Skip to main content

A history of Reading's Classics Department – University of Reading

Show access keys

    Discover the people who shaped the Classics Department at Reading

A history of Reading's Classics Department

Classics at Reading: A Non-Traditional Home for a Traditional Discipline

In 2011, Reading's Classics Department celebrates the centenary of the establishment of a Chair of Classical Studies at Reading: Percy Neville Ure was appointed as the first Professor of Classics at University College Reading in 1911, i. e. more than a decade before Reading even received its Royal Charter as a University in 1926. This makes the Department of Classics one of the oldest, and in fact one of the original, departments of the University of Reading.

We are proud to say that the Department in its current shape, resting firmly on its well-established tradition, still aspires to the same high standards of academic excellence as it did from its humble origins.

This page gives a brief overview of the Department's first 100 years. Rather than being an exhaustive chronicle of every moment in time, it is intended to bring out the major developments that shaped the Department's fate, emphasising major driving forces rather than including the name of every academic who ever has been a member of our Department. This does not mean any disrespect: the Department would not be where it is today without even a single one of them.  

the Foundation Years (1911-1945)

Classics was taught at University College Reading (est. 1892) from a relatively early stage. One of the first names that appears in the records is that of Archibald Young Campbell, who was a lecturer at Reading from 1909 to 1911. A. Y. Campbell, a Scottish poet and scholar, still known for his work on Aeschylus, Euripides, and Horace, held an appointment at Reading before he moved on to take up a Fellowship at St John's College, Cambridge, and eventually the Gladstone Chair of Greek at the University of Liverpool.

Campbell's departure and the appointment of Percy N. Ure as Professor of Classics in 1911 mark the beginning of the Department of Classics as it exists today.

The Ures: Academic Rigour, Humanity, and an Element of Continuity

Classics at Reading is unthinkable without the efforts of Percy N. Ure, Reading's first Professor of Classics and name patron of the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology (formally established in 1922), as well as his wife, and former pupil, Annie D. Ure neƩ Hunt.Percy and Annie Ure

Percy Ure was an expert in Greek antiquities, with a significant interest in Greek ceramics (especially Boeotian pottery). He excavated in Rhitsona, and his work laid the foundation for the famous Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum series, an undertaking that was controversial at the time. However, his work also includes publications on the 'Greek Renaissance' (1921), the 'Origin of Tyranny' (1922), and 'Justinian and his Age' (1951).

Annie Ure remained the Curator of the Department's Museum of Greek Archaeology until her death in 1976.

Reading's Classics Department: a Place of Inspiration and Preparation for Academic Excellence

An interesting characteristic of Reading's Classics Department in its first decades under the leadership of Percy Ure is its readiness to provide an intellectual home for academics that found it difficult to stay within the firm and traditional boundaries of their discipline elsewhere.

Two stand-out examples of this aspect are E. R. Dodds and Jocelyn Toynbee:

  • E. R. Dodds is best known for his tenure of the Regius Chair of Greek at Christ Church College, Oxford. Before that, however, he was a member of Reading's Classics Department (1919-1924), where the foundations of his work towards the hugely influential, yet highly controversial classic 'The Greeks and the Irrational' were laid. He described Percy Ure as 'the most saintly of scholars'.
  • Jocelyn Toynbee, the famous art historian, joined Reading's Classics Department in 1924, following a mass exodus of tutors at St Hugh's College, Oxford, in response to the dismissal of the Italian historian Cecilia Ady. She was a member of Reading's Classics Department until 1927.

In addition to these two scholars, there are several further names that deserve mention in Reading's ancestral gallery. They all moved on to outstanding careers elsewhere, but are a credit to Reading in its role as a stepping stone for young academics. The list includes three famous Latin scholars:

  • C. J. Fordyce, nowadays perhaps best known for his commentary on the poems of Catullus, is most commonly associated with his tenure of the Chair of Humanity (i.e. Latin) at the University of Glasgow. Before that, however, at a very early stage of his career, he was a member of Reading's Classics Department, a little-known detail that was dropped from later editions of Who's Who.
  • W. H. Semple is presumably best known for his work on Roman imperial poetry (e. g. Martial) and late antique authors, including some of the Christian fathers. Following his appointment at Reading, Semple then went on to become Hulme Professor of Latin at the University of Manchester.
  • D. R. Dudley is a familiar name to students of Latin literature, most notably due to his editorship of several overview volumes, e. g. on Lucretius or Roman Drama. Dudley eventually became Professor of Latin at the University of Birmingham. At a much earlier stage of his career, Dudley was a member of Reading's Classics Department.

