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At the end of a chapter on Livia, the wife of the Roman emperor Augustus, in Confronting the Classics (Liveright, $28.95), the Cambridge scholar Mary Beard reminds us that when Masterpiece Theatre first broadcast the BBC version of I, Claudius, in 1977, the host explained to the American audience that Augustus “reconciled the old nobility and the new republicans and merchants and middle classes to a system of government that was fundamentally republican.”

Although, according to Beard, this is “historical nonsense,” it transformed Livia’s (rumored) murder of Augustus into the sort of act that could destroy “the political foundation of the American State.” The twelve episodes of I, Claudius evoked for U.S. viewers and reviewers not the corruption of the Roman Empire but the corruption of Washington, the detrimental effects of women gaining power, and other dangers to American greatness. It didn’t matter what the real Livia had done or not done (there is evidence that she took an interest in herbal remedies and “put her longevity down to drinking wine from Friuli”): she could not evade her posthumous incarnation as a symbol of political threat. Livia’s great-grandson Caligula gave his favorite horse all the perks of nobility, building him a palace and feeding him oats mixed with flakes of gold. Suetonius and Dio Cassius, writing close to a century after Caligula’s assassination, thought this equine pampering was evidence of the young emperor’s madness, but Beard explores the idea that the absurd gesture was meant to expose the nobility as a useless and expensive incubus on the Roman state.

In her compilation of reviews of scholarly works about Ancient Greece and Rome (with a nod to Asterix), Beard repeatedly cautions that the generally accepted classical stories are often based on rumors, fragments, malicious propaganda, and wishful thinking. Again and again she points out not only the scholarly predilection for filling in blanks (about the childhood of Cleopatra, for example) but also the broader enthusiasm for putting classical works to modern uses without regard for what they may have meant to their authors or in their own time. The damage done is not only to the original texts. In her chapter about recent productions of Greek dramas, Beard asks:

What of the argument, for example, that ancient tragedy is more the problem than the solution, and that part of the reason why Western culture deals so ineffectively with the horrors of war, or the inequalities of gender, is that it cannot think through these issues outside the frame established in Athens more than two millennia ago?

Modern politicians use the same stories to support opposing agendas; Beard cites a passage from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon that Robert F. Kennedy (mis)quoted in announcing the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.: “Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” Richard Nixon felt that the same passage described his own fall. But the wisdom resides in the translation, not the original — an alternative translation makes no reference to Judeo-Christian personal salvation: “so men against their will/ learn to practice moderation./ Favours come to us from gods.

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