Bloomsbury (2023) h/b 384pp £120 (ISBN 9781350333451)

This review is written on the assumption that Scholarship and Controversy (also available in PDF and digital form at £86.40) was composed with the new edition of D.’s autobiography Marginal Comment: A Memoir Revisited in mind (reviewed here at

After Christopher Stray’s Introduction offering a general overview of D.’s work, the authors contribute papers on his life, his work, his thoughts on the place of Classics in the modern world and personal memories of him. To keep the review within bounds, I have chosen to concentrate on those aspects of D.’s life and work which have caused the most debate. But by way of Introduction, Stray describes his work and character and examines D.’s family background and education (St Paul’s, Oxford [Balliol, 1938-55] and [St Andrews, 1955-75]). Tim Rood then discusses D.’s time at Oxford and his concern at its lack of interest in the serious study of literature, which governed his move to St Andrews where he felt he could make a difference. He also mentions D.’s admiration for Gilbert Murray, not for his scholarship so much as for his ability to inspire interest in the subject and for his energy in directing his attention to e.g. public service and the League of Nations. Rood suggests D. might have been influenced by Murray’s example.

That D. was a liberal, hard-working, dedicated and conscientious servant both of his subject and of the institutions which he led is not in doubt, whether he was dealing with undergraduates (whose views he was always keen to hear), us lesser mortals seeking his advice, or the grandest of institutions e.g. he was President of Corpus, Oxford 1976-86 (Ewen Bowie, Brian Harrison, Jay Parini, David Stuttard). But his autobiography presents a picture of a rather hard-hearted, coldly rational human. When Parini suggested that he keep some of his revelations to himself, D. replied ‘I will tell the truth about myself and let the chips fall’. There spoke the historian. But contributors remember a human being: ‘quite vulnerable, hurt and perplexed when he felt misunderstood’ (Elizabeth Craik), ‘modest, personable, even genial, and willing to extend himself’ (Jay Parini). His children and grandchildren talk lovingly of his warmth, patience and sense of humour.

D.’s account of the Trevor Aston affair (his attempts to remove a Fellow of Corpus) is subject to some corrections, but it is agreed that at the time only a few Fellows objected to his handling of the matter, though many more objected when he published the details while some of the participants were still alive (Bowie, Harrison).

As for the Sir Anthony Blunt affair (1979-80: D. was President of the British Academy when he was uncovered as a spy, and oversaw his removal as a Fellow), his approach is also questioned (Robin Osborne), and it is further suggested that he should have given a moral lead, rather than insisting—as was his usual practice—on remaining impartial and seeking democratic agreement. Osborne here sees a shortcoming in Dover which was ‘also a feature of his scholarship—his tendency to treat issues, including moral issues, that have many components as merely intellectual problems’. One wonders to what extent the Fellows of the British Academy felt that their capacity to offer a moral judgment was impaired by D.’s chairmanship.

Now to the scholarship. D. remarked that both Eduard Fraenkel and Russell Meiggs had impressed powerfully upon him that the Greeks were ‘real people’. His commitment to finding realism in Greek art leads the art historian Jaś Elsner to dismiss not only D.’s interpretation of the images of pederastic activity portrayed on Greek vases but also the whole stance of D.’s (in)famous Greek Homosexuality (1978, updated 1989 and 2016): ‘the fantasies derived from D.’s pots, described in robust, sometimes sober but sometimes highly fanciful prose, are mapped onto fantasies of ancient reality derived from other sources, and the entirety is packaged as if it were ancient reality’. Elsner is correct in saying that D. over-interprets some of the images, but does not suggest how obvious images of some sort of pederastic activity could be put to use in furtherance of D.’s project. Elsner does admit that D. disclaimed any expertise in this area. (The publication of this volume caused undergraduates at Corpus to turn ‘Ken’ into ‘Ben’. One bookseller said no volume was more regularly filched.)

