Ronald Syme is New Zealand’s most eminent classics scholar. He studied at Auckland and Victoria universities before leaving for the University of Oxford in 1925. After completing his degree, Syme was elected a fellow of Trinity College at Oxford and published his ground-breaking book The Roman revolution in 1939. This was followed by a definitive two-volume biography of Roman politician and historian Tacitus (1958). His last published work was The Augustan aristocracy (1986). He died in 1989.
Syme’s international reputation as a classical scholar was recognised by his appointment as Camden professor of ancient history at Oxford (1949–70).
Dale Trendall spent his undergraduate years at the University of Otago (1926–29) before going on to the University of Cambridge. He taught at Australian universities until his retirement in 1969 and continued to research until his death in 1995. Trendall was a leading expert on south Italian pottery.
On the airwaves
E. M. Blaiklock wasn’t the only classicist to gain an audience outside academia. University of Otago classics professor Thomas Dagger Adams regularly appeared on radio talking about a wide range of topics between 1937 and 1947.
E. M. Blaiklock
The first New Zealand-based classics professor who trained entirely in New Zealand was Edward Blaiklock, who began teaching at the University of Auckland in 1927. He was appointed professor in 1947. Blaiklock gained public recognition for his columns in Auckland newspapers under the pen-name ‘Grammaticus’.
George Cawkwell gained BA and MA degrees from the University of Auckland before fighting in the Pacific during the Second World War. After the war he was a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford, and was a fellow and praelector in ancient history at University College, Oxford, until his retirement in 1987, when he became an emeritus fellow. His major works are books on Philip of Macedon and the Peloponnesian and Greek wars.
At Oxford, Cawkwell taught Austrian ancient history scholar Ernst Badian, who had moved with his family to New Zealand in 1938. Badian went to Oxford after completing a BA at Canterbury University in 1945.
In 2013 there were 46 classicists employed at New Zealand universities. 67% (31) were men and 33% (15) were women.
Classics has been dominated by male scholars, but women have also made their mark. German-born classicist Agathe Thornton taught at the University of Otago from 1948 to 1975 and specialised in the early oral literature of ancient Greece. Her comparative analysis of Greek and Māori oral literature was rare for its application of the classics to a New Zealand setting.
New Zealand-born classics scholars of international note in the 21st century included Denis Feeney, the Giger professor of Latin and professor of classics at Princeton University; Richard F. Thomas, George Martin Lane professor of the classics at Harvard University; and Tim Parkin, professor of ancient history at the University of Manchester.
James K. Baxter
Of all New Zealand writers, James K. Baxter most extensively referred to classical mythology in his poems and plays. He first drew on classical myth in his adolescent poetry and it was a constant theme of his work produced between the late 1940s and late 1960s. Figures such as Aphrodite/Venus, Odysseus, Hercules, Theseus, Oedipus and ‘the muse’ appeared time and time again.
In 1998 Witi Ihimaera commented, ‘With English you can go anywhere with it … you know it is common, an ordinary language. And so what I do is write in a very ordinary language and I can do whatever I like with it, I can go wherever it takes me, I can ransack wherever it’s been, Greek culture, Roman mythology, American literature, I can do all of that within that whole postmodern pastiche tradition.’1
Fiction writer Witi Ihimaera has often drawn on classical material in his work, and at least nine of his novels contain references to classical mythological figures and events. The dream swimmer (1997), set on New Zealand’s East Coast, is informed by Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays Oresteia. The dark familial conflict of the plays is echoed in the fraught relationship between The dream swimmer’s protagonist Tama Mahana and his mother Tiana.
Other writers and artists
Other poets who have mined classical mythology include A. R. D. Fairburn, R. A. K. Mason, Denis Glover, Kendrick Smithyman, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Fleur Adcock, Vincent O’Sullivan and Anna Jackson. Harry Love’s play Hurai (first performed in 2009) reworks Euripides’ Bacchae and is set in 1830s New Zealand. The etchings and lithographs of artist Marian Maguire combine Greek vase imagery with colonial New Zealand subjects.