The end of an era

From Floreat Domus Issue: 
10
Issue year: 
2004

It is difficult to imagine Balliol without Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray after they retire this year.

Sons of civil servants, they both attended public schools in the early 1950s – Christ’s Hospital and Marlborough respectively – and both read Literae Humaniores, Jasper at Balliol, Oswyn across the Broad at Exeter. They are also joint editors (with John Boardman) of the Oxford History of the Classical World.

‘We are,’ in the words of Oswyn Murray, ‘the last generation of automatic classicists, coming from an era when a relatively high proportion of the brighter schoolboys and girls was channelled into Classical VI forms and on to Oxford or Cambridge. This is, of course, far from the case now, but one advantage is that by and large the current crop of classicists has had to fight to do the subject, rather than having perhaps drifted into it; as a result they tend to be enormously enthusiastic.’

There is nowadays less emphasis on the mastery of fine points of idiomatic classical Greek and Latin. That took years of practice to acquire. ‘No longer can students write a stylish pastiche of classical authors,’ comments Jasper, ‘but they are generally better at literary criticism and literary history, and the current syllabus pays more attention to the influence of classical literature on later European literature.’ He remembers, as an undergraduate in the 1950s, a whole year of lectures, three times a week for three terms, devoted to the details of the textual criticism of one play of Euripides, ‘and even then we didn’t get to the end of the play!’ The choice of courses is also more varied now, so that students are free to pick combinations such as Classics and English; Jasper welcomes ‘getting away from departmental narrowness’.

Both are in total agreement that Classics at Oxford has a vital role to play today, and that the subject is in very good shape, especially after the gloomy predictions of the 1970s. ‘There is tremendous value,’ says Jasper, ‘in studying the literature and ideas of other societies which are intimately connected with our own. We also continue to have a lot of bright students here at Balliol who welcome the challenge of studying what is difficult.’ And, as Oswyn observes, ‘Western philosophy originated with the Greeks and was re-born in the Middle Ages, while the Greek city states provided perhaps the world’s only fully successful democracies and the Romans its longest lasting empire.’


Oswyn Murray

[Oswyn Murray]Oswyn reached Balliol in 1968 via St Edmund Hall, Hertford College and a highly important year as Senior Research Fellow at the Warburg Institute – it was there, while studying the influence of ancient political thought on early medieval political thought and discovering through his colleagues Frances Yates and E H Gombrich that History was more than battles and politics, that his desire to be part of the mainstream of European classical studies was developed – to succeed the legendary Russell Meiggs as Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History.

The University syllabus had been unchanged for almost 100 years, but he declares himself ‘proud and happy to be part of one of the biggest shifts in the study of Classics since the Renaissance’ when over the next 30 years he played an important part, in his role as Chairman of the sub-faculty of Ancient History, in securing radical changes to the syllabus. Earlier he had secured funding for multiple copies of key books in the University Classics library, now housed in the Sackler Library. He regrets, though, that University classicists have not played as central a role in Europe as they might have done, and wishes the Department could have done more to support the classicists of East Europe during the dark days of Communism.

He has twice been Senior Tutor and has held two further important posts within the College. First, it was during his stint as Vice-Master in the early 1990s that the Jowett Walk buildings programme got under way – ‘Not many dons are responsible for spending £5 million or adding a new street to the centre of Oxford!’ Secondly, he has spent the last four years as Praefectus of Holywell Manor, ‘the best graduate institution in Oxford’, a post which has also led him to chair the Graduate Committee of the Conference of Colleges and ensure the status of graduate studies within the University for the future.

Asked whether he had ever been tempted to leave Oxford, Oswyn said: ‘A professorship in one of the new universities in the 1970s would have been attractive had I been teaching anywhere but Balliol. But for someone who enjoys teaching, why take myself away from the best students in the world?’

In retirement he will not be far away, having bought a farmhouse with a few acres just north of Hook Norton, with a barn to turn into a library and study – quite a handyman, he got a cement mixer for his 60th birthday! He plans to publish a book a year for the next eight years and to come into Oxford a couple of times a week, except when he is researching in one of his favourite haunts, Paris.

Jasper Griffin

[Jasper Griffin]Jasper’s connection with the College goes back somewhat further. Nearly 50 years have passed since he arrived as a freshman in 1956, all spent at Balliol apart from one year after Finals when he was the Jackson Fellow at Harvard. He wasn’t really tempted to embark on an academic career in the USA; rather, the year in New England was particularly convenient as he had become engaged to Miriam Dressler, an American reading Greats at St Anne’s at the same time, and they were married in New York before Jasper was lured back to Balliol as the Dyson Junior Research Fellow in 1961. Two years later a Tutorial Fellowship in Classics became vacant, and with his wife later to become a Fellow of Somerville College their roots were soon established here for good.

Looking back, Jasper is ready to acknowledge ‘a very privileged existence in a marvellous place doing what one likes doing’. However, ‘privileged’ does not mean ‘easy’. Entering for and winning a series of University scholarships, which involved (he ruefully reflects) a total of 45 three-hour exam papers, in addition to 13 in Mods and 10 in Greats, was ‘a bit of a treadmill really’, while he has often found teaching first-rate students in tutorials ‘really demanding’. However, as he points out, ‘That’s what makes it all worthwhile.’

Professor of Classical Literature since 1992 (while still a Tutorial Fellow), Jasper has also been, for the same period, Public Orator to the University. This allows him to make one speech a year in English, at Encaenia, but mostly he is involved in composing and delivering witty and pertinent Latin speeches on various official occasions, including most recently Congregation on 21 November 2003, when, at a very Balliolic occasion Sir Colin Lucas and Andrew Graham were among those who received honorary degrees from the new Chancellor, Christopher Patten (see page 1). However, it is College life that has been most important to him: besides teaching and being a stalwart representative of the SCR at almost every function, he has held a variety of positions, from Tutor for Admissions to College Silver Steward, as well as being Senior Fellow for the past four years.

He views retirement with mixed feelings: ‘It will be a relief to say good-bye to examining and to all those meetings, which seem to make one so incredibly busy. However, leaving my teaching room on Staircase XVIII, where I was unforgettably taught by Russel Meiggs, will be quite a wrench, and I shall never find a place for all those books!’ After a short autumn cruise as a Swan Hellenic guest lecturer he too plans some writing: a book on Tragedy and History, exploring the relationship between Attic tragedy (using mythical stories) and what was happening politically in fifth century Greece. And after that? ‘I might need to brush up my Latin!’