Reading's exceptional track record in providing a home for young, promising scholars was not limited to Latin scholars, though:

  • David M. Balme, the famous Aristotelian scholar (and eventually Professor of Classics at Queen Mary College, University of London), had a short-term appointment at Reading in the pre-war period.

A last name of this early period that one cannot pass in silence is that of Reginald Percy Austin. R. P. Austin was a specialist in Greek inscriptions, and his work on the so-called 'stoichedon style' of Greek inscriptions is still quoted nowadays. The Department set up an annual travel award in his honour.

Details of the fate of the Department and its staff during WW II remain to be investigated. At any rate, the University's calendars suggest a significant level of disruption.

Post-War Reorganisation (1946-1960)

In 1946, J. M. R. Cormack became Chair of Classics at Reading, a position that he was going to keep until 1965. Cormack was a world-leading authority on Greek Epigraphy, thus building on the Department's strength in this area that had been established by R. P. Austin. Cormack, among other things, was involved in work on the Greek inscriptions of Macedonia (for the Inscriptiones Graecae), the Greek inscriptions of Aphrodisias, and the Monumenta Asiae Minoris Antiqua project. However, Cormack's academic leadership did not only extend to his field of specialism and the Department of Classics. He also served as Dean of his Faculty and as Acting Vice-Chancellor of the University of Reading (1963-4). Cormack left Reading to accept the Regius Chair at Aberdeen.

In the same time period, Reading managed to appoint a number of highly promising young scholars, all of whom would eventually shape the future of their fields and the face of the Department of Classics for a more peaceful second half of the twentieth century.

Two of the most noteworthy appointments of the post-war period were Alan E. Wardman and R. D. Williams.

AA.E. Wardmanlan. E. Wardman was an expert in Greek historiography. He published widely on Herodotus, Thucydides, Plutarch, and Greek historiography at large. However, Wardman's interests were not restricted to the Greek world. In particular, he published an important book on 'Religion and Statecraft among the Romans' and a number of lesser items, for example on the Later Roman Empire. Last, but not least, he authored a study on the remarkable question as to what the Romans owed to the Greeks. Furthermore, Wardman co-edited a volume with John Creed (see below) on Aristotle. The Department set up an annual Travel Award in his memory in 1987.

R. Deryck Williams joined the Classics Department as early as 1945, anR. D. Williamsd he stayed at Reading until his retirement in 1983. Under the academic leadership of R. D. Williams, Reading's Classics Department became a beacon of Vergilian scholarship, not least due to its leading role in the development of the Virgilian Society (which has been characterised as 'that (then) Reading mafia' by John Henderson). Williams is best known for several commentaries on the Aeneid as well as a more general, introductory volume on Vergil. However, he also worked on later stages of Roman epic poetry, most notably on the Flavian poet Statius: here, Williams published several studies on language and manuscript transmission of Statius as well as a commentary on the tenth book of Statius' Thebaid.

Reading's streFred Robertsonngth and reputation in Vergilian scholarship was soon to be supplemented through the appointment of Fred Robertson, an appointment that created exceptional synergies between him and Deryck Williams. Robertson is probably best known to the international academic community as the translator of R. Heinze's classic monograph 'Virgil's Epic Technique'. In addition to that (and his involvement in the Virgil Society), Robertson published several studies on Virgil, Propertius, and their roots in Hellenistic poetry.

Several other scholars could be mentioned here. Among those who only spend a shorter amount of time at Reading, John A. Crook and A. J. Dunston stand out:

  • John A. Crook was appointed as Assistant Lecturer in 1948 and elevated to Lecturer the year after. Crook, who stayed at Reading until 1951 (when he moved on to St John's College, Cambridge), was a world-leading expert in Roman Law.
  • A. J. Dunston was appointed as lecturer in 1949 and left in 1953, to take up a chair at the University of Sydney, Australia, where he taught outstanding scholars-to-be such as H. D. Jocelyn and J. N. Adams (who would later become a member of this Department, see below). From this early period of Dunston's work, one must note publications on the manuscript tradition of Latin prose authors. Later on, Dunston developed a more general interest in Roman culture, intellectual history, and Neo-Latin.

