Friday, 15 June 2012

Birmingham Blues

David Eastwood
The teaching of the ancient Greeks and Romans has now come under fire at Birmingham. It is housed there in the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity, which the Vice-Chancellor David Eastwood, a historian with a penchant for football, has opened up to a violent Penalty Shoot-Out (aka the dreaded “90-day review” with which RHUL Classics was threatened fifty weeks ago).

Painting by Alma Tadema
Birmingham University has been the home of some of the most exciting Classics anywhere, ever.  It is the Birmingham Uni Heslop Library that holds Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s photographs of ancient sculpture, architecture, and archaeological sites, so crucial to his famous paintings. 

It was the amazing Edward Sonnenschein who was in 1883 appointed the first professor of Greek and Latin at the newly founded Mason College in Birmingham. He then co-founded the UK Classical Association, and campaigned for the charter for the University of Birmingham (granted in March 1900), which thereafter became a model for other modern universities. He virtually invented the teaching of Classics in translation to a wide range of Humanities undergraduates.

Edward Sonnenschein
The richness of the history of Birmingham Classics subsequently is humbling. The poet Louis MacNeice’s entire life’s work, including Autumn Journal, was informed by his experiences as a lecturer there,  especially when he faced classrooms of local car factory workers. It was in MacNeice’s social circle that W.H. Auden was inspired to write many of his most famous poems. E.R. Dodds, MacNeice’s patron, Professor of Greek in the University of Birmingham, left an indelible mark on Classics as editor of the Bacchae and author of The Greeks and the Irrational.
The most brilliant, if controversial, of Birmingham classicists was George Thomson, whose Marxist studies of ancient Greek society, including Aeschylus and Athens, are still in print after more than six decades. 

It was Birmingham University which gave an honorary degree to Michel Saint-Denis, the epoch-making French theatre director, who directed Laurence Olivier as Oedipus and Peggy Ashcroft as Electra at the Old Vic theatre company. 
Olivier in Saint-Denis' Oedipus

More recently, the exceptionally erudite and distinguished Donald R. Dudley and C.D.N. Costa put their editions and translations of Tacitus, Seneca, Lucian and ancient letter-writers indelibly on the cultural map of the planet. Costa was the sort of quiet hero who unostentatiously, without breathing a word to anyone at work, devoted thousands of hours as a voluntary prison visitor throughout all his decades of service to Birmingham scholarship. 

I fear this may be taken as a sad obituary of Classics at Birmingham. I hope that V-C David Eastwood hears it rather more interrogatively. I very much doubt if he has the slightest idea what treasures he has the power to destroy.


  1. Thank you for a superb eulogy of a fine Classics Department. Birmingham was also exemplary in its awareness that Classicists must talk to medievalists and Byzantinists, perhaps Professor Chris Wickham FBA, one of the luminaries of the Birmingham History Department and now at Oxford could be called in to add his support? (Professor Eastwood was, of course, a co-author of the Browne report. )

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