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Mary Beard

Princess of Asturias Award for Social Sciences 2016

Your Majesties,
Distinguished Laureates
Ladies and Gentlemen

I must begin by saying what an overwhelming honour it is to be awarded a Princess of Asturias prize. I am absolutely delighted to receive it not only on my own behalf, but also on behalf of all those teachers, scholars and writers who work hard to make our conversation with the ancient world so live, engaging and rewarding. There are excellent people here in Asturias doing exactly that – some of whom I have had the privilege and pleasure of meeting over the last few days.

I also like to think that part of this honour is going to that ancient race – brutal, imperialist and misogynistic though they undoubtedly were – whose literature still challenges us, whose law and politics inform our own, whose strange habits still puzzle us, and whose traces are literally beneath our feet. I am talking of course about the Romans. And I should add that I had tremendous fun finding them just beneath the surface of the soil of Asturias, when I visited the villa of Veranes on Tuesday.

That visit was part of this week’s cultural programme, which for me has been a shining example of how history (ancient or modern) is best done. History is not simply a subject for a few lonely professors locked up in their libraries; it’s a communal, shared, citizenly activity in which I would hope that everyone can be involved, from little kids to their grandparents, from avid book readers to those who turn on the televisions from their sofas. Not to be able to think historically makes poorer citizens of us all.

That’s because history is not simply about the past. As a conversation between present and past, it is just as much about us. Now I don’t mean by that, that we can learn lessons directly from history (history isn’t an answer book to current problems). But it does teach us about ourselves, challenging our cultural certainties and opening our eyes to different perspectives. And it encourages a degree of cultural humility. Of course, there has been “progress” (for all the work on women’s right we still have to do, all over the world, there is no woman on the planet who would choose to go back to ancient Rome, unless they were sure they had a return ticket). But we still have slaves (even though we don’t call them that), and there is no best-selling book in the west that has ever had more readers than Virgil’s Aeneid.

Our history also crosses our modern boundaries. There is a famous English poem by a 16th century poet John Donne, which starts “No man is an island /entire of itself / every man is a piece of the continent”. I’m afraid my fellow countrymen forget its message, but it has been in my head this week: In the events we have enjoyed together I have felt part of a shared history, and a shared continent.

And for all that I feel very lucky indeed. Thank you.

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