A Diverse, Yet Thriving Department (The 196Arthur Adkins0s and 70s)

In 1966 Arthur W. H. Adkins - incidentally a pupil of E. R. Dodds and previously a colleague of C. J. Fordyce, two former Readingites - joined the University of Reading as Chair in Classics, a position he held until he left in 1974 to take up an appointment at the University of Chicago. Adkins was an expert in Greek philosophy, and he had a keen interest in the value system of the Greeks. He published a monography on 'Merit and Responsibility'. However, apart from his immediate field of expertise, Adkins also took a lively interest in several areas of research of his Reading colleagues, especially matters of ancient technology (as researched by his colleagues John Landels and K. D. White, see below). Moreover, it must be noted that Adkins was keen to innovate traditional Classics teaching, and he produced audio commentaries on Greek texts (such as Plato and Aristotle) for students to use in addition to their lectures.

AJohn Creedrthur Adkins was not the only staff member at that time with an interest in Greek philosophy. Another name that must be mentioned in this context is that of John Creed. Creed was a specialist in Aristotelian philosophy (who was already briefly introduced for his co-edited volume with A. E. Wardman). Creed eventually moved on to a position at the (then) new University of Lancaster.

Apart from the study of ancient philosophy and (continuing from previous stages, that of Latin epic poetry), there are at least two further sectors on which Reading's Classics Department began to thrive in the 1960s and 1970s, and Reading can claim to have brought a significant innovative thrust to either field.JG Landels

The first area that shall be mentioned here is the study of the technology of the Graeco-Roman world. This is particularly obvious from the work of J. G. Landels. Landels' outputs can largely be divided into two distinct, yet interrelated groups. More generally speaking, Landels had a keen interest in ancient (mostly Greek) technology, and in fact his important book on ancient technology has even been translated into German. In addition to that, Landels conducted an impressive amount of research into the technicalities of ancient Greek music, in particular the aulos, a popular instrument of ancient Greek and Roman music.

A second sector on which the Department of Classics showed its visionary approach to traditional Classical scholarship at that time was what one might now be tempted to just call 'Roman Social History'. Two names stand out here: K. D. White and Jane F. Gardner.

K. D. White's research interests can be summarised as Roman economic history. This does not only cover issues such as coinage, but in fact the technical aspects of Roman farming, agriculture, technology, and even nutrition. Like Landels, White had a particularly keen interest in the technicalities of his area, and he published widely on farm implements, farming and harvesting machines, and so forth.

These economic and technological aspects of Roman History were supplemented by the research interests in social and legal history in the Department through the appointment of Jane F. Gardner. Gardner is internationally renowJane Gardnerned for her work on the legal status of women and family law in the Roman Empire. She also published widely on Roman citizenship more generally, slaves and freedmen, Roman myth, and Julius Caesar. Two of her books have been translated into several other languages. Finally, Gardner did a great service to the academic community by revising the Penguin edition of Caesar's Gallic War and preparing another Penguin edition of Caesar's Civil War. In addition to those straightforward academic research interests, Gardner also was curator of the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology.Tessa Rajak

A final particularly successful addition to the staff portfolio of the Department in this period was the appointment of Tessa Rajak. Rajak is an internationally renowned expert in Jewish Studies, and it was under her leadership that Reading's important 'The Greek Bible in the Graeco-Roman World' project was established (in collaboration with the University of Southampton). In addition to that, Rajak has published on Josephus, Jewish perspectives on Hellenistic rulers, and, in more general terms, how the Jews of antiquity sat within their respective societal boundaries.

Finally one must mention, as an element that links this period to the subsequent ones, the role of Keith Bate, who joined the Department in the 1960s and retired in 1995. Bate was a specialist in medieval Latin, and he established valuable links with Reading's Department of History. He also was the academic teacher of Gill Knight, who - also a specialist in Late and Medieval Latin - joined Reading in 1986.

'Reinventing Classics' at Reading (The 1980s and 90s)

During the Thatcher years, the entire Higher Education sector in Britain experienced significant changes, and the field of Classics did not remain unaffected by this. Several dRosemary Wright and Tim Ryderepartments, all over the country, had to face closure or significant restructuring (usually accompanied by downsizing). Reading, too, was affected by this. However, members of the Classics Department then managed to present a strong case for its continuation - and successfully so. Moreover, Reading even managed to turn the situation to its advantage by providing a home for scholars that were affected by similar measures elsewhere - Rosemary Wright, a specialist in Greek Philosophy, and Tim Ryder, a Greek Historian, were thus added to the Department.

At the same time, especially in the wake of the appointment of Andrew Wallace-A Wallace-HadrillHadrill as new Chair in Classics, Reading's Classics Department began to explore new avenues of Classical Scholarship. Many lines of inquiry that now seem all too familiar were trialled, invented, or at least significantly shaped at Reading.

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill (who later became the Director of the British School at Rome, without formally losing his Reading affiliation), among many other things, introduced the study of Roman Urbanism to Reading (partly in collaboration with colleagues in the Archaeology Department). This interest, with special emphasis on the Vesuvian settlements Pompeii and Herculaneum, was bolstered at a later stage by the appointment of Ray Laurence, who eventually left Reading for an appointment in Birmingham.

The increased interest in material culture and archaeology is also reflected on the Greek side: with the appointments of Susan Alcock and Sturt Manning, the Department managed to grow a strong reputation for Greek Archaeology and Art History - a development that of course must be seen in the context of the continuing importance of the Ure Museum in the departmental life.

Another area that must be mentioned can be summarised by the now well-established term 'reception studies'. Due to the work of Maria Wyke, Edith Hall and others, Reading spearheaded research into the use, re-use, and abuse of the cultural heritage of the ancient world in modern societies and, most notably, in popular culture.

Not entirely unrelated to this question, yet with a significantly different thrust, members of Reading's Classics Department in this period began to embark on what is now described by the term 'gender studies'. In this context one may mention the presence of Helen Morales in Reading's Department, alongside Maria Wyke and Edith Hall.

A thirChristiane Sourvinou-Inwood and Ian Rutherfordd major area in which the Department began to develop significant research excellence in that period was the whole sector of Greek Religion. This has to be seen in conjunction with the appointment of Christiane Sourvinou-Inwood and Ian Rutherford.

Sourvinou-Inwood's acknowledged supremacy in the area of Greek religion studies made a lasting contribution to the Department's research, and this field continues to be one of its strongholds in the twenty-first century, reflected in our current research grouping 'Art, Religion, Society'.J.N.Adams

Another area that must be mentioned in this context is that of ancient linguistics. Although at Reading only for a relatively short period of time, J. N. Adams introduced a new spirit of Latin language studies to Reading. A 1998 conference on 'Bilingualism in Ancient Society' at Reading, organised by Adams, Simon Swain, and Mark Janse, was a milestone in ancient linguistic research.

Finally, Reading also became a centre for the study of ancient medicine - a research strand that was closely connected with the name of Helen King, who left the University of Reading in 2011 to take up an appointment at the Open University.

Reinventing 'Classics at Reading' (The New Millennium)

It is too early to appraise Reading's way in the new millennium in the same broad terms as the previous stages: this chapter will have to be written by later generations.

It is apparent that the Department's current configuration is designed to maintain the breadth of approaches to the study of the ancient world and its rich cultural and intellectual heritage as well as to support creative and innovative research excellence well beyond traditional confines. The Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology remains at the heart of the Department's vibrant research culture.

Like in its very early days, Reading remains a stepping stone for outstanding scholars: in addition to the aforementioned names, Reading was recently the home of scholars such as David Blank and Stephen Oakley, to name but a few.

It is also clear that several lines of inquiry that were introduced at previous stages - from linguistics to the study of Greek religion, from historiography to reception studies, from ancient technology and music to the study of Roman late antiquity - live on in the Department in 2011.

Our staff profiles and research pages offer an insight into our current activities: please follow these links and continue your discovery.

Further reading:

  • J. Henderson, 'Oxford Reds'. Classic Commentaries on Latin Classics, London 2006.
  • J. C. Holt, The University of Reading: the first fifty years, Reading 1977.

Contact the Department

Contact us to find out more about the Classics Department.

We use Javascript to improve your experience on, but it looks like yours is turned off. Everything will still work, but it is even more beautiful with Javascript in action. Find out more about why and how to turn it back on here.
We also use cookies to improve your time on the site, for more information please see our cookie policy.

Back to top