Work and Days

Remembering a Few Great Classicists


Temple of Hephaestus in Athens. (Photo by

Few pay much attention to scholars of Latin and Greek. They master languages that are not spoken. They learn to write them only to read them better. They slap your hands when you write a Latin word common in Sallust or Livy, rather than in Cicero.

Classicists learn European languages not so much to appreciate Voltaire or Goethe but to scan dry esoteric articles by 19th-century Frenchmen and Germans on the Athenian banking system or Demosthenes’ use of praeteritio and apophasis.

In our short lives, devoting so much time to philology can result in a life mostly missed. By 21, I could cite passage numbers in Greek texts of what Thucydides and Plutarch thought of Nicias, but not really why exactly Nicias was a mediocre general, the George McClellan or Mark Clark of the Peloponnesian War — the point of reading Thucydides and Plutarch about Nicias in the first place. Classicists can become the proverbial dogs who can dance on two legs, but for what purpose?

Still, I was blessed, if sometimes only for a few hours, by having a few great scholars as teachers who saw their classical educations as the beginning of inquiry, not an end in itself. At 61, I am remembering just how lucky I was to have met them — and how rare their like is now.


I had the British scholar H.D.F. Kitto as an undergraduate while in Athens at a junior year abroad program (College Year in Athens). He taught just six of us in a class on Sophocles’s Ajax with the abbreviated blue Jebb (himself a renaissance 19th century classical scholar) text. I say taught, but he mostly just translated the text for us. Kitto asked a few grammatical questions as he pulled out one of his own rolled cigarettes (his paper always became unwound on his lips) and editorialized about everything in our midst (1973-4 was a year of violence, coups, and revolution in Athens) with context rather than animus (“There is a sort of Corcyra going on here, as is sometimes the custom, ancient and modern, in these environs”).

Kitto seemed to us mostly ignorant Americans not especially a nice man or an empathetic teacher. But he knew a great deal about modern (his little-known travel guide to northern Greece is the best of its genre) and ancient Greece (his best-seller The Greeks is still perhaps the most readable introduction to the ancient world). For that matter, he knew something about almost everything: Shakespeare, Britain in World War II, modern Greek grammar, Churchill’s Mediterranean strategy, birds, Stanley Baldwin versus Neville Chamberlain, the strength and weakness of American GIs (optimism and competency versus naiveté and self-absorption), Scottish military history, the American student’s ignorance of geography, and the value of Xenophon. (He once asked us to translate from the Anabasis “until I say stop,” and then went downstairs for fresh air, and almost forgot about us; I ended up writing for an hour until I noticed he was not coming back and the room was empty).

It was also cold that year in Athens due to a bad winter and the heating oil cutoff from the 1973-4 oil embargo following the Yom Kippur War. Kitto’s arthritis acted up. As he creaked up the six flights of stairs to class, we could hear him mumbling about similarities to cold wartime Scotland. He finally entered the tiny classroom with, “I made it up, not quite dead yet, not yet, no bone for Cerberus today.”

I had nothing in common in with him — and yet everything, at least as much as could a ignorant farm kid from central California, who wanted to absorb dates, names, places, rules, ideas — almost anything — from his vast seven-decade-long repertory. He was a 19th Century practitioner of “parallelism” — in this case, the art of explaining Sophocles’ use of a particular word by citing how it was used elsewhere in Euripides or Plato — or in any other Greek author for that matter (all off the top of his head). In passing, we learned from Kitto meter, grammar, syntax, vocabulary, and yes, by writing Greek, how to appreciate reading it. (“It was not so easy to write in the language of poor Sophocles, as you Americans are now beginning to see”).


By the time I had Michael Grant as a 23-year-old graduate student at Stanford (1976-7), Grant was a sixtyish bon vivant, intimate with Jerry Ford and a visitor to the Annenberg estate, and a visiting professor at American universities. He was sometimes snidely attacked as a “popularizer,” a one-man industry who had made a tiny fortune translating, consulting, lecturing, appraising, and through dozens of books, writing surveys of almost every aspect of the ancient world. Grant was a tall, perfectly dressed aristocrat who looked and sounded the part of a PBS host (black plastic glasses that contrasted with his longish side white hair parted behind his ears).

