BMCR 2000.05.04

Classics in 19th and 20th Century Cambridge: Curriculum, Culture and Community. Cambridge Philological Society, Suppl. 24

, Classics in 19th and 20th Century Cambridge: Curriculum, Culture and Community. Cambridge Philological Society, Suppl. 24. Cambridge: Cambridge Philological Society, 1998. xii, 176.

1 Responses

Christopher Stray is best known to classicists for his Classics Transformed: Schools, Universities, and Society in England, 1830-1960 (Oxford 1998), which broke new ground by viewing developments in the field of classics within the broader context of social history.1 As in Classics Transformed, so in this collection of essays ideologies and institutions loom larger than individual scholars. There is precious little here on Jebb or Housman. Instead, we have treatments of such topics as the Cambridge Greek play, the debate over “Compulsory Greek,” and, above all, the Classical Tripos. The primary chronological focus is on the last third of the nineteenth century.

In the opening paper, Stray provides a brief history of the Tripos from 1822-1922 and a general historical context for the papers that follow. Many readers will be interested in the curious history of the word Tripos (p. 1, n.2) and, like myself, learn with surprise that it is, in fact, a singular form (pl. Triposes). From Stray’s paper and Mary Beard’s more detailed study (see below), we obtain a fairly clear history of the Tripos. In the first phase (1822-54), it comprised only translation papers from and into Greek and Latin. A high pass in the Mathematics Tripos was a prerequisite. The second phase began in 1854 when the mathematics prerequisite was dropped. About the same time a paper on ancient history was added. The third phase dates from 1879, when the Tripos was divided into two parts. Part I comprised papers on prose and verse composition and translation, “Greek and Roman History (including Literature) and Antiquities,” and “Greek and Latin Grammar and Criticism.” Part II had five sections: A (four translation and composition papers) B (philosophy) C (history) D (art, archaeology, religion and domestic life) E (language). All students had to take A and either one or two additional sections. Successful completion of Part I, however, was all that was needed to obtain an Honors degree, and it is never made clear exactly why anyone would choose to do Part II. Evidently, the students wondered too. So few of them opted for Part II, in fact, that in 1918 it “was ‘rescued’ by the simple expedient of forcing the undergraduates to take it.”

Beard’s contribution, “The Invention (and Re-invention) of ‘Group D’: An Archaeology of the Classical Tripos 1879-1984,” is the longest and the liveliest in the collection. Her main focus is on the creation and evolution of the art, archaeology, and religion section of Part II. She astutely points out that “the distinctive combination of myth, ritual and the visual arts that we associate with (more than anyone else) Jane Harrison is a combination rooted in the history of the Tripos.” The introduction of archaeology into the curriculum in 1879, she notes, unlike other changes, sparked little debate, perhaps because, by this time, the extraordinary discoveries at Troy, Mycenae and Olympia had made the case for archaeology overwhelming. But who was to teach it? Surprisingly, the task was assigned to a brash young American. In 1880, at the age of twenty-four, Charles Waldstein arrived in Cambridge with an undergraduate degree from Columbia and a doctorate from Heidelberg and was promptly hired to deliver a series of lectures on classical archaeology. Within a few years he was a leading figure in classics at Cambridge: the first Reader in Classical Archaeology (1883-1907), Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum (1883/4-89), and Slade Professor of Art (1895-1901 and 1904-11). It is to his influence that Beard attributes the eventual elimination of religion from Group D.

Claire Breay’s “Women and the Classical Tripos 1869-1914” analyses the types of schools sending female students of classics to the two women’s colleges, Newnham and Girton. Breay seems to be talking about private schools only, for she never speaks of local authority schools. Most readers, however. are likely to be bewildered by the distinctions she makes between various types of “public” (apparently in the English sense of private) and “private” schools. She makes the interesting point, however, that despite the disadvantages women faced due to their inferior training in Latin and Greek at school, a higher proportion of women than men read classics at Cambridge. She does not attempt to explain this. Presumably, however, women spread themselves less widely over the range of subjects taught at university and so were proportionally more numerous than men in many non-scientific fields. Breay also provides charts comparing men’s and women’s choices in Part II of the Tripos and the numbers and percentages of each group who achieved “Firsts.”

