History was ‘a generally rubbish place,’ says Bettany Hughes. After a lifetime studying it, she definitely would not want to live there. ‘Not before the anaesthetic era,’ I suggest. ‘Not even before fridges,’ she counters. Well that’s a surprise, given she has been such an ambassador for the past since bursting on to British TV screens to present history programmes 20 years ago, the first woman to be allowed to do so.
She might go back, she thinks, if it could be just for 24 hours. ‘I’d go to Sparta. Spartan men were away in training camps between the ages of seven and 30, so Spartan women were more liberated than any other women in Ancient Greece. They were allowed to ride in chariots and to eat the same rations as men. They could own land and speak in council. It was really fascinating. I’d like to know how it all worked when the men came home.’
Bettany Hughes’s new book explodes the romantic myth of the Botticelli Venus, all pink and pretty, rising from the sea in her clam shell, and replaces it with something darker
Aristotle used to moan about the brass neck of Spartan women. He hated their independence and how they intruded in a world made for men. Over 2,000 years later, when Hughes lobbied the BBC to be allowed to make her first history show, life hadn’t moved on much. A corporation producer famously told her: ‘Nobody wants to be lectured at by a woman.’
Then there was the time she was filming a documentary about the history of entertainment and her pregnant belly was considered a far more controversial sight than a man trampolining naked from the waist down. ‘The director was more worried about me than the naked trampolining. Weird – it was the 1990s, not the 1890s. It wouldn’t happen now. I’ve been heartened by the rate of change.’
Her new book Venus And Aphrodite (the love goddess was known as Venus to the Romans and Aphrodite to the Greeks) catches the updraft of those years of female progress. It explodes the romantic myth of the Botticelli Venus (pictured), all pink and pretty, rising from the sea in her clam shell, and replaces it with something darker and more feisty.
Hughes makes a scholarly examination of the goddess’s impact on sexual mores and ideas of beauty and female emancipation down the millennia until she is able to tie her ancient story to the contemporary issues of slut-shaming, gender fluidity and #MeToo. She explains how the deity has inspired a modern vision of womanhood that includes the Bond girl Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress) emerging from the waves in a white bikini in Dr No, and a pregnant Beyoncé posing semi-naked but for a sage-green veil and satin undies in front of a wall of flowers.
‘She is not a goddess who belongs in the ancient world, she is an idea and ideas travel through time,’ says Hughes. ‘So when Beyoncé dresses like that she is being Venus. When Lady Gaga writes about Aphrodite, she is doing the same as a priestess 2,500 years ago on Lesbos. You might not be able to see the thread of history but it never breaks.’
This is the kind of free-range thinking that turned Hughes from an Oxford bluestocking into a writer and broadcaster with more than 50 documentaries to her name and three bestselling books. Yet she was very nearly the sort of academic you have never heard of, with her sights set on paleobotany. ‘It’s the study of seed remains found during archaeological digs,’ she explains. ‘I thought I would find seeds and draw them. It’s a niche interest.’
She was seduced instead by the Classics and all that philosophy and poetry and sex and war. Venus And Aphrodite is crammed with the first three and a surprising amount of the fourth, since the goddess’s ancestors were three bellicose Middle East deities. Researching them took Hughes to the very edge of a 21st-century conflict zone, the Syrian border. She stayed on the Jordanian side, though only just. ‘I’m always very tempted to go where the archaeological evidence leads, but I would never put other people in danger. We could hear the shelling at night, it was so close. We knew people were dying. It was incredibly sobering.’
This urgent need ‘to go where history happened’ has taken Hughes from the streets of the world’s ancient cities to remote mountain caves where she’s found herself trudging shin-deep through bat guano. She has even explored an Indian temple devoted to celebrating the vagina. ‘Extreme,’ she agrees.
When Beyoncé poses semi-naked she is being Venus – the thread of history never breaks
When she’s not travelling she lives in London with husband Adrian Evans, the director and creative producer who masterminded the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant in 2012. They have two daughters, May, 19, who is at university and Sorrel, 23, who is travelling post-degree.
She’s been a trailblazer for the working world they will inhabit, although she isn’t strident about it, probably because history enables her to take a very long view, and see everything in context, as she does with Venus And Aphrodite.
‘The book has taken me a decade but it feels timely because it’s coming in the time of #MeToo. More than anything it is about the power of desire, which can be wonderful but can make people do crazy things. That’s the great thing about history – you can think something is contemporary but it shows you that some other civilisation got there first, thousands of years earlier.’
The goddess Venus emerging from the sea, as painted by Sandro Botticelli in The Birth Of Venus, 1486
There’s also the surprising fact – to me, at least – that Venus/Aphrodite, who always seems the apogee of womanhood, was a gender-fluid goddess, sometimes portrayed with a big bushy beard as well as breasts.
‘Absolutely,’ says Hughes. ‘Her ancestors included a goddess whose male priests dressed as women and whose female priests dressed as men. It was saying, 4,000 years ago, that both exist within you and most of us are somewhere in the scale and that is cool.
‘It’s not an image on any Valentine card that I’ve ever seen. But you know, maybe it should be.’
‘Venus And Aphrodite’ by Bettany Hughes is published by Weidenfeld and Nicolson on Thursday, priced £12.99