World-renowned English classicist Mary Beard delivered a lecture last Friday on Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, as a part of the annual Directed Studies Colloquium program, a series of guest lectures.
Students in the Directed Studies program read The Annals by Tacitus for the “Historical and Political Thought” course. Beard’s presentation brought a fresh perspective to the topic, exploring the details that would otherwise have been left unmentioned in lectures and seminar discussions, including Tacitus’ use of language and the subtleties of meaning lost in translation.
“You read about [these works] outside of class … and then go over the main ideas in lecture, but Mary Beard was able to go into the nuances,” said Hala El Solh ’20, who is enrolled in Directed Studies. “She brought in the original Latin and explicated how the words contributed to his ideas.”
Tacitus is known for his critical remarks about the Roman Empire: The historian revealed the detriments of autocracy and corruption in government, examining the life of Romans under a tyrannical empire.
Other students expressed their sentiments about Beard’s presentation on the readings. Students interviewed said that because Directed Studies ambitiously exposes its students to a huge canon of works, it is sometimes difficult to examine the intricacies embedded in these writings.
Because of the breadth of the Directed Studies curriculum, opportunities like Beard’s lecture allow students in the program to explore subjects further, Directed Studies student Mery Concepcion ’20 said.
Beard was in New Haven to give a lecture on fiction and misunderstanding for the annual Rostovtzeff Lecture in the Classics Department. When political science and humanities professor Bryan Garsten learned about Beard’s schedule, he “jumped at the chance” to invite her to speak at the Directed Studies Colloquium.
In her one-hour lecture, Beard focused on the way Tacitus’ language espoused his criticism of tyranny. The historian’s word choices were so meticulous that they “echoed the major themes of his work in subtle ways,” Concepcion said.
“Her [Directed Studies] Colloquium offered a brilliant and lively tour of Tacitus,” said Garsten, who teaches a section of “Historical and Political Thought” in Directed Studies. “She retold dramatic stories, explored the psychology of writing under an emperor’s rule and showed us how small changes in the English translation of a single Latin sentence can hide or reveal layers of meaning and allusion.”
Beard said in her lecture that Tacitus’ fastidious word choice disappears when it is translated from its original Latin.
Susan Chen ’20, another Directed Studies student, also commented on Beard’s presentation style.
“It was immediately evident why she was so famous,” Chen said. “She seemed so informed, passionate and dynamic talking about the topic, it really captured the audience’s attention.”
Beard and a group of about 15 students visited the Beinecke together on Thursday afternoon, the day before the lecture. There, they looked at original manuscripts of the works of Plato, Tacitus and Livy as Beard explicated what various symbols or words meant.
Correction, Nov. 16: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that 10 students went to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library with Mary Beard after her lecture. In fact a group of about 15 students went with her the day before the lecture.