Confronting the Classics, she wants, she says in the preface, to give us “a guided tour of the classical world”. She will do this, she promises, by introducing us to some of the most famous characters in ancient history, and by asking questions like “what made these people laugh?” and “did they clean their teeth?”. She does touch on some of these questions. She talks, for example, about the inflatable cushions Sulla, the first-century-BC Roman dictator, gave his guests at dinner, and how he let the air out and watched them sink. But the book, it's fair to say, is quite a leap from Jamie's Dream School. Each chapter is based on an essay that's also a book review in the TLS, New York Review of Books, or LRB. It's very good, and very interesting, but you couldn't exactly call it a rollicking romp.

“This is not hadron-collider stuff,” says Beard. “It is bringing the academy and a popular audience together.” She has, she says, updated the original essays, and put them in an order she thinks makes a coherent whole. “If you're going,” she says, “to ask people to part with money, for reasons other than actually getting a convenient compilation of the works of Beard, you have to turn it into a book.”

If I hadn't read other interviews she's given, I might have gasped at that “works of Beard”. But I've already read that Mary Beard quite often talks about herself in the third person. It started, she says, with the precision of a scholar, in 1979. “A friend of mine in Cambridge, Chloe Chard, started calling me Beard,” she says, “and I started calling her Chard. And then we started referring to ourselves. If you were a classicist,” she adds, pre-empting the point I haven't quite dared make, “you'd think that's like Caesar, that's very self-aggrandizing.” And it isn't in her case? “I think,” she says briskly, “it's self-ironising. 'Steady on, Beard!' Why Beard caught on for me was that it was a slightly distancing device.”

Well, OK. I can sort of see that it is. But there isn't anything very distancing about social media. And Mary Beard is a very big fan of social media. She doesn't just blog, and reply to comments on her blog. She doesn't just tweet, and reply to tweets. She keeps a firm eye on things that are being written not just to her, but about her.

“When you start getting abusive emails addressed to you,” she says, “or you start getting abusive tweets, one thing you can be certain of is that much worse will be being said that's not addressed to you.” This was certainly true after her recent appearance on Question Time, which unleashed a torrent of bile so foul it surprised even those of us who are used to online bile. There wasn't just speculation about the size of her vagina. There was a photo of a vagina, or at least of the area around a vagina, with a pair of glasses superimposed on it, to make it look like a face. Some of the bile was on a website called “Don't Get Me Started”, which seemed to exist for bile, and which Mary Beard managed, by making a very big fuss, to close down.

“I think,” she says, “we're still in the process of learning how to deal with all that. I suppose I feel, perhaps naively, optimistic that we're just not yet quite clear about the rules of how you communicate online publicly. If you do respond, and say quite calmly, 'I don't think I actually said that,' quite often you get a real response.”

Maybe you do. Maybe if you replied to every single thing that everyone ever said about you in the great new virtual world, you could impose reason where there was wild ranting, and order where there was chaos. It's certainly a noble ideal, but has she got the time? Has this woman, who has a big job, and writes books, and gives lectures, and does an awful lot of radio and TV, really got the time? Beard looks almost surprised by the question. “I kind of think,” she says, “maybe that's the responsibility of the academic.” What, patrolling the whole of cyberspace? “I suppose,” she says, “it fits with something else I'm interested in, which is this sense of empowerment and disempowerment which the media have made very stark.”

You can't really meet Mary Beard, and not think about “empowerment”. You can't not wonder what it is that makes a 58-year-old woman with long grey hair wander down Roman roads with the swagger of a queen. Where does it come from, this confidence that means she can go on telly without any make up, and tell the world's superpower that it “had it coming”, and argue with politicians on the prime time current affairs programme Jonathan Aitken said this week was more terrifying than prison?

“I think,” she says, without much of a pause, “my mum and dad. I think they were very matter-of-fact about things. I was a bright little kid, and a bit of a swot, and a bit of a rebel.” Her “mum”, it turns out, was the headmistress of a junior school. Her “dad” was an architect, and “a bit of a drunk”. At the private girls' school she went to in Shrewsbury, she was taught that there would be “no discrimination against women” and that she would be able to follow whatever career she wanted. “They were wrong to teach me this,” she says, “but it was good.”

It was only when she got to Cambridge to read classics, which felt like the natural thing to do after summers spent digging up Roman coins, that she discovered that there could be discrimination against women, and that there was.

When a male fellow student asked her if she really thought she could get a first, it was a shock.

“I hadn't realised,” she says, “that there were people like that. I hadn't realised that that was thinkable. I'd always thought it was a kind of intellectual position, feminism, not that there were people out there who thought you weren't smart.”

If anyone ever thought that of Mary Beard, they're not all that likely to think it now. But success – even academic success – didn't come overnight. “Academic life, in my subject,” she says, “is a very slow burner. I went through years where I couldn't write anything. People used to say, 'she had such promise, look at her'. But it comes slow, and I managed it, and I managed it, I think, by not pretending to be someone else.”

She wants, she says, to do “a meaty popular history of the whole of ancient Rome”. But then Mary Beard – even Mary Beard – covers her face with her hands. “I sometimes sit and think,” she says, peeping at me through her fingers, “god, Beard, that is so hubristic. Really, come on, a history of Rome! Do you think you can? And then I think: 'Well, if I can't now, when can I?' I can't afford to leave it too long.”

I think she will, and I think she can. If anyone can, Mary Beard can. This, after all, is a woman who has done great things in reminding us of the importance of history. But some of us might think that this is a woman who has done even greater things in reminding us – and the bloggers, and the tweeters, and the TV critics – that there's something more important than a woman's appearance. She has reminded us that what's much, much more important than a woman's appearance is a woman's brain.

'Confronting the Classics' is published by Profile