Kōrero: Classical and foreign-language studies

Whārangi 1. Classics at universities

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Classics is the study of the language, history, literature, art, philosophy and culture of the ancient Mediterranean world, particularly that of Greece and Rome.

In New Zealand in the 2000s classics was taught at universities and secondary schools. Classics programmes were offered at Auckland, Canterbury, Massey, Otago and Victoria universities. Massey was the only one of these universities that did not have a professorial chair in classics. The classics departments at Auckland and Otago published their own journals.

No love of Latin

Premier Richard John Seddon was a reluctant Latin scholar in his youth. ‘In my father’s school, I was one of a number of boys who were taught extra subjects, and after a time I came to regard it as little short of despotism that I should be kept indoors struggling with Latin while most boys were in the open playing at different games. I expostulated by not learning my lesson, with the usual result that might be expected from a school master, especially when his own son was at fault.’1 He left school at the age of 12.


The study of Latin (the language of ancient Rome) and to a lesser extent ancient Greek was a cornerstone of education in the 19th century, as it had been for centuries. As such, classics was one of the foundation subjects taught at New Zealand universities. Each of the four universities established in the 19th century – Otago (1869), Canterbury (1873), Auckland (1883) and Victoria (1899) – commenced with professorial chairs in classics. Latin (or, from 1903, Greek) was a compulsory subject for the Bachelor of Arts degree until 1917. Law students had to study stage-one Latin until 1952.

Classics revolved around Latin and Greek, the study of ancient literature in these languages, and history. Though language fluency remained crucial for classics scholars, the abolition of compulsory Latin or Greek in universities, the declining popularity of these languages at secondary schools and growth in the variety of tertiary subjects contributed to a decline in classics enrolments. In the minds of many, classics was an elitist subject.

Classical studies

Classics departments responded by developing classical-studies courses that did not require knowledge of Latin or Greek. At Victoria University in the 1970s, new professor Chris Dearden instituted courses in Roman history and literature and Etruscan and Roman art. These ‘civilisation’ courses were popular and accounted for three-quarters of classics enrolments by the end of the decade. New Zealand universities were leaders in the field of classical studies, and were ahead of Britain and Australia in this regard.

The introduction of classical studies in secondary schools in the 1970s made classics more accessible to young students and provided universities with a new pool of classics undergraduates.

University strengths in the 2000s

In the 2000s universities had different strengths in the field of classical studies.

  • Auckland: Greek, Roman and Egyptian history, late antiquity, archaeology, art history and the intellectual world of Greece and Rome. Auckland’s was the largest classics department in New Zealand.
  • Canterbury: Greek literature and art, Roman art and history.
  • Massey: Greek history, literature, art and religion.
  • Otago: Latin literature and ancient art.
  • Victoria: Greek drama and history, Roman social and political history and classics reception (response to classical texts by later cultures).

Scholars in New Zealand

In the 2000s the University of Auckland’s Vivienne Gray, a specialist on the Greek historians Herodotus and Xenophon, was renowned internationally for her work, as was Egyptologist Tony Spalinger. Canterbury’s Graham Zanker was recognised as a specialist in Greek literature. At Otago John Barsby and Bill Dominik had an international reputation for their work on Latin literature. Victoria’s Arthur Pomeroy had wide-ranging interests that included Roman social history, Latin literature and classics in film, while John Davidson was recognised for his work on Greek tragedy and the reception of classics in New Zealand poetry. Jeff Tatum was a distinguished scholar of Roman republican history.

University museums

Auckland, Canterbury and Victoria universities maintained small museums of classical antiquities, mainly pottery and coins. Canterbury’s James Logie Memorial Collection was the best collection of antiquities in New Zealand. The objects were used for teaching and research purposes and the museums were also open to the public. Items from the Canterbury collection had been damaged in the 2010 earthquake, but were repaired.

The Otago Museum was managed by the University of Otago until 1955, and members of the classics department continued to act as honorary curators of the classical collection. Massey University did not have a museum and instead used high-quality reproductions.

Classical associations

Auckland, Canterbury, Otago and Victoria universities had loosely affiliated classical associations, whose members were university lecturers, students and laypeople. The associations’ main events were lectures.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in David Hamer, 'Seddon, Richard John', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/biographies/2s11/seddon-richard-john (last accessed 17 December 2013). Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Classical and foreign-language studies - Classics at universities', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/classical-and-foreign-language-studies/page-1 (accessed 13 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014