Classical history and art: transforming public understanding

Mary Beard on the foot of Colossi of Memnon, Egypt, during filming of Civilisations (credit: BBC)

For over 20 years, Mary Beard has communicated her research on the classical world to millions of TV viewers and readers of her books, enhancing popular knowledge of ancient history and culture.

Beard’s research focuses in particular on the material culture of both ancient Greece and Rome (and its reception), and on the political, social and cultural history of ancient Rome. One key strand across this work has been a commitment to see the surviving monuments of antiquity in a wide historical context, up to the present day.

She has written and presented landmark television programmes on the BBC, including Ultimate Rome (2016), two episodes of Civilisations (2018) and The Shock of the Nude (2020). These have introduced very large audiences, in the UK and overseas, to a new understanding of, and engagement with, the classical world. For example, Pompeii attracted an audience of over 4 million, Julius Caesar Revealed over 3 million, and the episodes of Ultimate Rome have been seen by an audience averaging over 2 million each.

With combined television viewing figures running to millions, Beard has developed these landmark programmes beyond the screen. Reinforced by other forms of public engagement (lectures, blogs, radio programmes, newspaper articles, social media interaction), this has increased popular and media interest in antiquity (from the National Theatre to TV’s Grand Tour).

Beard has also had a powerful impact in sustaining Classics in British education. Her programmes demonstrably prompted people of all ages and diverse backgrounds to study the ancient world, to take up Latin and to explore ancient sites.

Her television programmes have influenced international cultural understanding. Part of Ultimate Rome was filmed in Algeria, putting its Roman sites into the limelight and positively impacting UK- and Algerian and Moroccan cultural relations.

In April 2020, the BBC exploited Beard’s expertise and popularity in bringing the ancient world to life to encourage social distancing during the pandemic, through her brief, Roman-themed, public information film (with c.47,000 views).

“My daughter is studying Classical Studies at Exeter. Brought up in a Council house at one point homeless & always treading financial waters. One of her biggest inspirations? YOU. Thank you for making Classics accessible as a subject for her.”

– Parent