My history hero: Sir Moses I Finley (1912–86)

Chosen by Mary Beard, historian and author

Mary Beard, professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. (David Levenson/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine 


Sir Moses I Finley CBE, FBA, was an American classical scholar who moved to England in 1955. He taught at Cambridge and was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971. His most notable work is The Ancient Economy (1973), in which he argued that status and civic ideology governed the economy in antiquity rather than rational economic motivations.

When did you first hear about Moses Finley?

I read his book The World of Odysseus at school and it was an eye-opener. I hadn’t ever realised that you could take epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey, composed almost 3,000 years ago, and ask them historical questions. It had never occurred to me that, if you read carefully, you could find all sorts of clues about the kind of society that had produced the poems – its economy, government and law. When I saw Finley in the flesh, in lectures at university, it was even better. He opened up all those subjects that I hadn’t before recognised as part of ancient history: slavery, revolution, poverty, for example.

What kind of person was he?

Engaging, straight-talking, dogmatic. He had come to Britain from New York at the time of the McCarthyite witch-hunts in the 1950s: it made him a wonderful combination of the brilliant boy from the Bronx and crusty Oxbridge academic. I think he shocked some corners of the ivory tower with the trans-Atlantic frankness. “That idea is rubbish,” he would happily say.

What made him a hero?

He showed me that studying the ancient world was something I didn’t have to be remotely ashamed about.

His idea was to make students see that ancient history mattered, that it was a subject worth getting cross about, and (perhaps even more important) that you couldn’t understand Greece and Rome if you didn’t understand the modern world too. No one before had ever suggested that reading Marx or Freud was something I should be doing for my ‘real’ work, not as an optional extra. It was an eye-opener.

What was his finest hour?

I guess Moses would have thought that giving the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in California was the high point of his career. They became a famous book called The Ancient Economy – which attacked the usual idea that ancient economic life could be understood in more or less modern terms (with proto-capitalists, mercantile classes, imports and exports and so on). This, for him, was where Marx, Weber and co came in – not to show that the ancient world was like the modern, but to give us the tools to show how different it was. I’m not so sure. In a way it has dated more than his other writing.

He was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1971. For me, his finest hours were those he spent in the lecture hall turning our views about the ancient world upside down.

Is there anything you didn’t particularly admire about him?

He could be terribly intolerant and (as the cliché goes) he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I wouldn’t have wanted to be one of his academic enemies. And I now see he didn’t much like or really understand the Roman world. He was a Greek man through and through, and he never thought that the Romans were half as interesting (he was wrong there!).

Can you see any parallels between his life and your own?

He saw that popular history did not mean dumbing down. He was keen to talk to non-specialists as intelligent human beings, not as if they were stupid and needed their history ‘lite’.

The series of talks he did on the ‘Third Programme’ (now Radio 3), later published in The Listener, look at all kinds of aspects of the ancient world, from Homer to Claudius (via Robert Graves). They are brilliant examples of a Melvyn Bragg style before Bragg.

I hope that, in talking to non-specialist audiences, I live up to his example. No jargon, but no dumbing down.


Mary Beard is professor of classics at the University of Cambridge. She is also the classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog A Don’s Life. In 2010, she was elected a fellow of the British Academy, the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences: