Christopher Stray looks back at an outstanding and controversial scholar.This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 1.-dover.jpg

Sir Kenneth Dover, one of the most distinguished classical scholars of the last century, was born in 1920 and died in 2010. A conference planned to celebrate the centenary of his birth has been postponed from September 2020, and may yet be postponed again or held online. As we wait to see what kind of event might be possible in these strange times, this is perhaps a good moment to reflect on the life and work of this remarkable man.  

Dover’s career began as a textbook example of academic success in the traditional Oxford style: the top scholarship to Balliol in 1938, the Gaisford (Greek verse) prize, unusually, in his first year, and other prizes later on. A first class in Mods followed in 1940, but in July of that year, after his first term of Greats, he was called up to the Royal Artillery and trained to run anti-aircraft batteries. In the south of England he learned how to teach squaddies ballistics and trigonometry, and found that he was good at organising information and teaching. There, and later in North Africa and in Italy, he socialised with non-commissioned officers and other ranks and was caught up in the heat of battle. This was a very different experience from that of some other Oxford classicists, who were sent to intelligence posts in Bletchley or abroad to decode enemy signals: Dover thought a decoding job would have been of more use to the country, but of less use to him. When he was demobbed he resumed his Greats course, and was soon attending seminars in which he impressed the ancient historians by his mastery of evidence and willingness to challenge professors to verbal combat. Before the war he had been singled out for praise by the formidable Eduard Fraenkel, whose seminars reduced many participants to fear and trembling; now he impressed Fraenkel’s friend Arnaldo Momigliano, his PhD supervisor, who declared that Dover knew more about fifth-century Athens than anyone else in Oxford.

In 1947 Dover was elected to a tutorial fellowship at Balliol, and aged only 31 was appointed Senior Tutor, till in 1955 he moved to the chair of Greek at St Andrews. He was impressed by the university library, which he thought was as good as those in Oxford, but produced books much faster than the Bodleian Library did. He and his wife Audrey, whom he had married in 1947, came to share a love of the Highlands. Dover served twice as Dean of the Faculty of Arts, and enjoyed exercising the authority this gave him and expanding the teaching of Greek. When he was offered the regius chair of Greek at Oxford in 1960, the clinching factor in his decision to decline it was that he knew from his experience of attempted Oxford reforms in the early 1950s that a professor had little influence: the conflicts between Mods and Greats tutors, and between the Greats philosophers and historians, made effective reform very unlikely. Dover’s rejection of the Greek chair came as a blow to the current occupant, Eric Dodds, whom Dover greatly admired and who saw Dover as a successor in his own image.

Dover was a very effective teacher, but at St Andrews had little opportunity for supervising postgraduates, so in 1974 he applied for the regius chair of Greek at Cambridge on the retirement of Denys Page. The post went to Geoffrey Kirk, and Dover discovered afterwards that his friend Hugh Lloyd-Jones, who was one of the electors, had persuaded his colleagues not to appoint him. By 1976 he felt he was starting to make mistakes in teaching, and accepted an offer to become president of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Dover continued to publish on Greek language and literature, but also on history and culture. His eminence as a scholar was recognised in 1978 by his election as president of the British Academy. During his term of office he had to deal with the controversy caused by the identification of one of its Fellows, Anthony Blunt, as a Russian spy. Characteristically, Dover assembled a collection of files documenting the affair which he deposited at the Academy; they form the basis of a recent account (A Question of Retribution: The British Academy and the Matter of Anthony Blunt (OUP, 2020)) by its current president, the historian David Cannadine.