We were told privately by many of our classics faculty that Grant had “blown it” by transmogrifying from a once solid numismatist (an expert on Roman coinage, cf. From Imperium to Auctoritas) to a “vulgarizer” who sought to sell superficial knowledge of antiquity by generalization and a lack of nuance (i.e., he made a lot more money than classics professors and knew something more about the world beyond the faculty lounge). But I remember differently. For almost any year of the empire, Grant would casually cite regional imperial mints, discoursing on the metallurgical ratios of their output, the iconic nature of their imperial portraits, and the Latin propaganda on the coinage — all as a reflection of current economic, political, and cultural conditions in the Empire.

We found his two seminars on Roman emperors and Tacitus not especially demanding, but fascinating. He spoke beautiful English and each time he referenced Nero or Caligula, Grant saw them as ordinary thugs — comparing them to various English monarchs, 1930s bohemians, wannabe artists and writers he had known, and of course hundreds of other monsters that frequent Tacitus, Suetonius, Petronius, and Plutarch.

He had lived a life in other words, liberated, not enslaved, by classics. I was also his gardener for a while. His wife (I recall her as Swedish and from a diplomatic family, or at least Scandinavian and thus interested in my background) would walk out while I pulled weeds in their rented house, asking me all sorts of questions about pruning, weed types, and frost. (I knew how to farm vines but nothing about English gardening).

Each week as I piled up brush in a pick-up, he would come out for 10 minutes to go on about how much he loved California, Americans, and Mediterranean life in general, with learned commentary about Tuscany’s wines, cheeses, breads, and greens. He corrected our seminar papers and scribbled notes all over them (not always normal for a senior professor), with a critical eye for prose and logic as much as footnoted sources. A good point earned: “That’s it!” A bad one, “ … but maybe see what our Syme says about this.”

He illustrated that the mastery of Latin and Greek fueled the ability to speak and write good English — and why the latter mattered as much or more than the former. I had never fully appreciated the relationship; but I saw it in him and therein soon sensed value even in courses that I had hated like Latin metrics and the manuscript traditions of Greek tragedians. He was as courteous and affable as Kitto was cold and curt. But I learned much from both.


Bernard Knox was a third great British classicist (who had become an American). Like Kitto and Grant, he had lived an entire life beyond Greek and Latin (Google him for the fascinating details). I never had him for a class. But he once reviewed a book I wrote called The Other Greeks, which led to correspondence, and I had dinner with him occasionally in Washington (once in his 90s). His Heroic Temper is the best discussion of Sophocles, and of Greek tragedy in general. Knox had a genius for seeing in Sophoclean characters — especially the less well-known losers like Ajax and Philoctetes — the sort of tragic heroes whom Americans are fond of (think Shane, the Searchers, The Magnificent Seven, or maybe even the more pathological The Wild Bunch). He saw majestic characters out of place in a modernizing world who would rather perish than change — but in a context where their sacrifice schools the lesser around them about what the old breed was about and what was being lost.

It was always better to keep silent and listen to Knox, not because he was loquacious (he was only gracious), but because such moments of free instruction were priceless — when does one hear first-hand accounts of the fighting in the Spanish Civil war or dropping into occupied Brittany? His son Macgregor Knox, also a combat veteran, is one of the great historians of 20th Century wars and popular political movements (cf. the classic Mussolini Unleashed). Knox, in short, was devoted to making America a more humane place, and brought charm and wit to every great thing he did.


Eugene Vanderpool was an American said-to-be rich aristocrat. I write “said-to-be” because when I met him he was already in his early 70s and looked as if he were homeless or indigent. When I joined his hikes through the Attic countryside in 1973-4, (but more frequently during another year at the American School of Classical Studies, Athens, 1978-9), he was already legendary in the tiny circles of American and European classicists. Vanderpool’s exact educational background (“just a BA?” was whispered) was murky. But his knowledge of the Greek countryside and language was almost frightening (“that new intersection project over there bulldozed an ancient walking path to Dekelea”). He had lived in Greece his entire life (interned by the Germans in World War II), and dressed, to be candid, in rags, most of his teeth gone through malnutrition during the war and not really replaced by dentures.