Carol Atack, in a model survey of the reception of that influential volume, marks its importance in approaching the topic for the first time in an authoritative, serious and scholarly way, before dealing with critical responses to it in a world in which Women and Gender studies have become increasingly important. D.’s methodology has been seriously questioned (resulting in e.g. his failure to distinguish between the real and the imaginary and insistence on the active-passive binary relationship). Atack also points out that D. provided something of an abstract model of what appears in the sources as a relationship involving a wide range of possible physical, personal, social and emotional engagements.

D. the realist always made it quite clear that he was first and foremost an empiricist, presumably of the scientific, evidence-based sort (though repeatable experiments on hypotheses about the past will probably escape the capacities even of quantum computing AI). As a result, theory, philosophy and metaphysics meant little to him, as did literary criticism, which for him was simply a matter of personal taste (D. admitted to me that literary critical theory ‘might as well be Chinese’). In ‘D. and Thucydides’, Christopher Pelling produces a fine, detailed account of D.’s mastery of language, argument and historical method, but suggests that D.’s lack of interest in Thucydides’ literary qualities left something of a gap in what was otherwise an unmatchable achievement. He is right. In Greece and Rome: New Surveys in the Classics no. 7 Thucydides [1973], p. 44, D. does not deny Thucydides’ ‘aesthetic sensibility which enabled the Greeks to give artistic form to the most unpromising material’. He talks of Thucydides’ ‘sharp eye and ear for dramatic detail’ (with examples) and goes on ‘he notably achieves pathos and vivid effect not by hyperbole but by economy and discipline in the choice of words’. One wishes he had given concrete examples of such phenomena.

As for Platonic philosophy, and especially its metaphysical angle, it came as a surprise when D. published a commentary on Plato’s Symposium (1980). Frisbee Sheffield provides an extremely interesting rationale for the decision: in brief, D. found Plato’s discussion of eros much more in tune with his own thinking since, with the exception of the discussion between Socrates and Diotima at the end, it was largely based on ‘observed facts’, ‘respect for evidence’ and ‘observable realities’ in relation to the human experience and understanding of eros—until at the conclusion metaphysical determination  took over and deflated the whole project.

Meanwhile, Richard Hunter finds a similar problem about ‘reality’ in D.’s commentary for beginners on Theocritus (1971) which, concentrating on those poems that seemed to him to depict the ‘reality’ of country life, rather misses the whole point of pastoral poetry and leaves the general impression that D. was not really interested in Hellenistic poetry at all, except from a linguistic point of view.

Literary ambiguity is another concept for which D. had little time, taking the view that, since the whole point of literature was to be effective as a means of communication, ambiguity could have no place except (perhaps) as a puzzle which the reader/listener would expect ultimately to be solved (Pelling too raised this on the matter of Thucydides’ speeches). Constanze Güthenke (‘D. and Greek Drama’) reflects on the tension D. might have felt between his rigorously ‘contextual/historical’ approach to texts and the fact that tragedy (on which he produced no commentary) and comedy (where his commentaries were ground-breaking) are both fictional, and wonders whether ambiguity might have had a place, especially in the ‘irreverent’ latter. A possible example or two would have been welcome.

Another issue which has raised question marks about D.’s scholarship is that although he agreed that we must do our best to understand the ancient Greeks through ancient Greek eyes, we must still ‘switch off and become ourselves again whenever we want to know what, if anything, they thought about issues which are important to us’. Christopher Carey, discussing in detail his book on Greek popular morality (1974), wonders how far this principle militates against the objectivity for which D. strove. Could there be no more rigorous external frame of reference? Since D. was hostile to the besetting present curse of ‘presentism’ (though perhaps unconscious of it in his work on homosexuality), might it be that he was simply suggesting that it was a good idea to determine precisely what your own position was on any moral question before you started reflecting on a Greek’s? While Carey raises some important questions about aspects of D.’s typically pragmatic methodology, he is rightly impressed by the sheer magnitude of D.’s coverage of the topic, leaving the Athenians to speak for themselves on a vast array of separate issues ‘as a kind of textual vox pop with distinct voices compared, contrasted and contextualised’ and emphasizes how D.’s choice of oratory as his main source—since no speaker would risk saying anything that he felt a jury of randomly selected Athenians would disagree with—brought the importance of oratory to the fore.

