Review: Confronting the Classics, By Mary Beard

A fresh, witty take on the ancient world

Away from the manufactured outrage over Mary Beard daring to speak her mind about immigration on Question Time, and the relentless harping by the TV critic AA Gill that the Cambridge professor really should do something about her hair, the question of her expertise is never at issue. Beard is the best – or certainly the prima inter pares – communicator of Classics we have.

Her new offering is a volume of reviews of books about the Classics in mainstream literary publications. Its aim is a "provocative tour" of the subject's health. Was Nero really all that bad or was it the beastly Flavians stitching him up? What did ordinary people worry about? Why are we in thrall to the "convenient if dubious modern orthodoxy" of how archaeological remains are re-imagined? And why did Romans have such bad breath?

Slaves and a penchant for poisoning aside, we're quite like them. We even laugh at much the same jokes as our ancestors: the stand-up comedian Jim "Bullseye" Bowen performed a show based entirely on jokes from the ancient Greeks' go-to collection of gags, the Philogelos.

Beard is particularly good at explaining how we have come to perceive the ancient world through filters, misapprehensions and bad translations, and, further, what that says about us. Livia, the wife of Augustus, has become the archetypal scheming empress who poisoned her husband, not because of what Tacitus wrote about her, or even Robert Graves, but because of Siân Phillips' portrayal of her in the BBC series of I, Claudius. "Just as the modern press has found Nancy Reagan or Cherie Blair convenient explanatory tools … in accounting for their husbands' policy decisions, so ancient historians could always fall back on Livia or other imperial women," writes Beard. "Such assumptions produce tidy history, but they may not be correct."

The only caveat is the decision to upsell the book as confronting the Classics. What it does – trenchantly, wittily and, rare this, knowledgeably – is hold the books to account.

Most of the chapters are available online as standalone book reviews – more or less verbatim – for free. O tempora, o mores, as Cicero and, more importanly, the Asterix books were fond of saying.