Mary Beard Credit: Shutterstock

Mary Beard’s life advice: “Take criticism, but don’t be crushed”

The classicist, 68, tells us about her joy at retiring, social media storms, using politeness as a weapon, and her love of Marmite.

How does it feel to have retired from Cambridge after nearly 40 years of teaching?

I have to say I’m delighted! We have a compulsory retirement age at the university which is under constant review: when I came to the university in 1984 my first contract told me when I was going to leave. It was decades away then, but it was great because I think if it wasn’t there I’d have had to think about it. Of course, compulsory retirement without good pension provision is quite a different thing, so I am privileged. Also I still have a key to the library and I can still eat in the college. What I can’t have is any power, and that’s great. It’s time for someone else to make the decisions.  


Any big retirement plans?

More writing, more telly and lots of interesting things that I couldn’t have fitted in before.  

You’ve written several bestselling books about Ancient Rome. Why are we so fascinated by this era?

I think it’s because the Romans are still all around us. In the UK, they’re under our feet: the reason London is where it is is because the Romans decided to put the capital there. 

So they still determine our history – but they also go on providing a whole set of images of power, of virtue, of corruption.  

Your new book Emperor of Rome explores the fact and fiction around ancient rulers. What did you enjoy about the research?

There is something wonderful about the way stories of monarchy repeat through the ages. There’s a lovely story about Mark Antony [who almost became an emperor] and Cleopatra – an account of someone going to their kitchens and discovering that eight boars are being roasted. The guy says: “God, they must be expecting loads of people.” And the head cook says: “No, there’s only 12, but we never know when they’re going to eat, so we put boars on at different times so that whenever they decide, one will be done perfectly.”

Centuries later you have the rumours that our King has a series of eggs cooked so that he can choose the right level of runniness. I can’t imagine that’s true, but it’s the same idea that connects us through the years: outside of power we are fascinated by what unfolds on the inside.

What is better about life at this stage?

You’ve got a thicker skin. Some years ago I got death threats after a Twitter storm and one of them was specific. I reported it to the police, but I didn’t sit here anxiously because I didn’t think anything was going to happen. And my daughter Zoe said: “That’s great, but if you were 30 years younger, you’d be terrified.” And I would have been.

It was the same when the late AA Gill said words to the effect of “she looks like the back end of a bus” when reviewing one of my TV programmes. If he’d said that about me when I was 25, I’d have been absolutely crushed.  


Did the fact AA Gill’s remarks became national news surprise you?

It was interesting because when he took aim, lots of newspaper readers I didn’t expect to be friendly to me were supportive. I thought they’d say, “He’s right, why do we have that frump on telly?”, but instead the majority said: “That’s what I look like.”

I was in my late fifties and I think there were quite a lot of women my age who thought he wasn’t just insulting me, he was insulting them all. What did he think a 57-year-old woman looks like? They look like me, and it’s what you do that matters.

You never shy away from standing up for your beliefs. Why?

It’s partly being a teacher; when you see people saying things that you know to be wrong or ill-argued, you’re programmed to say: “Excuse me, I don’t think that’s quite right.”

When I was first attacked on social media, everybody said the right course of action was to block them, and that’s what I did at first. But it just didn’t feel right – like leaving the bullies in charge of the playground. So I started to respond, and it felt better. I’ve learnt not to do it when I’m really cross, or after two glasses of wine, and most of all, always to be polite. I use politeness as my sword.

How is the older Mary different from young Mary?

In my head I always saw myself as a fighter, although I now look back and realise that when I was younger I was more vulnerable than I thought. And my mum was very important. She was a school teacher, a real full-on woman, very good at standing up for what she thought was right, and putting her foot down for it. So I learnt from her about how I thought it was right to be. This doesn’t mean that I think you should be obstinate. Putting your foot down has to be combined with willingness to change your mind.

Your son and daughter both have children. Do you enjoy being a grandmother?

It’s what everybody says: it’s wonderful, but as soon as they start to get a bit irritating you can give them back! So you get the best of it, without the chore-like features.

If you were minister for the Saga generation what would you do?

We need to rethink what retirement is; the idea that you have your leaving party and the next day you are just at home, with much less money, is wrong. But I don’t know how you can legislate for that. It’s different from saying you can work as long as you like: work has been empowering for me, but that’s not true for everybody.

What would you say to your 18-year-old self?

Don’t let the buggers get you down. Face up to them, take criticism, but don’t be crushed.  

Is there a surprising fact about you?

My son would say it’s that I eat Marmite straight from the jar. Knife in jar, knife into mouth.  

Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World (Profile Books, £30) by Mary Beard is out on September 28 


Written by Kathryn Knight