Sunday, March 07, 2010

K.J. Dover, RIP

News reaches me of the death of Sir Kenneth Dover, one of the great Hellenists of the latter part of the twentieth century. Coincidentally, I was reading one of his books, Aristophanic Comedy, a couple of days ago, as part of my own work on Aristophanes' Frogs (yes, it's a link to Wikipedia), and wondering if he was still alive. I only met him once, very briefly, and he was quite old then.

Dover is, unfortunately, perhaps best known for some slightly silly remarks he wrote in his autobiography, Marginal Comment, about driving his Oxford colleague Trevor Aston to suicide, comments that got blown further out of proportion by the media. Within the Classics community, it is his writings that will be remembered. Greek Homosexuality was a - erm - seminal work, that set the terms of the debate on the subject, projecting a view in which male-male sexual relations were power relations between older and younger men, and not ones of mutual desire. In recent years people have been deconstructing his model of same-sex relations in the Greek world, notably James Davidson in The Greeks and Greek Love. But Dover cannot be discarded.

I've probably in recent years made most use of his work on Aristophanes - the aforementioned Aristophanic Comedy, commentaries on Frogs and Clouds, and the section on Clouds from a companion to the Penguin translation of Acharnians, Lysistrata and Clouds (the writing on Clouds, okay, I haven't used, but may well in the future). I don't always agree with Dover - like many Aristophanic scholars, I sometimes feel he gives more attention to strict philological interpretations of the text, and not enough to what actually works as comic theatre (this is why one of my academic heroes is Gilbert Murray, who knew not just how to go through a text with a fine-toothed comb, but also how to write for the stage, and allowed the latter practice to inform the former). But, again, his contributions remain of major significance. With the death earlier this year of Douglas MacDowell, another scholar whose work I respected but did not always agree with (though I think I have amended some of my opinions since I wrote that review), it's been a bad few months for Aristophanic scholarship.

Dover also made major contributions to scholarship on Thucydides. He wrote school/undergraduate commentaries on Books VI and VII, and, with Anthony Andrewes (not the Brideshead Revisited actor, who doesn't spell his name like that), completed Gomme's classic historical commentary on Thucydides. It was in these works that I first encountered Dover, as a young schoolboy setting out on what would turn out to be an erratic career in the Classics. (Inevitably, the wags at school referred to him as 'Ben' Dover. I suspect this happened in many schools.)

It was also about this time that I saw Dover on television, as part of a BBC series on the Greeks. Dover was sat talking to the documentary maker, Christopher Burstall, in a small boat off the Piraeus. I never quite understood the reason for this seemingly unnecessarily dangerous activity, but a scholar off this importance is allowed his eccentricities. And, though it's sad that he's died, at 89 he had a good and fulfilled life.

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