Miriam Griffin obituary

Oxford classical scholar and expert on Seneca who offered new insights into the torrid world of Roman imperial politics

The classical scholar and tutor Miriam Griffin, who has died aged 82, played a crucial role in getting readers to appreciate the philosophical writing of the ancient Romans in their historical context, in particular that of Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor to the emperor Nero.

Seneca’s works had generally been viewed either as the self-exculpation of a hypocrite, parading his aspirations to virtue while pocketing Nero’s largesse, or as an unreliable compilation of ideas from earlier (otherwise lost) Greek Stoics. Miriam’s intellectual biography, Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics (1992), made a case for thinking about Seneca’s writing in its specifically Roman social, intellectual and political context, illuminating the particular dilemmas with which Stoic ideas enabled him to grapple.

Seneca remained at the centre of Miriam’s research throughout her career. Among her more recent publications was a companion to his treatise On Benefits, Seneca on Society (2014), which teases out with great delicacy the philosophical, legal, social and political nuances of this enormously important, bulky but often neglected work on the meaning of reciprocity.

Miriam also took a lead in the rehabilitation of Cicero’s philosophical writing, jointly editing, with the philosopher Jonathan Barnes, two volumes of essays, Philosophia Togata (Philosophy in Roman Dress, 1989 and 1997). Her lucid translations of both Seneca and Cicero made them accessible and interesting to new audiences.

Her biography Nero, End of a Dynasty (1984), in which she relates the emperor’s weaknesses to the problems inherent in Roman political structures, while shedding light on his passion for the arts, is both deeply learned and highly readable.

Born and brought up in New York city, Miriam was the only child of Jewish parents, Leo Dressler, a polymath school teacher, and Fanny (nee Natelson), a stenographer. She went to Erasmus Hall high school in the city, then took her first degree at Barnard College.

Torn between further study of physics, music (which, as an accomplished pianist, remained a lifelong passion) or classics, Miriam went on to take a master’s degree in the latter from Radcliffe, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, before travelling to Oxford as a Fulbright scholar, in 1957. She later observed: “When I arrived in Oxford and attended my first lectures, I realised the Romans had become very English in their assumptions, motivations and manners.”

illustration of Seneca
Miriam’s lucid translations of Seneca, above, and Cicero made them accessible and interesting to new audiences. Photograph: Alamy

Initially daunted, Miriam nevertheless gained a first in classics in 1960, before embarking on study for a DPhil (on Seneca) under the supervision of Sir Ronald Syme. Also in 1960, she married Jasper Griffin, another eminent classical scholar (they had first encountered one another in a seminar on Euripides); this was a “match of souls”, according to one of their daughters.

Following a junior research fellowship at St Anne’s, Miriam was elected a fellow of Somerville College in 1967, where she was ancient history tutor for 35 years. Miriam was devoted to her college and proud of its place in women’s education. In great demand as a tutor, she taught generations of Oxford classics undergraduates, bringing out the best in them with a combination of penetrating intelligence, high expectations and warm humanity.

She also played a key role in developing the Oxford syllabus, opening up new opportunities for undergraduates to study Cicero’s philosophical writing and ensuring the flourishing of a new and increasingly popular degree course in ancient and modern history.

Miriam’s research and her teaching combined ancient history and philosophy in a uniquely integrated manner. The breadth and depth of her intellectual influence is especially conspicuous in the collection of essays published in her honour in 2002, Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World, edited by two of her erstwhile undergraduate students, Gillian Clark and Tessa Rajak, now distinguished senior scholars themselves. Her numerous doctoral students included Hannah Cotton (professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem) and Kathleen Coleman (professor at Harvard).

Miriam developed important international collaborations with many eminent historians and classicists, including Werner Eck, Benedetto Bravo and Brad Inwood. She was the most generous of colleagues: after the death of her old friend and colleague at Oxford Peter Brunt, she worked tirelessly with Alison Samuels to edit all his unpublished papers. Her kindness was legendary; long after her retirement, Miriam continued to offer warmth and encouragement to younger scholars, who formed a large part of the gathering at the Oxford colloquium to mark her 80th birthday in 2015.

Deceptively low-key in manner, Miriam was a frequent contributor to radio and TV programmes, offering engaging and witty insights into the torrid world of Roman imperial politics.

Miriam was always conscious of her Jewish heritage, although not observant, and in later years took up the study of Hebrew.

She is survived by Jasper and their three daughters, Julia, Miranda and Tamara, as well as a granddaughter, Zuzana.

• Miriam Tamara Griffin, classicist, born 6 June 1935; died 16 May 2018


Catharine Edwards

The GuardianTramp

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