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Classical and foreign-language studies

by Kerryn Pollock

The first New Zealand universities required all arts students to learn Latin or Greek. Over the 20th century enrolments in classics declined, until the 1970s, when non-language classical studies papers were introduced. French and German were the first modern languages taught in universities. By the 2000s they had been joined by an array of other languages including Spanish, Japanese and Chinese.

Classics at universities

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.


Classics scholars and classics in literature

Ronald Syme

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

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

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.

Gender stats

In 2013 there were 46 classicists employed at New Zealand universities. 67% (31) were men and 33% (15) were women.

Agathe Thornton

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.

Current scholars

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.

Acceptable appropriation

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

Witi Ihimaera

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.

    • ‘“The singing word”: Witi Ihimaera interviewed by Juniper Ellis’, The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 34 (1999), pp.174–175. Back

Modern languages

Bachelor of Arts students had to study a modern language until the early 1970s. In 2013 modern languages were offered at Auckland, Canterbury, Massey, Otago, Victoria and Waikato universities and the Auckland University of Technology.

French and German

French and German were the first modern languages to be offered at New Zealand universities. Initially, these languages were taught by professors of other subjects, such as classics. The University of Canterbury’s first full-time modern-languages lecturer, W. Mitchell Clarke, was appointed in 1891, 18 years after the university was established. Clarke’s position was raised to a chair in 1894, making him the first professor of modern languages in Australasia.

French and German were split into separate departments at universities in the late 1950s and 1960s.


Though George von Zedlitz never taught at Victoria University after he was removed in 1915, he continued to maintain ties with staff members and governors. He was made professor emeritus in 1936 and a new arts building which opened in 1979 was named after him.

George von Zedlitz became Victoria University’s fifth professor when he was appointed to the chair of modern languages in 1901. His father was German and his mother English and he lived in England from the age of four, though he remained a German citizen. His citizenship led to his professional undoing during the First World War, when a hostile government forced his resignation from the university.

Other languages

The other major European languages offered at New Zealand universities were Italian, Russian and Spanish. Victoria University’s Nicolas Danilow pioneered the study of Russian in New Zealand and began teaching it in 1942.

In 1965 Massey University became the first university to offer a degree in Japanese. An Asian languages and literature department was established at the University of Auckland in 1966. The first professor of Chinese was appointed that year, and Indonesian and Japanese appointments followed. Victoria offered Indonesian in 1969 and Chinese in 1972. Japanese was not offered until 1989. Asian languages (at first just Japanese) commenced at Canterbury in 1971. Japanese and Chinese were first taught at Otago in 1993.

Pacific language courses arrived fairly late. Cook Island Māori and Samoan were first offered at Victoria University in 1988 and 1989.  In the 2000s only Samoan was taught at Victoria, while the University of Auckland offered Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tongan.   The Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies emphasised political and anthropological rather than language studies. 

Other foreign languages irregularly taught at universities include Arabic, Croatian, Hebrew, Korean and Polish. Russian was discontinued at Victoria University in 2000; it is now taught at Auckland and Canterbury universities only. Italian and Spanish remain on the calendar of all language-teaching universities.

Department mergers

In the 1990s and 2000s separate language departments were merged into language schools covering a range of languages and related cultural studies. The University of Auckland is the only university to maintain separate European and Asian language schools.

Language institutions

The major language institutions outside the universities are the Alliance Française (French) and the Goethe-Institut (German). There are 10 branches of the Alliance Française and one of the Goethe-Institut in New Zealand.

Williams trivia

Harold Williams read the Bible in 26 languages, including the African languages Zulu, Swahili and Hausa. When he attended the League of Nations he was the only person able to greet each delegate in their own language.


Harold Williams, who was born in Christchurch in 1876, was internationally renowned as a polyglot (someone who can speak many languages). His facility for languages was evident from a young age, and he taught himself French, Hebrew, Italian, Fijian, German, Greek, Latin, Māori, Samoan, Spanish and Tongan while a pupil at East Christchurch School. Williams left New Zealand for Europe in 1900 and never returned. He became a journalist and an expert on Russian affairs. At his death he had knowledge of over 50 languages and was fluent in half of these.

Constance Barnicoat’s multilingual abilities were more modest, but her fluency in French, German, Italian and Spanish enabled her to forge an international career as an interpreter and journalist in the early 20th century.

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Classical and foreign-language studies', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 16 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 o Oketopa 2014