Gilbert Highet, the First Celebrity Classicist

Robert J. Ball

Most eloquent among the sons of Scotland, educated at Glasgow and Oxford, you have for the last forty years enriched the world of classical letters with the richness of your scholarship.[1] You have been at once a support and an ornament to humane learning in this, your adopted country. Generations of Columbia students can testify to the scope of your erudition and the precision of your wit. In nearly a score of books – doctis, Iuppiter, et laboriosis[2] – you have charted the enduring forms and themes of literature, with a spirit as indefatigable as it is passionate. A Varro in learning, a Cicero in eloquence, you have not only defended the vitality and grace of the classical tradition, you have also embodied it.

So spoke President William McGill at Columbia University’s 1977 commencement as he awarded a D.Litt. to Gilbert Highet (1906–78), regarded in his day as the most celebrated Classical scholar in America. In an era without the internet or podcasts or YouTube, Highet became a household name, with his distinctive voice reaching a worldwide audience through his books and lectures, heard even over the airwaves.

Highet receiving the D.Litt. degree from Columbia’s President William McGill in 1977 (Gilbert Highet Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries).

Celebrity status seemed suited to (and even destined for) Highet, a native of Glasgow, who, as a youthful prodigy, dazzled his teachers at Hillhead High School. He attended Glasgow University on scholarships (1925–8), where he earned his M.A. (the first degree available, since Glasgow does not confer a B.A.), and Balliol, Oxford (1929–32), where he earned his B.A. At Balliol, he studied under three great teachers – Cyril Bailey, Maurice Bowra, and Gilbert Murray – who all contributed to his growth as a Classicist and to his future performance as a teacher and a lecturer. He taught at St John’s, Oxford (1933–7) as Fellow and Tutor, where he acquired an excellent reputation in the classroom and wrote two textbooks: An Outline of Homer (1935) and Beginning Latin (1938). During his final year at St John’s, Nicholas Murray Butler, President of Columbia University, offered him the position of Visiting Associate for 1937–8, extending the offer allegedly at the suggestion of Bowra.[3] Highet looked forward to living in America, troubled by the rigid class system in England and by what he perceived as an unconcern at Oxford dinner parties and high tables over the rise of Adolf Hitler. Within one year of accepting the temporary appointment at Columbia, Highet became a full Professor of Greek and Latin with tenure – an amazing achievement in those days for a man just turning 32.

Highet starting out at Columbia, c.1937 (photograph by Howard Coster; University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries).

As Highet’s celebrity was taking off in America, he was called up to serve in the British Army during World War II, on leave from Columbia from 1941 to 1946. Under Sir William Stephenson, Director of British Security Coordination for the Western Hemisphere, he served in the British Mission to the United States and in the British Intelligence Center in New York. While executing many secret missions, he drew up psychological profiles of such Nazi leaders as Hitler, Goebbels, Goering, and Himmler, which drew especially on his broad knowledge of the Roman emperors.[4] While on duty in the British Zone of Occupation in Berlin, he entered the smoldering remains of Hitler’s bunker and eventually became responsible for helping to recover the gold reserves hidden by the Nazis. In Berlin, attending Jacques Offenbach’s opera The Tales of Hoffmann, he risked arrest by accidentally sitting in a stall reserved for a Russian general and his girlfriend, where the general repeatedly glowered at him.[5] At the end of the war, he attended the Nuremberg trials, where he saw the surviving leaders of Nazi Germany, whom he regarded as the embodiment of pure evil, face the severe justice of their conquerors. He would refer in some of his books to the atrocities committed by the Nazis, especially Hitler’s perpetration of the Holocaust, and would (I dare say) express his outrage today over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.[6]

Highet in his military uniform, 1945 (courtesy of Ian Highet).

Highet’s academic celebrity skyrocketed upon his return to Columbia, when he devoted all his energy to teaching and to writing about the great Classical works. When he entered the classroom, his students sensed that the curtain was going up on a Broadway play and compared him to such distinguished award-winning actors as Laurence Olivier and John Houseman. He would walk back and forth, even sing to illustrate a point, or slip into his Scottish burr to conclude an argument, as he did when he imitated a minister preaching hellfire and damnation to his congregation.[7] He wielded a window-pole (a tool used at that time) to imitate a Roman legionnaire, or, impersonating Marius at the gates of Rome, he would crouch down and spring across the floor to battle his rival Sulla. With his Scottish-English brogue and his riveting, rapid-fire delivery, he would keep his students spellbound by means of his powerful lectures, brilliant in their organization and brimming with critical insight. The inspired anecdotes, the poignant pauses, and the sudden bursts of laughter all contributed to a tour de force that did not merely beguile his students but provided them with a solid foundation for learning. Although presented in a highly theatrical manner, his humane form of teaching involved a rigorous examination of a Classical author and the qualities that made that author memorable and worthy of reading.[8]

Highet in his office in Columbia’s Philosophy Hall, 1954 (photograph by Fritz Goro, Life Picture Collection, Getty Images).

Highet achieved celebrity status not simply from his legendary performance on the campus but from his astounding visibility before the general educated public. He served as chief literary critic for Harper’s Magazine (1952–4), reviewing new books every month on various subjects, with his range reflected in the title of his column, which changed with every issue. As chair of the editorial advisory board for Horizon (1958–77), he wrote many articles, including his translation (preserving the original meters) of Menander’s newly discovered Dyscolus (“The Grumpy Old Man”). He served on the board of judges for the Book of the Month Club (1954–78), for which he published approximately 400 book reviews on great literature, music, and art in Book of the Month Club News. He charmed the general public with his weekly radio program “People, Places, and Books” (1952–9), ultimately carried by over 300 radio stations in the USA and Canada, as well as by the BBC and Voice of America.[9]  On 24 March 1968, he presented a lecture for CBS Television’s Camera Three on Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting The Peasant Wedding (1567), claiming to have identified in it the elusive bridegroom.[10] While keeping his students on the edge of their seats in packed classrooms, he captivated the literary-minded layperson with his witty and incisive articles and lectures on Classical and contemporary subjects.

Highet speaking on Columbia’s radio station, 1953 (photograph by Manny Warman, University Archives, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries).

Even Highet’s books on Classical subjects contributed to his celebrity, since he aimed most of them not only at scholars but also at the general educated public.[11] The Classical Tradition (1949), his most famous work, provides a sweeping look at the Greek and Roman influences on Western literature from the decline of Classical civilization to the mid-20th century.[12] In Juvenal the Satirist (1954), his most controversial book, he tries to reconstruct Juvenal’s life, analyzes each of his sixteen satires, and traces their reception from the early Roman Empire to modern times.[13] Poets in a Landscape (1957), directed primarily at a general audience, considers seven Roman poets by examining various aspects of their poetry against a backdrop of the places in Italy in which they lived.[14] In The Anatomy of Satire (1962), Highet examines satire from Classical antiquity to the 20th century within the context of what he regards as its three main patterns: monologue, parody, and narrative.[15] The Speeches in Vergil’s Aeneid (1972), directed exclusively at a scholarly audience, examines all the speeches in Vergil’s epic in six carefully documented chapters and seven rigorously organized appendices.[16] Highet’s celebrity, however, did not come without a price, bringing with it adverse criticism from those who, perhaps jealous of his astonishing achievements, accused him of promoting “middlebrow” culture.[17]

Highet at his home in East Hampton at the time of his retirement, 1972 (Gilbert Highet Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries).

Wearing his celebrity well, Highet also took pride in the celebrity of his wife, spy novelist Helen MacInnes (they had met as students at Glasgow University).[18] Highet fully supported the career of his talented spouse, openly admitted that she had become more famous than he, and even devoted one of his radio lectures to his thoughts on being married to a writer.[19] Highet and MacInnes brought to America’s literary scene what Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne brought to America’s theatrical scene – two remarkable couples who were celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic.[20] At a time when male academics often treated their wives as domestic drones, Highet encouraged his wife to write her books and supported mature, hardworking female graduate students such as Froma Zeitlin. Professor Emerita at Princeton, Zeitlin recently shared with me her warm correspondence with Highet, confirming how he inspired her as a doctoral candidate and became the sponsor of her dissertation.[21] Furthermore, Highet, as chair of Classics, invited Alan and Averil Cameron to teach at Columbia for the 1967–8 academic year – a subject I recently discussed with Averil, Professor Emerita at Oxford. Impressed by articles Alan and Averil had published, Highet again supported a female Classical scholar on the rise, although his invitation raised a question that would have no place in the hiring process today.[22]

Highet and MacInnes at their home in New York City (undated photograph by Martha Holmes, courtesy of Ian Highet).

Having achieved his celebrity in an era that lacked the technology available today, Highet paved the way for Classicists to enjoy greater visibility than he did. Classicists such as Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes, Edith Hall, Tom Holland, and Daniel Mendelsohn have carried the torch forward in an inspiring effort to bring Classical culture to a broad general lay audience. With their stimulating presentations on the lecture circuit, in widely-read publications, and on the ever-expanding internet, today’s Classicists have exploited 21st-century technology to fulfill that goal. Celebrity today, however, does not come without one paying less of a price (perhaps even more of a price) than Highet did, since one’s detractors are also exploiting the technology to serve their own agenda. Cambridge’s Mary Beard, the most celebrated and sought-after Classicist of this generation, has become perhaps as controversial as Highet, and for reasons sometimes expressed via pseudonymous social media.[23] Although Highet and Beard have both been called colonialists (a spiteful and highly subjective accusation), I prefer to think of them as champions of the Classical spirit and ambassadors of Classical civilization. I would also like to think of Beard and the four Classicists named above as seeing Highet as a predecessor who advanced the role of the public intellectual and pioneered a challenging path for others to follow.

Mary Beard and Bettany Hughes discussing artifacts from Pompeii in the British Museum (still from a live programme, May 2020).

Highet’s celebrity lives on in the many publications about him or referring to him that have steadily appeared over the more than four decades since his death.[24] I recently found an article about Highet written by the President Emeritus of the National University of Natural Medicine, who was directing his views on teaching at an audience of naturopathic physicians.[25] I also recently came across another article about Highet by a respected London-based author, broadcaster, and non-residential Fellow at Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.[26] One also finds a touching tribute to Highet in the very title of the book review called “The Incomparable Gilbert Highet,” by a Biblicist with a sustained research interest in the history of Classical scholarship.[27] Highet himself asserted that a reviewer should strive to accentuate the positive, to sympathize with an author’s aspirations rather than demean a book for not being the book the reviewer would have written. Although Highet’s books received mostly positive reviews, they would occasionally receive a negative review, which, as Highet told his graduate students, he respected if the review seemed fair and balanced.[28] But if the review accentuated the negative and disregarded the author’s aspirations, he asserted (justifiably, in my view) that it revealed a mean-spiritedness, a conspicuous flaw in the character of the reviewer.[29]

Classics enthusiast Lindsay Johns mentoring students in London under the auspices of the Leaders of Tomorrow Program (courtesy of Lindsay Johns).

In any case, I’ll take the Highet road (to playfully echo a famous Scottish song) in my unwavering zeal to keep alive the flame of the first celebrity Classicist, a truly extraordinary teacher and scholar. Beyond his love for teaching and writing, Highet pursued a lifelong passion for learning, which fueled his teaching – a passion one may find in the passage reproduced here, projecting values that still ring true:[30]

The pleasures of learning are indeed pleasures. But in fact the word should be changed. The true name is happiness. There are three other types of happiness, superior to that of learning: the happiness of love fulfilled; the happiness of serving mankind; and the happiness of creation. Though it is beneath these, learning is still a great happiness, and can be a help toward the attainment of those others; and it is an essential part of a complete life. No learner has ever found that he ran short of subjects to explore. But many people who avoided learning, or abandoned it, find that life is drained dry. They spend thirty years in a club chair looking glumly out at the sand and the ocean; in a hotel lounge gossiping about the other inmates; in a porch swing waiting for somebody to drive down the road. But that is not how to live. The chief aim of education is to show you, after you make a livelihood, how to enjoy living; and you can live longest and best and most rewardingly by attaining and preserving the happiness of learning.

Highet in a typical Highet pose, 1975 (photograph by Fabian Bachrach, Gilbert Highet Papers, Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Libraries).

Robert J. Ball, Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Hawaii and a recipient of excellence in teaching awards from the University of Hawaii and from the American Philological Association (now the Society for Classical Studies), has published a book on Tibullus’ elegies, first-year and second-year Latin textbooks, and most recently the third installment of a book trilogy on Gilbert Highet, his inspirational mentor during his doctoral studies at Columbia University.

Further Reading

Robert J. Ball, The Classical Papers of Gilbert Highet (Columbia UP, New York, 1983). Contains 30 articles by Highet – six on Greek literature, eighteen on Latin literature, and six on the Classical tradition (three previously unpublished, one from each of the above categories) – and bibliographies of publications by him and about him.

Robert J. Ball, The Unpublished Lectures of Gilbert Highet (Peter Lang Publishing, New York, 1998). Contains 30 lectures by Highet – six on Greek literature, six on Latin literature, and eighteen on the Classical tradition (all previously unpublished) – including “Dio Chrysostom,” the Loeb Classical Lecture Highet delivered in 1975 at Harvard.

