Post-Series Reflections

In this post Professor Helen Bond reflects on the otherness of the Roman world and on what the study of Christian origins can take away from Professor Dame Mary Beard’s Gifford lectures. Professor Bond is Professor of Christian Origins with a specialization in New Testament and is the Head of School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh. She is also the director of The Centre for Christian Origins (CSCO, http://www.christianorigins.div.ed.ac.uk). Her reflections can be found below.

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The Otherness of the Roman World and the Reception of the New Testament Today

– Helen Bond

Over the course of her six lectures, Mary Beard has exposed us to the full horrors of the ancient world. From the gory spectacles of death in the arena to the genocidal maniacs who ran the place, the world of the Greeks and Romans was one of appalling savagery. Even features we might be tempted to admire – Greek democracy, Roman battle tactics, and the whiteness of their togas – turn out, on closer inspection, to be rather less savoury than we’d imagined. Continue reading

Vote of Thanks

Below is the vote of thanks that Professor David Fergusson gave at the conclusion of Professor Dame Mary Beard’s 2019 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh. Fergusson is Professor of Divinity and Director of  Research at New College here at the University of Edinburgh, Chaplain to the Queen in Scotland, and a former Gifford Lecturer himself. His vote of thanks can be found below.

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2019 Gifford Lecture Vote of Thanks

– David Fergusson

These Gifford Lectures have confirmed Mary Beard’s reputation as one of the most gifted communicators of her subject to a wide audience. She is an expert in several media but has shown us the perennial value of the one-hour lecture. We have learned much about the history of classical civilisation but also the ways in which its reception reflects the biases and blind spots of each age. This is no less true of our own time, and Professor Beard has asked us to reflect on ourselves in ways that might unmask some of our own prejudices as we compare our own to earlier civilisations. Her lectures have been historically instructive while also raising issues of moral and political importance for us today. In all this, she has admirably fulfilled Lord Gifford’s remit. Professor Beard has again proved a most effective advocate for her discipline. We need more such people in our universities, especially for the sake of representing the humanities to a wider public.

Owen Dudley Edwards reminded us earlier this week that it’s possible for a lecture to be both entertaining and educational. Some of us may struggle with that combination, but not Professor Beard who has succeeded effortlessly on both counts. I’ve been attending Gifford Lectures since I was a student over 40 years ago, and I cannot recall a series that has been so consistently well attended, nor an hour that passed as quickly. A colleague of mine once received a thank you card signed by his student audience at the end of their course. ‘Thank you for your wonderful lectures’, it read. ‘You made one hour seem like 59 minutes.’ When Professor Beard lectures an hour seems much shorter. We thank her for the time and effort she has invested in this distinguished series, and we hope to see here again in Edinburgh soon.

Lecture 6: Classical Civilisation?

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her sixth and final Gifford lectureThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Anastasia-Stavroula Valtadorou will offer her initial reflections on the lecture and some of the themes of the previous lectures. Anastasia-Stavroula is currently working on her PhD in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her last lecture of the series that aimed to tie up the series by focusing  a little on her own biography with Classics in order to further reflect on “what we think we mean by the contested term of ‘Western Civilization’ and how, for good or bad, Classics relates to that.”

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Mid-Series Reflections

In this post Dr Sara Parvis further reflects on Professor Beard’s distinction between slave and free, us and them. Dr Parvis is a Senior Lecturer in Patristics at New College, University of Edinburgh. Her Reflections can be found below.

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Us and them?- slaves, agency and early Christianity

– Dr Sara Parvis

I want to pick up what I see as an implicit challenge in Professor Dame Mary Beard’s fourth Gifford Lecture, ‘Us and Them’: that slaves are constructed as ‘not us’. Athenian citizens are by definition ‘not slaves’, but surely in Rome (as Professor Beard herself notes) the situation is different? You have not two possibilities, but three: slave, free and freed. Freed sometimes to be thrown on the scrap-heap, no doubt, but freed sometimes to get rich (freeing a slave who owed debts in your name was the ancient equivalent of declaring bankruptcy, because neither of you was liable for them thereafter) and proudly to erect a building or perform a public work and put up an inscription recording the fact. Freed to be married by your master, or freed to be adopted as a child by your owners because their own children had died. As Professor Beard pointed out, being a freedman or women doesn’t automatically make you ‘one of us’. But it does potentially put you into a category one might term ‘one of us on a good day’. Redeemable, as it were (literally and figuratively).

