Murray and Dodds and Page (oh my!): On the Pleasure and Value of Wissenschaftsgeschichte

Theodore Nash

“Undergraduates recur,” as the Reverend Spooner, Warden of New College (1903-24), once dully observed. For one who spent over 60 years in the same college, a certain routine and repetition were bound to suggest themselves. But not every generation is the same, and though almost any might be profitably investigated, the period between the Great War and its grim sequel (1918-39) holds a special interest. Academically, it saw the great expansion of Classics through papyrology and archaeology, and a broader expansion of the humanities through “Modern Greats” (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) and the English School. And it was the Oxford of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, and T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. Daisy Dunn’s new book, Not Far From Brideshead, opens a window onto this world, offering a glimpse of contemporary Classics and its unique influence on broader society. In the preface, she remarks that:

When I first encountered [the Classicists Gilbert] Murray, [Maurice] Bowra, and [E.R.] Dodds I had no conception of them as people. They were simply names that recurred with surprising frequency on my university reading lists. As students, we seldom think to research the authors of books we are told to read. I wish I had, for I would have realised that, as well as leaving an indelible mark on the history of scholarship, these classicists led colourful, unconventional and often difficult lives that took them far beyond the confines of academia.

The Germans, true to form, have a dauntingly polysyllabic word for this sort of study: Wissenschaftsgeschichte. Dunn has performed a great service by demonstrating how accessible and entertaining such work can be. But it is more than just an interesting diversion. Murray and Dodds, as Regius Professors of Greek, were stewards of our discipline for over half a century. The history of Classical Studies in the 20th century has not yet been written, but at a time when we are asked to re-think our aims and justify our place in both society and academia, our past has a special relevance. This may serve as a general introduction, aiming to situate major scholars within the intellectual trends of their time. We will stick chiefly to England and especially to Oxford; this is only one thread in the tale, but a heartstring.

Dunn focused on three of the most celebrated Classicists of the 20th century: Gilbert Murray (1866–1957), Sir Maurice Bowra (1898–1971), and Eric Dodds (1893–1979). Murray, the Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1908–36, had a special connection with Euripides, whom he edited and translated for the stage. He was also active in politics, serving as president of the League of Nations Association after the War. Bowra had dreams of succeeding Murray to his chair, but failure was a hidden blessing. He was elected head of his college at a young age, enabling later service as Vice-Chancellor, and defeated C.S. Lewis (1898–1963) to become Professor of Poetry (Warden of Wadham College 1938–70; Vice-Chancellor 1951–4; Professor of Poetry 1946–51). Dodds, Murray’s successor, was a poet, philosopher, and the best scholar of the three (Regius Professor 1936–60). Through their lives we can see the spirit of the time, and its changing moods.

In the 19th century, Classics in England meant a mastery of Ancient Greek and Latin, expressed above all through composition: the translation of English literature into these languages. The etymological connection between scholarship and σχολή (scholē), leisure, was much stronger . This was an amateur pursuit, requiring no higher degrees. Research was not expected, and publication strictly optional: it was too much like work. The great champion of this approach was Benjamin Jowett (1817–93; Regius Professor at Oxford, 1855–93). A scholar, in his view, was one who could put their feet up by the fire and turn comfortably through the pages of Thucydides. Reading was the chief aim, the content of the Classics more important than their language or historical context. Jowett’s most famous publication was the complete translation of Plato’s works (1871), which had a lasting influence.

Benjamin Jowett at leisure, Harry Furniss, 1880s (National Portrait Gallery, London).

But there was cold air drifting in from abroad. At the new German universities Altertumswissenschaft, the “science of antiquity”, placed research first: small details of language and historical context were foundational to knowledge. Jowett’s successor, Ingram Bywater (1840–1914; Regius Professor 1893–1908), was friends with the German philologist Jakob Bernays (1824–81), and greatly influenced by his approach. Bernays was a pioneer of source criticism, the mining of earlier material from later authors; and so Bywater could produce an edition of Heraclitus, the 6th-century BC philosopher, from quotations and references in later authors, many quite obscure. This was research, work that could expand our knowledge of the ancient world, not the comfortable exposition of known texts championed by Jowett.

From the Germans, too, Bywater learned new methods of textual criticism. Once, it had been enough to find a good manuscript and, where it was manifestly in error, make clever emendations. But now scholars were comparing the readings of as many manuscripts as possible (collation) and sorting them into families, which could then be compared to reconstruct the archetypal text(s) from which they descended. Although emendation remained a vital element, the process had become much more scientific.[1] This suited Bywater well, whose goal was the acquisition of knowledge. He was not kind in his judgment of Jowett, whom he thought indifferent to real learning: translation was not serious work.

Gilbert Murray at Glasgow, 1890s.

But this was too radical a view to win wide acceptance. A young Gilbert Murray, writing from Glasgow in 1894, remarked that “I think a prophet is a good deal wanted in Oxford to teach that there are really life and poetry and things to move one in ancient literature. Bywater, I suppose, knows that this is so, but I doubt if he can make anyone else know it.” Like Jowett before him, Murray thought the Greek language important because it allowed one to read Greek literature: “Greece, and not Greek, is the real subject of our study.” In his inaugural lecture as Regius Professor, he referred to “the severe reticence that was forced upon [Bywater’s] books by the accident of their form”, and went on to praise their footnotes: he did not quite understand his predecessor’s motives or ability. The professor’s role, as Murray saw it, was to recreate the original emotions of ancient literature within himself and communicate them, not to those who could do the same, but to the general public.

Jowett had judged Murray “the most distinguished undergraduate of his time”, which is to say that he excelled all others in composition. It was on the strength of this reputation that he was elected to the Professorship of Greek at Glasgow in 1889 while still only 23. But textual criticism remained the pinnacle of the discipline, and in time he was drawn to critical work on Euripides. Knowing the deficiencies of his own training in the area, he turned to one who might help: Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff (1848–1931), a professor at Göttingen and the most esteemed Hellenist of his day.

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff pauses his reading, c.1910.

Like Murray, Wilamowitz strove to study something more than just details: the end of scholarship was “to bring [a] dead world to life by the power of science”.[2] But while Murray thought that we already had the relevant facts, Wilamowitz saw that there was much more to learn, and rejoiced in new epigraphic, papyrological, and archaeological discoveries. These did not belong just to the specialists, but to all scholars, and played a role no less valuable than literature in the necromancy of scholarship. For this reason Wilamowitz despaired of the term ‘classical’: everything, not just the canon, was equally worthy of study. To those who despair of the history of our discipline his views offer a corrective and a model:

We can no longer separate what is Byzantine or Teutonic, or what is Greek from what is Syrian or Arab. The barriers have been lowered too between archaeology, classical and Christian, and scholarship. The monumental and literary traditions are inextricably intertwined. The science of antiquity is no longer classical, nor even claims to be. It is what it should be, an organic whole.

Through Wilamowitz Murray saw the value of German research that had eluded him in Bywater. He would have liked to go study with him at Göttingen, but the Glasgow Chair and marriage intervened. But in 1894, when he began to contemplate a Euripidean lexicon, he wrote to Wilamowitz asking for guidance (in Ancient Greek, as he later recalled, “to show that I was not merely a frivolous person”). Wilamowitz offered Murray both guidance and resources as the project evolved from a lexicon to a full critical edition. But in the end (perhaps owing to Murray’s ill-health) much of his advice went unheeded, and the first volume was published without personal collation of any manuscripts. Though Wilamowitz continued to help, even marking up proofs, he ultimately took Murray seriously “only as a poet”. Exhausted by the work, Murray passed on offers to continue the series with either Sophocles or Herodotus.

John Dewar Denniston, photograph by Walter Stoneman, 1938.

This is not to suggest English Classics were stagnant in Murray’s time. Great advances in archaeology and papyrology cannot be touched on here, and the centrality of composition could, in the right hands, suggest topics for serious study. This was the case for John Denniston (1887–1949), whose massive Greek Particles (1934, posthumous 2nd ed. 1954) remains an object of wonder for the student of Ancient Greek. Denniston believed that composition must be exact: everything began with the mastery of small details, and there are few details smaller than the particles. Daunting as the book appears, the brave student finds much more lightness of touch than they may have expected. Though primarily catalogue (“The reader should be enabled to bathe in examples”), it is never sterile (“For Homer, as for a child, the most ordinary things in daily life are profoundly interesting”).

Among the most famous of Denniston’s pupils was (Sir) Denys Page (1908–79), the future Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge (1950–73). On arrival at Christ Church he set to collecting not just university prizes but also wickets, having made the college cricket team as a fast bowler. He took the same approach in his writing: direct, devastating, and always on the attack. German scholarship had lost some of its lustre during the War, but it maintained a great influence. Page was too late to work with Wilamowitz, so he went instead to Vienna. There he studied with Ludwig Rudermacher (1867–1952), a student of Hermann Usener (1834–1905), Wilamowitz’s erstwhile colleague at Bonn. The result was Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy in 1934, by English standards a precocious monograph that looked rather suspiciously like a German dissertation. Not until M.L. West (1937–2015) ennobled the genre with his Theogony commentary in 1963 was doctoral work taken seriously at Oxford. Page’s book wears its debts on its sleeve: “Much of this chapter is based on Wilamowitz… familiarity with [his] arguments… is assumed.”

A copy of Wilamowitz’s inaugural dissertation on Ancient Greek comedy, presented 60 years after its publication to the University of Toronto; for reasons unknown, it was deaccessioned from that institution’s library in the early 21st century.

In 1933, the nascent Nazi regime had banned Jews from the civil service, including the professoriate. Many fled to England, with Classicists especially finding places at Oxford. These included many students of Wilamowitz: the historian Felix Jacoby (1876–1959) the textual critic Paul Maas (1880–1964), and Eduard Fraenkel (1888–1970). Fraenkel was one of the first to arrive, and would prove the most influential. He was supported by A.E. Housman (1859–1936), who secured him an interim position at Trinity College, Cambridge. In 1934 Fraenkel was elected to the Corpus Chair of Latin at Oxford, again with Housman’s support. He gave the highest praise possible, caged in terminal wit: “I cannot say sincerely that I wish Dr Fraenkel to obtain the Corpus professorship, as I would rather that he should be my successor in Cambridge.” No longer did students need to seek abroad for German learning: they could find it in Fraenkel’s seminar.

This brings us to 1935, when a successor had to be found for Murray’s chair. The favourites were Denniston and Bowra, and Oxford divided along these lines. Of Denniston’s credentials we have already spoken; Murray thought him without peer in his knowledge of Greek. Bowra, meanwhile, was a populariser in Murray’s mould, and like Murray had edited a Classical author to prove his chops (the Oxford Pindar, in 1935). The decision, though formally the King’s, would rest with Murray.

Bowra and Virginia Woolf, photograph by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1926.

Bowra seemed a natural successor. But Murray, though he never met Wilamowitz’s exacting standard of scholarship, still revered it. In Sir Isaiah Berlin’s (1909–97) estimation, “being himself a populariser, [Murray] has a natural passion for austerity, rigorism, etc., and suspects Bowra of slipshodness.” As well he might: Aleksander Turyn (1900–81), the Polish expert in Pindar, had savaged Bowra’s edition in a review. The text itself was acceptable, but this was only because it was based on a predecessor’s; Bowra’s own reports of manuscript readings were worthless.

But in Denniston Murray saw only another Bywater, a “moderately attractive” lecturer who did little to kindle enthusiasm. The Particles was full of learning, but light on illumination. His old opinion, that a professor must be above all a prophet, had not changed. This was a bit hard, and not entirely fair. Murray had solicited the sole testimonial from the head of Denniston’s college, who had no firsthand experience of his work or teaching. Certainly his students could have painted a different picture: we may wonder whether Murray hadn’t stacked the deck.

Despairing of the local options, Murray looked elsewhere. He had been impressed by E.R. Dodds’s student compositions, and secretly supported his appointment at Birmingham. While there, Dodds published an edition of Proclus’ Elements of Theology, an important work of Neo-Platonic philosophy. This was far from the Classical mainstream in 1933, but Murray may have approved more than most: in Murray’s inaugural he had pointed to the Neo-Platonist Sallustius as an author worthy of a new edition. Despite the obscurity of the work, Dodds’s scholarship was admirable: unlike Murray and Bowra, who could lean on previous editors, Dodds was producing the first critical edition of his text. The previous editor had consulted only three manuscripts; Dodds increased this to 45, collated the most important himself, and established their relationships and relative value. Here was the rigour Bowra lacked.

E.R. Dodds, photograph by Walter Stoneman, 1945.

In Dodds’s preface, thanks are given to “A.D. Nock of Harvard, who read the whole book in manuscript and made a number of valuable suggestions.” This same Nock would review it the next year, calling it the finest edition of a Greek book he knew. Nock was then tapped a third time, this time by Murray, to produce a testimonial, and his praise proved influential. Meanwhile, Dodds’s Vice-Chancellor at Birmingham hit the bullseye: “You need not fear that he… would be a Professor of the type of Bywater.” The contrast with Denniston’s situation is striking.

There could never be anything so dull as an interview, but Dodds was invited to give a lecture in Oxford: Murray attended with Fraenkel. Murray’s respect for Wilamowitz extended to his student, and Fraenkel’s review of the lecture may have been the final word: “I would like to sit under that man for a year.”

The furor caused by Dodds’s appointment is well recorded. He was unknown, and a pacifist: Bowra and Denniston had been in the trenches. Bowra’s friends forbade their students to attend Dodds’s lectures; the Dennistonite Page proclaimed to Murray that there was no more justice in the world, and quoted Euripides’ lost Bellerophon: “Does anyone claim that there are gods in heaven? No: not even one!” Murray chided Page’s newfound atheism, but could do little to assuage the general anger. Dodds was made so miserable that he considered abdication; but in 1939 Europe again erupted, and such concerns paled to nothing. After this Second World War things were better, especially when Page left for Cambridge.

Sir Denys Page (second from left) celebrates pulling the first pint at the King’s Arms, Cambridge, newly opened on land owned by Jesus College, of which he was then Master.

Dodds’s inaugural lecture amply reflected the reasons for Murray’s choice. In asking why anyone should dedicate their life to the Classics, his answer was humanism: “By humanism in education I mean the assumption that the study of man – man as thinker, as artist, as social and moral being – matters more to men than the study of what may roughly be called “brute fact”: in this sense humanism is opposed to technique.” Here is a fitting sequel to Murray’s “not Greek but Greece”. Dodds shared the conviction that a scholar should re-live in his own person the Greek past, and that breadth in learning is more important than depth. It was fine for Bywater to edit Aristotle for specialists, but it was more important to teach non-specialists: scholars by their own drive will instruct themselves.

Murray approved; few else. Bowra disingenuously remarked that Dodds had “conspired to kill research”. Perhaps: but this would have come more naturally from the mouth of Page. Had Bowra listened, he would have found much to sympathise with.

Let us finish by turning to another of Dodds’s Platonists, Plutarch of Chaeronea (fl. c AD 100). As a Greek living under Roman rule, he sought to understand this double legacy by the comparison of great men: Caesar with Alexander, Cicero with Demosthenes, and so on. Anyone trying to understand English Classics in the 20th century may find Dodds and Page fitting subjects for this parallel treatment. The superficial comparisons are obvious: Regius Professors of Greek at Oxford and Cambridge, ‘humanist’ and ‘technician’, liberal and conservative.

The mind-boggling stemma codicum (diagram showing the affiliation of manuscripts) to Dodds’s edition of Proclus (Oxford UP, 1933; 2nd ed. 1963).