Vanderpool was the most reserved and kindest classical scholar I ever met. On long hikes (sometimes over 20 miles), he would walk beside the least accomplished of an often obsequious cohort of graduate students. Instead of the usual “so, what are you working on?” or “where are you from?” or “whom do you work with?”, it was always a different sort of question: “How many men do you think a few peripoloi could hold off from that redoubt up there?” “Do you have any idea who really built Aigosthena or why?” Then he almost seamlessly followed with a brief theory, replete with references to classical texts and topographical signposts. He was conservative politically, but a socialist in the sense of erudition: those most in need of it and without connections won his greater attention. He once yelled back to me: “Careful there that you don’t step on this Attic orchard, the first of the spring. Let’s give it a chance.”

All of these classicists shared one characteristic in common: they were beautiful prose stylists. I don’t think I ever read a more wonderfully crafted article than those (and there were not all that many) written by Eugene Vanderpool. By those who were overdressed, Vanderpool was worshiped for his informality. As an aristocrat, he was loved by those who were middle class. As a non-traditional academic, he was respected by those who listed dozens of their graduate degrees. A humble and modest man who was admired by the pompous and pedantic. A natural conservative, he lived and worked harmoniously with liberals. Why such universal devotion? His intellect and knowledge were overpowering. But he was also gentle and kind when most in his midst were often not, and somehow that proves to be all-powerful in a way that rudeness and narcissism are not.

My best memory of EV (as his friends, but not I who was not so close to him, called him) was his kneeling down to read an inscription that was on a courtyard doorstep in a house in modern Marathon. A Greek inside saw this toothless, elderly, man in raggedy coat and worn shoes and told him to skedaddle, as if Vanderpool were an itinerant bum leading beggars searching for morsels. What followed from Vanderpool in reply was mellifluous Modern Greek, spoken in soft tones with polite inquiries (that were really subtle lectures) about the plethora of 4th Century Greek inscriptions embedded into the stones of various houses and churches. The next thing I remember was the rude Greek smiling, running inside, and bringing out blocks of cheese for us. I think most of the Americans’ great epigraphical finds of the 1950s and 1960s came from tip-offs from Eugene Vanderpool, who apprised his students of various inscriptions that he had turned up but urged them to follow up on.

Eugene Vanderpool was beloved by those who knew him far better than I. But I learned from him how to look at the land — bridges, roads, towers, walls — and imagine the Greeks not with ink and papyrus but as men of action, farmers and hoplites, in a rough climate on poor soils. I suddenly envisioned them pruning and plowing in Laureion, the Oropos, and Acharnae, more like the rugged farmers with whom I had grown up with in vineyards and orchards than as the professors in elbow patches who had claimed them.

I have often been critical of classics (cf. Who Killed Homer?, which I co-authored). And indeed the profession can encourage pedantry, snobbishness, and escapism. But not always, given what rubs off from the beauty and power of the language and culture of the singular Greeks and Romans. I have met masterful undergraduate classics teachers (John Heath, Bruce Thornton, John P. Lynch, Mary-Kay Gamel, Colin Edmondson), and brilliant philologists (I think the best were the Berkeley classicists Leslie Threatte and W.K. Pritchett who both knew Greek as they did English), and genius dropouts from the profession who were more gifted than the stay-ins (Larry Woodlock and Frank DeRose). Some classicists were natural humanists (Ned Spofford) and civic models (Mark Edwards).

Classics, at its best, offers the historical, philological, and literary foundation and discipline to apply a critical method to every genera of learning — and living. What I remember from all these brief exposures to these great teachers was their otherness — an eccentricity to become Roman Republicans and Hellenists rather than the scholiasts who study them — that won grudging admiration even from their own orthodox peers. Maybe their success was in their desire to disseminate rather than show-off knowledge, to inform rather than to embarrass, to risk generalizing rather than retreating into safe esoterica. They could all teach, write, and talk — and in their own different ways were men of action as well as thought. I owe them a great deal — and I realize now that I have for a long time.


Related: Check out VDH’s video lecture series, including The Odyssey of Western Civilization and Victor Davis Hanson’s World War II, at the PJTV store.