Dover’s undergraduate career at Oxford had been notable for including outstanding achievement in both the linguistic work of Mods and the ancient history of Greats. (On the philosophy in Greats he was less keen, seeing it, at least as practised in Oxford in the 1940s, as full of ‘bloodless abstractions’.)  His publications both began and ended with works on language, from Greek Word Order (1960) to The Evolution of Greek Prose Style (1997), but in between he produced important editions and commentaries on Aristophanes and Thucydides. His Oxford red edition of Aristophanes’ Clouds (1970) was welcomed by a reviewer as ‘a splendid book, easily the best edition of a play by Aristophanes yet to appear in this country. Like Dodds’s Bacchae, it is one of the few detailed commentaries on a Greek text which really does full justice to the work as a whole …masterly control of the all the tools of scholarship, penetrating intelligence… The book … sets a new standard of editing … and will be both a model and a challenge to the other contributors to the series’ (Colin Austin, Classical Review 20 (1970): 18-21). Dover’s edition of Frogs (1993) was similarly welcomed as ‘a triumph of philological care, scholarly judgement, and the common and comic sense for which Sir Kenneth Dover has long been admired … Dover retains the Chair of comedy, uncontested’ (Kenneth Reckford, American Journal of Philology 116 (1995): 488-90). The other author to whose work Dover devoted sustained attention was Thucydides. When Arnold Gomme died in 1959 his great commentary was unfinished, and OUP commissioned Dover and Tony Andrewes to complete it. Dover had lectured on books VI and VII in Oxford so took those on, Andrewes dealing with VIII and part of VI. The two men worked well together, but the task was a large one, and the commentary was published only in 1970 and 1981. A reviewer of the latter volume, covering book VIII, hailed ‘the completion of one of the finest monuments of twentieth-century British classical scholarship’ and remarked that it ‘sets the standard not only for the further study of Thucydides but also for other … commentaries’ (W. R Connor, Classical Philology 79a  (1984): 230-5. All these books, as well as his small editions of Thucydides VI and VII (1965) and of Theocritus (1971), followed the traditional form of commentary with or without text. Bolder explorations came in  Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (1974), and especially in Greek Homosexuality (1978), which opened up new horizons. As Stephen Halliwell put it in his article on Dover in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, ‘…  what made his work so illuminating, and of enduring value, was more than his sheer range of expertise. It was a subtle ability to integrate fastidious philological scholarship with the exercise of a historical imagination that viewed all forms of human reality as worthy of rational enquiry.’

Dover had been plunged into controversy during the Blunt affair; even more controversial, in a different way, was his autobiography Marginal Comment (1994), in which he declared that he had wanted for the sake of his college (Corpus Christi) to end the life of a difficult fellow, Trevor Aston, who eventually committed suicide in 1985. But this was not the only controversial aspect of Dover’s memoir. When he submitted the book to Oxford University Press, it was severely criticised by the Press’s referees for its frank discussion of the author’s sexual life and its unforgiving treatment of the weaknesses and transgressions of others.

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On 21 February 1994 a diary entry appeared in the Evening Standard under the heading ‘Oxford don takes memoirs in hand’. It reported that Dover had just submitted to OUP ‘memoirs of a rare candour, describing his experiences of the solitary pleasures of Onan.’ This referred to Dover’s recollection of being so overwhelmed by the beauty of an Italian mountain view in 1944 that he felt compelled to masturbate: ‘The scene struck directly at my penis’ (Marginal Comment, 114).

One of the OUP referees, the church historian and theologian Henry Chadwick, described the book as ‘A self-portrait of an outstandingly clever man’, but he thought the text too critical of Dover’s contemporaries, and the ‘emphatic descriptions of … sexual experiences … take frankness to the point where a good many readers will think him deficient in decent good taste.’  The major objection of the other referee, the Balliol classical scholar Jasper Griffin, was to Dover’s ‘aggressively outspoken sexual content … which certainly startled and caused distress in this reader … Such material, in such a tone, will completely eclipse the discussion of the Melanesian languages or of the authenticity of the speeches of Lysias.’ Griffin concluded, ‘the Press would be prudent not to accept it without requiring important changes.’ (It was probably Griffin who leaked information about the masturbation scene to the Evening Standard.)  One of the Delegates of the Press, the ancient historian Fergus Millar, also weighed in, declaring that ‘the question is whether what might, in another context, be seen as soft porn or libel, is compatible with the stance of a person delivering himself of an academic autobiography’. He also described parts of Dover’s text as ‘a verbal equivalent of indecent exposure: i.e. of behaviour acceptable in a specialized private context being brought forward in a public one’. Dover sent briskly forensic rebuttals of the reports, and made it clear that he was not prepared to back down on the content or style of his discussions of sexual practices; the OUP Classics editor told him that the Press could not accept his book, and recommended him to try another publisher. He offered it to Colin Haycraft of the firm of Duckworth, who immediately accepted it: ‘It is an excellent book, full of interest of various kinds, and we would love to publish it.’