Both shaped the future of Greek scholarship at their universities: it is no accident that Plutarch has enjoyed a great reflorescence at Oxford, or that Cambridge has done so much for the study of tragedians. Both gave the Sather Lectures at Berkeley, and the resulting books might profitably be compared. Both wrote commentaries on Euripides still consulted today. Let us end with those. Page’s Medea (1938) and Dodds’s Bacchae (1944) belong to the Oxford University Press ‘Euripides Reds’ series. The goal was to produce cheap student texts, facilitated by reusing plates from Murray’s edition. This was too much for Page: “Murray’s text wasn’t quite as final as that!” Eventually, and with Denniston’s assistance, he was allowed to print a new text. The programmatic statement comes in the preface, when he calls for “a new and complete collation of the manuscripts for this and all the other plays of Euripides”.

We will let Dodds speak for himself:

the solid scholars of the last century stated all the major linguistic and textual problems of the play, and brought most of them as near to solution as they are likely to be brought… If the love and knowledge of Greek literature ever die in this country, they will die of a suffocation arising from its exponents’ industry. I do not wish to be accessory to the murder.

The division between the ‘humanism’ of Jowett, Murray and Bowra, and the ‘technique’ of Bywater, Denniston, and Page is rhetorically convenient, no less for Dodds in 1936 than today. But what is convenient need not be true, and to simplify in this way is to elide a great many achievements of those on both sides. But if something is lost in black and white, the contrast is sharper, and illumination comes easier.

Gratitude across the divide: D.L. Page expresses his thanks in turn to F.L. Lucas, an avowedly humanistic critic, when presenting his groundbreaking work Sappho and Alcaeus (1955).

It may seem that technique has won. Research is no longer a dirty word, but has become the price of admission in the form of the doctoral thesis and subsequent publications. It is casuistry to assume that, by winning, it has discredited the alternatives. Professionalisation has opened the doors but locked the windows: scholarship is no longer a pastime for the wealthy amateur, but the gap between academia and the public grows ever wider. Science has taught us to value progress and development; but these mean one thing for wine, quite another for an egg.

Nearly a century ago, Dodds could ask why anyone should study Classics “in an age of intellectual ferment, moral upheaval, and political violence, an age that for good or evil appears to be set upon breaking the old patterns of life and moulding its world anew.” Things are not so dark now as they were in 1936. But Classics departments are closing, their work considered increasingly irrelevant and tarred by a historical complicity in racist narratives: we cannot afford to be complacent. But we have a great advantage, if we choose to use it. Beside Divinity, ours is the oldest subject of higher study. It has seen crises before, and found answers to the questions now being asked again. These need not be our answers today: but it is folly and arrogance to ignore them.

Theodore Nash is a PhD student at the University of Michigan, where he is writing a thesis (how Dodds would disapprove!) on Mycenaean Linear B tablets in their archaeological context. He can be found on Twitter @theo_nash.

Further Reading

For an accessible introduction to the chief personalities, see Dunn’s Not Far From Brideshead (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 2022).

The British Academy publishes biographical memoirs of all its fellows after their death: many are freely available through its website, though certain years are not represented.

Among the next generation, students of Dodds and Page not mentioned above, see especially:

Another free resource is the Database of Classical Scholars, hosted online by Rutgers University. Some entries are drawn from the Briggs’s and Calder’s Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia (Garland, New York, 1990). For English scholars it also draws from Todd’s Dictionary of British Classicists (3 vols, Thoemmes Continuum, Bristol, 2004).

Some of the scholars have published autobiographies. On the events of 1936 Bowra is disingenuous, Dodds charitable. These are all out-of-print, but can be found used at typically steep prices.

  • Sir Maurice Bowra, Memories 1898-1939 (Harvard UP, Cambridge, MA, 1967).
  • E.R. Dodds, Missing Persons (Oxford UP, 1977).
  • Gilbert Murray, An Unfinished Autobiography (Allen & Unwin, London, 1960) (published posthumously, with additional contributions from friends and colleagues).

See also:

  • Kenneth Dover, Marginal Comment (Duckworth, London, 1994).

There are also published biographies and other accounts of their lives. These are typically not written by Classicists, and tend to be weak when assessing scholarship.

  • Bowra
    • Leslie Mitchell, Maurice Bowra (Oxford UP, 2009).
    • Hugh Lloyd-Jones (ed.), Maurice Bowra: A Celebration (Duckworth, London, 1974) (a collection of obituaries and short remembrances).
    • Noel Annan, “The Don as Wit – Maurice Bowra,” in The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses (U. of Chicago Press, Toronto, 1999).
  • Murray
    • F. J. West, Gilbert Murray: A Life (Croom Helm, 1984).
    • Duncan Wilson, Gilbert Murray OM (Oxford UP, 1987) (this includes the best account of Dodds’s appointment, quoting liberally from Murray’s letters).

There are good volumes that assess the scholarship of Murray and Dodds: these are scholarly productions, with scholarly prices:

  • Christopher Stray (ed.), Gilbert Murray Reassessed: Hellenism, Theatre, and International Politics (Oxford UP, 2005) (also issued in paperback).
  • Christopher Stray, Christopher Pelling, and Stephen Harrison (eds.), Rediscovering E.R. Dodds: Scholarship, Education, Poetry, and the Paranormal (Oxford UP, 2019).

Scholars’ letters are only rarely published. Given their importance for a biographer or historian, this is a great desideratum. The most important yet published are Murray’s with Wilamowitz:

  • A. Bierl, W.M. Calder III, & R.L. Fowler (eds.), The Prussian and the Poet: The Letters of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf to Gilbert Murray (Weidmann, Berlin, 1991).

See also the letters of A.E. Housman, a personality too complex to fit into the scope of the present narrative:

  • Archie Burnett, The Letters of A.E. Housman (Oxford UP, 2007).

Below are some other general sources on the history of Classical scholarship and its place in broader society. Christopher Stray’s work here is especially important. These are typically written and priced for scholars:

  • Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, History of Classical Scholarship, (Teubner, Leipzig, 1921) (translated into English with a useful introduction by Lloyd-Jones for Duckworth in 1982).
  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Blood for the Ghosts: Classical Influences in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, (Duckworth, London, 1982) (see especially Chapter 1, his inaugural lecture at Oxford; much of the biographical material is reprinted from other obituaries).
  • Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Greek in a Cold Climate (Duckworth, London, 1991) (as above, chiefly reprints, but the title is taken from his valedictory lecture, printed as the final chapter).
  • Sally Crawford, Katharina Ulmschneider, Jaś Elsner (eds.), Ark of Civilization: Refugee Scholars and Oxford University, 1930-1945 (Oxford UP, 2017).
  • Christopher Stray, Oxford Classics: Teaching and Learning 1800-2000, (Duckworth, London, 2007) (see especially Stephanie West on Eduard Fraenkel and Robin Nisbet on Oxford Classics 1936-60).
  • Christopher Stray (ed.), Classical Books: Scholarship and Publishing in Britain since 1800. Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies Supplement 101 (see especially Henderson on the Euripides Reds series, which quotes liberally from the letters of Dodds and Page, among others).
  • Christina S. Kraus, Christopher Stray (eds.), Classical Commentaries: Explorations in a Scholarly Genre (Oxford UP, 2016) (see especially Stray’s chapter on Fraenkel’s Agamemnon commentary).
  • Stephen Harrison & Christopher Pelling (eds.), Classical Scholarship and its History: From the Renaissance to the Present. Essays in Honour of Christopher Stray (Brill, Leiden, 2021) (including a full bibliography of Stray’s work).

And, of course, there is their scholarship. In our Darwinian age, ‘latest’ has become equated with ‘best’. But a scholar ought to know the difference between books and mobile phones. More than anything else, these men could write.


1 Max Hardy has explained the subtle science and exact art of textual criticism for Antigone readers here.
2 “Die Aufgabe der Philologie ist, jenes gergangene Leben durch die Kraft der Wissenschaft weider lebendig zu machen.”