Pat Easterling’s “The Early Years of the Cambridge Greek Play: 1883-1912” provides us with an excellent sketch of the first thirty years of this institution. Two figures stand out as prime movers: John Willis Clark, superintendent of the Museum of Zoology, and Charles Waldstein. The early productions were ambitious — they featured music specially written by composers of the caliber of Vaughn Williams and performed by sizable orchestras. Special trains were put on to bring the interested public from London. Easterling’s essay is liberally illustrated with wonderful photographs, including one of Rupert Brooke as the Herald in Eumenides.

Before 1919, all entering students at Cambridge were required to pass exams in Greek, Latin, mathematics and Paley’s Evidences of Christianity. The Greek requirement was first challenged in 1870. Judith Raphael’s analysis of the “Compulsory Greek” debates that periodically erupted between 1870 and 1919 explains why it took fifty years and World War I to eliminate the Greek requirement. A major factor seems to have been the fact that all graduates of the university could vote on issues before the Senate. In 1905, when the reformists seemed likely to win, large contingents of graduates arrived from London by train and voted to retain compulsory Greek. The clergy, who were overwhelmingly retentionist, played a decisive role.

Robert Todd’s study of Henry Sidgwick focuses on his role in reforming the Classical Tripos. Though his appointment was in philosophy, rather than Classics, it was, apparently, mainly due to his influence that ancient philosophy at Cambridge became associated with the Classical, rather than the Moral Sciences, Tripos. Sidgwick was a leading progressive in Cambridge academic politics. He nicely characterized the views of the old guard, who opposed reforms and argued that classics should remain “pure scholarship” (merely translation and textual criticism), as follows: “If we endeavour to ascertain that men have understood and reflected upon the authors which they have read, we are mixing up with classics something which is not classics.”

David Gill’s “Winifred Lamb and the Fitzwilliam Museum” brings welcome attention to this important, but little-known, archaeologist. It is a preliminary study to a more detailed account of her life and work.2 Though her interests were primarily in the prehistoric area — she excavated at Mycenae with Wace and ran her own dig at Thermi on Lesbos — she wrote the two Fitzwilliam fascicules of Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum. As Honorary Keeper of the Greek and Roman Antiquities at the Fitzwilliam (1920-58), she brought the museum’s collection to national prominence. Much of the article is given over to documenting the acquisitions made during her tenure as keeper. She came from a wealthy family and was herself a generous benefactor of the museum. Unfortunately, one of her most prized purchases, the famous “Fitzwilliam Goddess” (a marble figurine resembling a Minoan snake-goddess), turned out to be a fake.3 The fact that the figurine had been authenticated by both Evans and Wace is disconcerting and inevitably raises questions about how many fakes remain undetected in museums.

The collection closes with a light-hearted account, by John Crook and Joyce Reynolds, of the Cambridge Greek and Latin Book Club, which flourished from about 1909 till 1993. Members of this amiable society recommended books, which were then acquired on credit from a local bookseller. Each book was circulated round all the members. Eventually, it was auctioned off at a club meeting. Only then was the bookseller, whose patience must often have been sorely tried, finally paid. To American readers at least, this Cambridge institution, though only recently defunct, must seem infinitely more remote than the nineteenth-century squabbles over the curriculum.

Collectively, these essays provide valuable insight into the development of classics as a university discipline in Cambridge in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. As Beard points out, the reader is struck by how familiar the concerns of professional classicists in 1879 seem to us today. We are still wrestling with the central problem of the Tripos debates: how to reconcile the need to maintain high standards in the ancient languages with the need to expose students to the methods and subject matter of a wide array of disciplines.


1. See review by Robert B. Todd in BMCR 98.6.16.

2. For more information on Lamb, see the Winifred Lamb website at, where Gill indicates that a study of Lamb is forthcoming in Getzel M. Cohen and Martha S. Joukowsky (eds.), Women in Archaeology: the Classical World and the Near East 1: The Pioneeers (in press).

3. For fuller discussion of this topic see Kevin Butcher and David W.J. Gill, “The Director, the Dealer, the Goddess, and Her Champions: The Acquisition of the Fitzwilliam Goddess,” AJA 97 (1993) 383-401.