As for D.’s quasi-scientific empiricism, there was one area of scholarship which did allow him to exercise it: epigraphy. As Lucia Prauscello explains, D. was a pioneer in insisting that epigraphy, not literature, should come first in the study of language, not only because inscriptions needed to supply maximum information in minimum words and were unlikely to have been corrupted by the inscribers, but because they used a different register from literary texts. This allowed D. to carry out testable experiments on linguistic assertions, e.g. he demonstrated that the presence of -ikos adjectives in 5th BC century literature was not a consequence of sophistic influence: they already appeared widely in inscriptions of a technical and administrative nature. Prauscello gives a number of other examples.

Such research was all of a piece with D.’s interest in Greek style and word order. Ben Cartlidge provides a broad overview of D.’s work in this area, which in fact yielded few concrete results: Cartlidge finds few commentators in e.g. the ‘Green and Yellow’ series quoting him on the topic, though D.’s work did encourage more research on the problem. Cartlidge further reflects on the implications of such work for e.g. prose composition and the understanding of texts of different styles. Herewith a correction: Cartlidge suggests that ‘D. composed the texts [of the beginners’ course Reading Greek] with [Eric] Handley’, as a result of which ‘we can see Reading Greek as a didactic application of his research into Greek stylistics’. Alas, if only that were true! As the Acknowledgements state, D.’s role in that Project was as an adviser on the Greek of the storyline constructed by those of us responsible for writing the course. As ever, D. discharged his responsibilities meticulously. One mark of the care he took is illustrated by his reaction to the sentiment expressed by one of the characters (RG Text 3C) about the Spartans’ inability to fight sea-battles because ‘we rule the sea and prevent them practising’. D. had written in the margin ‘This seems to me most unlikely’, but crossed it out and written beside it ‘! Thuc 1.142’.

Finally, Stephen Halliwell (‘D. and the Public Face of Classics’) reflects on ways in which D.’s thoughts on the purpose and importance of a classical education evolved over the years, culminating in a lecture (1988) entitled ‘The value of Classics’, here translated by Halliwell from the Italian. D. argued that ‘the defence of Classics succeeds or fails [‘falls’?] with the defence of the whole field of studies which we call the “arts” or “humanities” but which I actually prefer to group together under the heading of “history”, by which I understand the study of everything that humans have done, written, said, thought, or felt’. He asserted that there were two cultures, but not those of CP Snow (‘science’ and ‘literature’): ‘one is the culture of analysis, inquiry and research, which is the study of what there is, what exists. The second is the culture of art, a way of adding to reality, the creation of something that was not there before, that did not exist until we ourselves created it’. He saw the value of history lying in the challenges which it presented to our current assumptions and values, a challenge which we must always face in the interests of the health of our own culture. So, he concluded, with the Greeks and Romans, ‘we find an exceptional mixture of the exotic and the familiar, constituting an extraordinarily rich field of research: sufficiently exotic to prompt a re-examination of ourselves, and sufficiently familiar to allow easy, immediate access to their territory’.

D.’s monumental scholarly achievement, clothed in a clarity of exposition that is a lesson to us all, ranks him as the leading Hellenist of his generation, and one of the finest the world has seen. The questions that this admirably wide-ranging book has raised about some aspects of his methodology do not shake that judgment, and suggest as many questions about modern methodologies as they do about D.’s. As for the ‘searingly honest’ portrait he paints of himself in his autobiography, it remains largely unaffected and an extraordinary testament to the man himself.

Peter Jones