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Lecture 5: Tyranny and Empire

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her fifth of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion both Dr Joanna Leidenhag and Sam Ellis will offer their initial reflections on the lecture. Joanna recently completed her PhD in Systematic and Philosophical Theology at the University of Edinburgh and currently works at the University of St Andrews. Sam is currently a second year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Beard’s lecture focused on tyranny and empire. More specifically it focused on “how the Roman empire has, or has not, been used to justify imperial domination in the modern world” with a particular interest in how “we see the British empire through a Roman template.”

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Lecture 4: Us and Them

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her fourth of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version is also available at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Bianca Mazzinghi Gori will offer her initial reflections on the lecture. Bianca is a first-year PhD student in Classics at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her fourth lecture by speaking positively about classical Athenian democracy. She mentioned that widespread admiration of Athenian democracy in the West has only been the case for the past couple centuries. As she stated, “before that, you wouldn’t have found many admirers of universal male suffrage anywhere in the West.”  However, she noted that popular admiration of Athenian democracy has somewhat reductively focused on the notion of “voting” without paying adequate attention to other dimensions (good and bad) that made Athenian democracy what it was. As she stated, “as the Athenian debates remind us there’s a lot more to democracy than voting” and as she continued to explain “Athenians rightly focused just as strongly on how people make up their minds on what to vote, what information they have, who persuades them, and by what means.” Furthermore, she noted that Athenians had no problem voting on the same issue twice (a point worth acknowledging in our current political discussions).

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Interview with Professor Dame Mary Beard

Professor Dame Mary Beard talks briefly about her experience giving the Gifford Lectures, some of the key themes, and about what she hopes people will take away from the lectures.

Lecture 3: Lucretia and the Politics of Sexual Violence

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her third of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Jo Thor will offer her initial reflections on the lecture. Jo is currently a final year PhD candidate at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

In this third lecture Professor Dame Mary Beard focused on the “various forms of sexual violence in the mythical history of ancient Rome” that were an integral part of its development. As she said, “The bottom line here is that early Roman history is bound up with rape, that almost all Roman stories of the foundational moments of their city feature violence against women as the immediate cause.” As she further explained,

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Lecture Two: Whiteness

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her second of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Ines Silva offers her initial reflections on the lecture. Silva is currently a Classics PhD student at the School of History, Classics, and Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Earlier this evening Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her lecture on “whiteness” by talking about a controversy that erupted a few years ago over an animated cartoon for children produced by the BBC. The center of the controversy revolved around the depiction “of a high-ranking Roman official as not white” that caused some (Paul Joseph Watson in particular) to criticize its historical accuracy and offer their own explanations for why the BBC, in an educational show, would intentionally misrepresent the Roman world in Britain.  Beard acknowledged that the cartoon was not perfect in its representations of Roman Britain, but she argued (along with others) “that this was a perfectly reasonable representation and not surprising in the context of the diversity of Roman Britain.” In order to illustrate this point she spent some time speaking about Quintus Lollius Urbicus “who was a governor of the province [in Britain] in the first half of the second century AD” who, as the evidence suggests, came from Algeria having also spent time in Germany, Judea, and Turkey. She quickly acknowledged that this “doesn’t tell us anything for sure about the color of his skin,” but what this does do is show that the depiction “of a high-ranking Roman official as not white” in Roman Britain is “perfectly possible.”

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Lecture One: Introduction: Murderous Games

Earlier tonight Professor Dame Mary Beard gave her first of six Gifford lecturesThe video of Beard’s lecture is embedded below (followed by a short summary) for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Natalie Smith offers her initial reflections on the lecture. Smith is currently a PhD student at New College, University of Edinburgh. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Beard’s lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

Professor Dame Mary Beard opened her own Gifford lecture by reflecting on her respect and appreciation for the Gifford lectures and for the many eminent scholars that have given them. She specifically mentioned William Warde Fowler and his lectures given at the University of Edinburgh in 1909-1910 (which were later published as The Religious Experience of the Roman People). She then mentioned Hannah Arendt (as the first female Gifford lecturer) and her lectures given at the University of Aberdeen in 1972-1974 (which were later published as two of a projected three volume Life of the Mind series, which sadly remained unfinished due to Arendt’s death in 1975). Finally, she mentioned having “been gripped by watching” the more recent Gifford lectures given by Judith Butler at the University of Glasgow in 2018 entitled “My Life, Your Life: Equality and the Philosophy of Non-Violence.” She ended her introduction by reflecting on how her own series of Gifford lectures related to the original intentions of Lord Gifford and mentioned some humorous anecdotes regarding the inflexibility of the earliest Gifford committees in the late 1800s in order to thank the current Gifford committee and university staff for their flexibility in changing venues so that more people could attend the lectures.

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