Marginal Comment appeared in November 1994, and soon attracted both published reviews and letters from readers. Dover was cheered by reading a generously positive review in The Spectator from his old friend and rival Hugh Lloyd-Jones. A very full review by Mary Beard in The London Review of Books led to a substantial private correspondence between author and reviewer. Some reviews were largely negative: in The Scotsman the Scottish journalist Ross Leckie, who had been an undergraduate at Corpus Christi during Dover’s term as President , wrote that

Marginal Comment advances our understanding of nothing but the strangeness of man. … OUP were right to decline to publish this sad book. As a bizarre curiosity …  it has merit.  But it will puzzle and offend many who, like me, preferred to remember the KD we used to think we knew and loved, the Dover who taught us so much.

Leckie sent a copy of his review to Dover, whose response began, ‘Well, it’s certainly an antidote for swollen head’.

The approach to epigraphic evidence that had led Dover to list and classify thousands of Attic inscriptions prompted him to make a tabulated list of responses to his book: he counted 107 positive, one mixed and 11 hostile. One of the hostile responses was presumably the anonymous letter he received with a London postmark:


After reading your psychopathic admission of driving your colleague to his death Mr Trevor Aston I find your intellectual poise akin to Reginald Kray. He too is divorced from his emotions. No hatred you say motivated your murderous intent. I disagree. Your pathetic and sadistic act was one of extreme hatred, anger and jealousy.  You will Sir be repaid … I await news of your demise with anticipation.

The positive responses probably included a letter from an engineer in the Midlands who told Dover that he had identified over forty effective masturbation techniques. Other readers recalled experiences of the Oxford education they shared with Dover. One of them told an anecdote of one of Eduard Fraenkel’s seminars:

Fraenkel: what metre is this?

Student: a telesillean.

Fraenkel: you will have to speak up.


Fraenkel:  No! it is a telesillean.

It is always a salutary experience, though often a disconcerting one, for the historian to encounter their own past self in the files they are exploring. In this case, it was good to be reminded of Dover’s response when I sent him a copy of my own review (published in the Classical Review 46 (1996): 195-6) of Marginal Comment, which began: ‘Many thanks for sending me a copy of your review. I greatly appreciate your recognition that it is an “experimental” work’.

Stephen Halliwell and I have had the pleasure of assembling a very fine group of contributors to recall discuss Kenneth Dover’s life and work. Whatever the fate of our conference, we plan to publish the commissioned contributions to celebrate, however belatedly, the centenary of the birth of this great scholar. Stephen’s lecture on Kenneth Dover can be accessed here.

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Christopher Stray has held numerous fellowships at universities around the world and is a leading historian of the teaching of Classics.  His recent books are: Rediscovering E.R. Dodds: Scholarship, Education, Poetry and the Paranormal (OUP: edited with Chris Pelling and Stephen Harrison and reviewed here) and Classics in Britain: Scholarship, Education and Publishing 1800-2000 (OUP: reviewed here). A Festschrift in his honour has been published this year: S.J. Harrison and C.B.R. Pelling (eds), Classical Scholarship and its History from the Renaissance to the Present: Essays in Honour of Christopher Stray. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.