BBC TV news on Sunday night briefly touched on the story that Twitter trolls are directing yet more abuse at poor Mary Beard: another example of the inability of a small minority of Twitter users to keep their bizarrely vitriolic views to their very odd selves. But what actually perked my interest at that precise moment, and made me rather gratified, was Professor Beard’s being sufficiently well known to be introduced as simply ‘the classicist Mary Beard’.
Now, classicist is not a job title we hear often on a popular news programme. Scientist, very often, archaeologist occasionally, but classicist? You’d think they would call her TV presenter or historian, both of which apply to her. But no, here she was as an expert on the classics.
Classics to me means Latin, which was my university subject, and Greek. Mary Beard was one of the many scholars whose works I leafed through in the oak-panelled depths of the library. Most were probably dead, so had even less chance than Mary Beard of becoming TV names a decade and a half later.
What I liked about my subject was the charmingly esoteric character of so much of the material with which I worked. I still have my edition of Virgil’s Aeneid Book 6: of the 300 pages, just 29 are taken up by the poem. The rest consist of line-by-line notes.
‘Cumarum’ in line 2 is the commentator’s chance to tell us about the Greek colony (Cumae) in Italy and, if we want to know some more, we’re advised to look at “Ogilvie on Livy 2.14.4, 2.21.5; C.G. Hardie, PBSR xxxvii 17f, A. Maiuri, The Phlegraean Fields (Rome, 1969), 106ff… cf. C. Saunders, Vergil’s primitive Italy… R.V. Schoder, C.J. lxvii (1971-2), 97ff”.
No doubt some readers found all those references useful. I wasn’t amongst them. Nor was I that interested in Virgil’s incomplete lines, so didn’t seek out one of the many German scholars who seemed exercised by these matters, such as O. Walter, author of Die Entstehung der Halbverse in der Aeneis.
I know medical textbooks must be just as abstruse, but the upshot of all their research and minutiae of detail is that surgeons can identify, say, what’s bothering your stomach and sort it out as painlessly as possible, and also build on earlier work to make far-reaching research advances of their own. Latin at its most scholarly level, on the other hand, has few applications in modern life as we experience it.
But – happily – there is still a space for it in the very same high tech world that enables us to fire off 140 character missives from various mobile devices. And it makes me happy that the trail connecting Twitter users, Mary Beard and those scholars of times past is still there, however faint.