Where are you now and what can you see?
I'm in a little rented cottage in Aberdeen. It's midday – so it'll soon be dark. I can see my laptop, and I'm about to write a lecture.
What are you currently reading?
Women Latin Poets by Jane Stevenson. It's tremendous: she traces the whole history of women writing in Latin across time and space.
Choose a favourite author and say why you admire them
Tacitus: he's difficult, but the difficulty rewards you – like a Latin Joyce. He uses Latin in a cranky, weird way. It's so in-your-face, going utterly against the norms of Cicero.
Describe the room where you normally write
I write in the Classics faculty in Cambridge... where I have small concrete box with the door always open.
What distracts you from writing?
Events, dear boy, events! The open door, students... But the distractions enable me to write.
Which fictional character most resembles you?
When I was younger I liked to imagine myself as a cross between Jane Eyre and some hapless Margaret Drabble heroine – a horribly self-regarding position to take.
What are your readers like when you meet them?
I have two sorts: one has been made to read your books, and the job there is to make them see that you're a human being. With the others, it's very humbling to meet someone who has taken the trouble to sit down and read something I've written.
Who is your hero/heroine from outside literature?
Classicists take a pretty grim view of heroes. If I had to pick, then Elizabeth Fry – because the black hole of British culture is the penal system. And I think I'd resurrect Lord Reith, because we need the BBC.
Mary Beard's 'It's a Don's Life' is out from Profile.
Interview by Boyd TonkinReuse content