Robert J. Ball, The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet: An In-Depth Retrospect (Lockwood Press, Atlanta, GA, 2021). A fully documented examination of Highet’s career as a teacher and scholar, which includes a review of his books that exhibit a strong Classical content and thoroughly updated bibliographies of publications by him and about him.

For a recent Antigone article about the Oxford Classics community in which Highet studied, see this piece.


1 This essay, coming on the heels of my book The Classical Legacy of Gilbert Highet: An In-Depth Retrospect (Lockwood Press, Atlanta, GA, 2021), provides an account of Highet’s career aimed especially at Antigone’s audience and contains some additional information about him not included in the book. I regard Antigone as the appropriate venue for this essay, since Highet, who put a premium on one’s character and believed in its importance for his students, demonstrated, like Sophocles’ heroine, the courage of his convictions throughout his career but never at the expense of keeping an open mind.
2 A phrase from Catullus 1.7, which the poet applies to Cornelius Nepos’ Chronica, meaning “learned, by Jupiter, and full of labor.”
3 Although Butler initially tried to hire Bowra, who was visiting America in 1936-7 and toying with the idea of accepting an appointment in the United States, Bowra told Butler that he would not be able to lure an Englishman to America but might be able to lure Highet, a Scotsman, for the money.See Robert E. Lerner, Ernst Kantorowicz: A Life (Princeton UP, 2017) 311, for Bowra’s quip to a friend later in life: “I began to wonder how long I could hold out against money like that, but I finally decided that I couldn’t give up the corruption, ill will, and intrigue of the old world and went back.”
4 Having only limited information about the German general staff, Highet succeeded in predicting their behavior under a variety of circumstances and even identified politicians in South America who seemed vulnerable to the blackmail to which German banks there were attempting to subject them.
5 Highet arrived at the performance early and requested a good seat, where he stayed put, noticing that nobody else was sitting in that area until the general arrived, five minutes before curtain time. See Keith Highet, “The Military Career of Gilbert Highet,” Classical World 95 (2002) 386–409, esp. 407–9, for Gilbert Highet’s essay about this incident, appended to a long article written by his son.
6 During the war years, he also managed to work on and publish his three-volume translation from the German of Werner Jaeger’s Paideia (1939–45), an examination of the shaping of Greek culture.
7 Using richly trilled r’s to contrast the minister’s dark warning with Lucretius’ calm advice not to fear the gods or death, he declared: “Some day forr yourr sins you’ll be rrolling in the fierry pit, and you’ll look up at ourr blessed Lorrd and you’ll say, ‘but Lord we didn’t know,’ and ourr blessed Lorrd and saviourr will look down on you in all his infinite merrcy and goodness and say, ‘You know now’.”
8 Highet published two books on teaching: The Art of Teaching (1950), focusing on the methods of teaching; and The Immortal Profession (1976), reflecting from retirement on his career as a teacher.
9 He revised many of his radio lectures for his books People, Places, and Books (1953), A Clerk of Oxenford (1954), Talents and Geniuses (1957), The Powers of Poetry (1960), and Explorations (1971). I recently learned that WQXR, radio station of the New York Times, has made 74 of the original 283 lectures available here.
10 For the articles on which Highet based this fascinating lecture, see his “Bruegel’s Rustic Wedding,” Magazine of Art 38 (1945) 274–6, and “Where Is the Bridegroom?,” Horizon 9 (Spring 1967) 112–15.
11 His approximately 1,000 publications include 21 books, five of which exhibit a strong Classical content – the five described above, which received primarily positive reviews in their day.
12 Although this trailblazing work, a precursor of the Classical reception movement, may seem a bit slim in some areas, it is crammed with information that today would be parceled out to a committee.
13 Although he goes a little too far in denying any use of a persona and seeing the poems’ ordering as a mirror of the poet’s aging, his book remains the only comprehensive study of the satires in English.
14 Focusing on the verses of Catullus, Vergil, Horace, Tibullus, Propertius, Ovid, and Juvenal, this book received in 1957 the Premio ENIT from the Italian government for its celebration of Italian culture.
15 This celebration of satire, embracing not only the literary genre but also the satiric impulse in art and music, received in 1963 the Goodwin Award of Merit from the American Philological Association.
16 In the 50 years that have passed since its publication, this book has repeatedly received positive citations in scholarly publications on Vergil, very likely making it the definitive work on this subject.
