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Greece vs. Rome

In November 2015 we hosted the ultimate clash of civilisations: Greece vs Rome. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London and ardent classicist, made the case for Greece; while Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and redoubtable media star, championed Rome.

On November 19th Intelligence Squared hosted the ultimate clash of civilisations: Greece vs RomeBoris Johnson, Mayor of London and ardent classicist, made the case for Greece; while Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge and redoubtable media star, championed Rome.

As Boris argued, the Greeks got there first: in literature, history, art and philosophy. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the earliest surviving epic poems, the foundations on which European literature was built. The Greek myths – the tales of Oedipus, Heracles and Persephone, to name but a few – contain the archetypal plot elements of hubris and nemesis on which even Hollywood films depend today.

It was in ancient Athens that the birth of democracy took place under the leadership of the great statesman Pericles. And in that political climate with its love of freedom and competition, and passion for argument, the great cultural flourishing of classical Athens occurred: the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides; the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle; and the marble and stone wonders of the Parthenon. Nothing before or since has matched that explosion of talent in a slice of Mediterranean coast smaller than Gloucestershire, with a population the size of Bristol’s.

But as Mary Beard reminded us, Greece eventually lost out to Rome. Little Athens, with its loose-knit, short-lived empire, had nothing to rival Rome’s scale. From Hadrian’s Wall to north Africa, from Spain’s Atlantic coast to Babylon, the Romans stamped a permanent legacy on architecture, language, religion and politics.

Although nothing can detract from the brilliance of Greek literature, the great Roman writers have an immediacy unmatched by any other ancient culture. Virgil’s epic poem the Aeneid, while invoking Homer, conveys an ambiguity towards war that appeals to modern sensibilities; Catullus’s taut analysis of his own complex emotions and the scatological insults he hurls at his rivals make him seem like the kind of clever and amusing friend we all wish we had. These poets reach out to us with voices that make the intervening 2,000 years vanish.

While Athens declined into a forgotten backwater, Rome became the eternal city, home to the greatest classical buildings on earth – the Colosseum, the Pantheon and Trajan’s column. It is thanks to a Roman emperor, Constantine, that Christianity became both the presiding European religion and the force that shaped the Renaissance. Europe is still built in Rome’s image, despite the fall of the Roman Empire.

Some say that if Mary Beard had been in charge, the Roman Empire would never have fallen. Others say Boris is soon to be the Pericles of Downing Street. Who gets your vote?



Andrew Marr

Journalist, broadcaster and author

One of Britain’s most popular broadcast journalists. He presents BBC One’s Sunday morning ‘The Andrew Marr Show’, in which he has interviewed every major British politician, as well as stars such as Woody Allen and Angelina Jolie. He was the BBC Political Editor until 2005, and is the occasional host of BBC Radio 4′s ‘Start the Week’.

Mary Beard

Classicist, author and broadcaster, whose new book is Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World

One of the most original and best-known classicists working today. She was Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge until 2022, is a fellow of Newnham College, and the Classics editor of the TLS. She is a fellow of the British Academy and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Her books include the Wolfson Prize-winning Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town (2008), the best-selling SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome (2015) and Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017). She has written and presented several television documentaries, including ‘Meet the Romans’ and ‘Forbidden Art’.  Her new book is Emperor of Rome: Ruling the Ancient Roman World.

Boris Johnson

Former Mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge

Former Mayor of London and MP for Uxbridge, who read Classics at Oxford University and has long sung the praises of a classical education, once arguing that studying Greek and Latin would keep young people off the streets. In 2014, he gave a lecture on the glories of classical Athenian civilisation, claiming that London is the Athens of today.

Max Bennett


Rising stage star Max Bennett has appeared in West End plays ‘Posh’, ‘Relatively Speaking’ and ‘Mrs Warren’s Profession.’ Shakespeare productions include; ‘King Lear’, ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’. He has recently starred in ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore’ to critical acclaim. Max’s screen credits include ‘The Hollow Crown’, ‘Anna Karenina’, ‘The Duchess’ and 2016’s ‘Set The Thames on Fire’.

Niamh Cusack


Niamh Cusack has regularly appeared on the UK stage and screen over the last 30 years. She recently starred in the hugely successful ‘Curious Incident of the Dog In the Night Time’ at the National Theatre. Her most recognised films have included ‘Testament of Youth’ and Clint Eastwood’s ‘Hereafter’, and her television appearances range from ‘Silent Witness’ to Richard Eyre’s adaptation of ‘Henry IV’.