17 For Highet as a sort of “middlebrow mediator,” see Joan S. Rubin, Cultural Considerations: Essays on Readers, Writers, and Musicians in Postwar America (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 2013) 34–41.
18 In her 21 spy thrillers, MacInnes pitted men and women of courage against the faceless agents of totalitarian regimes – both the Nazis in the 1940s and the Communists from the 1950s on.
19 See “I Married an Author,” in Talents and Geniuses (as n. 9) 262–8, where Highet describes the procedures the Classicist and the novelist used at home to guarantee their independence as authors.
20 Although joint biographies of Lunt and Fontanne were published (those by Jared Brown in 1986 and by Margot Peters in 2003), no such biographies were ever published about Highet and MacInnes. As Highet once told me, although he and MacInnes had considered writing their joint autobiography, many other projects took precedence and ultimately prevented them from producing such a volume.
21 See Ball (as n. 1) 72 for Zeitlin’s published testimonial about Highet.
22 During my recent correspondence with Averil, she recalled that, when Alan had told Highet that she would be giving birth just before the on-duty period at Columbia, Highet and William M. Calder III, a Columbia Classics professor, tried to dissuade her from bringing a newborn baby to New York. See the Alan Cameron Papers (on file at Columbia) for the relevant letters by Highet, Calder, and Cameron: Highet’s letter to Alan of 20 February 1967 (Box 2, Folder 92); Calder’s letter to Alan of 23 February 1967 (Box 1, Folder 58); and Alan’s letter to Highet of 6 March 1967 (Box 2, Folder 92). Highet, in sincere but old-fashioned terms, suggested (based on his and his wife’s experience with young faculty in similar situations) that, with live-in New York nannies being prohibitively expensive, Alan and Averil, or just Averil and her baby, postpone coming to Columbia until the spring semester. Calder, in a letter Averil told me she had found quite offensive, basically suggested what Highet had suggested, while adding: “Or perhaps in the fall you could even leave the baby with mamas or fecund aunts. I am told that once one has produced three or four children another is scarcely noticed [sic].” Alan, answering Highet robustly but respectfully, stated that he and Averil would come for the entire year and would bring a reliable young English woman with them as an au pair, while adding: “If you think we are underestimating the problems involved, then I think you are underestimating my wife!” Alan and Averil did teach at Columbia for the entire academic year, although Alan’s affiliation with Columbia stretched far beyond the visiting position, when he returned to New York a decade later to accept the tenured position of Anthon Professor of Latin – the title Highet held until his retirement. At Highet’s memorial service, which featured testimonials presented by five well-known individuals, Alan spoke to Highet’s celebrity in a very real sense when he stated that probably never again would the profession see the entire field of Classics surveyed through the perspective of one man’s vision.
23 See the pseudonymous piece designed to discredit Beard in the eyes of American classicists, in which the author alleges that Beard’s feminism is not intersectional but has white supremacist roots.
24 See Ball (as n. 1) 90–7 for the updated bibliography of publications about him or referring to him.
25 See David Schleich’s piece, “Why Now Is a Good Time to Remember Gilbert Highet” (November 2017), where he refers to The Art of Teaching and The Immortal Profession (as n. 8).
26 See Lindsay Johns’s article, “In Praise of Gilbert Highet,” The Oldie (12 July 2021), especially for this remark: “Today, at a time when Classics continually gets demonised by those obsessed with identity politics for being too full of ‘Dead White Men’, Highet is arguably doubly unfashionable – both for his lack of melanin and his Y chromosome, both in and beyond the academy. Yet we dismiss him at our peril. His work and thought are still hugely relevant to our times – a sane, sagacious and humane voice, guiding our appreciation of Classics and of great literature as universal, timeless and possessing an abiding moral value. In short, to coin a Dantean analogy, he is the Statius to our Virgil.”
27 See Darrell Sutton’s piece, “The Incomparable Gilbert Highet,” Quarterly Review: Culture, Current Affairs, Geopolitics (11 November 2021).
28 For the kind of fair and balanced review that I believe Highet would have respected, see Rachel Hadas, “Allegorical Figures: A Review Essay,” Classical Outlook 97 (2022) 31–4, by a professor of English at Rutgers University – the daughter of Moses Hadas, one of Highet’s colleagues at Columbia.
29 I can still hear him saying, as he advised his graduate students not to sound overly negative and mean-spirited when reviewing a book: “Don’t attack anyone in print or you’ll have an enemy for life!”
30 See Gilbert Highet, The Immortal Profession (as n. 8) 1–19, esp. 19, for this illuminating message.