Jasper Griffin obituary

Influential Oxford classicist who brought new insights to the study of the Iliad and the Odyssey

The classicist Jasper Griffin, who has died aged 82 of pneumonia, is best known for his work on the Iliad and the Odyssey, ancient Greek epic poems that deal with the Trojan war and its aftermath and are traditionally attributed to Homer. Crucial to Griffin’s work, which helped bridge a gulf between anglophone and continental European scholarship, was a paradoxical situation in which Homer had found himself.

In antiquity, Homer, who was sometimes thought to have lived around 800 BC, was regarded as a Greek poet like any other, only much better. Distinctive features of his poetry, such as a bewildering mixture of words from different Greek dialects and a tendency to reuse entire lines, were thought part of the impressive style that he so masterfully created.

In the early 20th century, the work of the US scholar Milman Parry led to a new understanding of these features: behind the Iliad and Odyssey lay a long tradition of orally composed poetry. This meant that poets improvising at speed could draw on a stock of ready-made lines and alternative ways to say the same thing.

The alternatives (often taken from different dialects) tended to fill different metrical slots, a sign that the poet’s choices were driven by the metre rather than by considerations of style or content. It seemed to follow that the ancients had misjudged Homer – and yet one could not help feeling that the Iliad and Odyssey were brilliant poems.

Jasper Griffin at Oxford
Jasper Griffin was a fellow and tutor in classics at Balliol from 1963 to 2004. Photograph: Balliol College, Oxford

In practice, anglophone scholars tended to turn their interests to technical aspects of the two works, and the light these could shed on the poems’ composition and the tradition lying behind them. Continental scholars remained readier to engage with the poems as poetry. What was needed was a serious attempt to see where each group was right, and how their insights fitted together.

For example, if some words predominantly occur in the direct speeches of Homer’s characters whileand others occur predominantly in the narrative, is this because the speeches tend to contain younger linguistic features, for reasons that should be sought in the poems’ prehistory? Or does the narrator adopt a different tone from the characters, with some words being considered more suitable to the narrator or the characters?

In his influential article Homeric Words and Speakers (1986), Griffin acknowledges the oral compositionists’ insight that the speeches do contain younger linguistic features, but then shows that not every linguistic difference between Homeric direct speech and narrative is to be seen in this light. For instance, the speakers use many more words conveying moral judgments – for example, words meaning foolish, be foolish and folly – because they freely pass moral judgment on each other’s actions, while the narrator maintains an impartial moral stance.

Griffin’s demonstration was convincing because he understood the insights of scholars working in different traditions and saw how each left room for the other. Together with his book Homer on Life and Death (1980), this article helped convince a generation to grapple with the Iliad and Odyssey both as the products of an oral tradition and as poetry.

His other works include Latin Poets and Roman Life (1985), introductions to Homer (1980) and Virgil (1986) for the Past Masters series, a guide to the Odyssey (1987), The Oxford History of the Classical World (co-edited with John Boardman and Oswyn Murray, 1986), and an edition and commentary on the ninth book of the Iliad (1995). In it the Greek commander-in-chief, Agamemnon, tries to make amends for his insulting treatment of the great warrior Achilles, who dramatically rejects the attempt. In Griffin’s words, the poem “takes on a new intensity and a darker atmosphere”.

Born in London, Jasper was the son of Frederick Griffin and his wife, Constance (nee Cordwell), who worked as postal clerks. His father joined the navy during the second world war, and Jasper had a peripatetic childhood until he won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital school, West Sussex. He did not enjoy boarding but thrived academically, winning an exhibition to Balliol College, Oxford, where he studied classics (1956-60), graduating with first-class honours.

Achilles confronting Agamemnon in a scene from the Iliad, shown on a mosaic from Pompeii.
Achilles confronting Agamemnon in a scene from the Iliad, shown on a mosaic from Pompeii. Photograph: Historic Images/Alamy

On doing so he married Miriam Dressler, a scholar of ancient history from a New York Jewish family. She became a fellow and tutor at Somerville College, Oxford, an authority on Cicero and Nero, and the world expert on the Roman philosopher Seneca.

Griffin was actively involved in parenting their three daughters, a responsibility he took seriously in a distinctive fashion. On becoming a father, he purchased texts of the major English authors because “the baby would expect it”.

He belonged to a generation of academics for whom doctorates were optional, and he did not opt for one. Instead he held research fellowships at Harvard (1960-61) and Balliol (1961-63), and then became a fellow and tutor in classics at Balliol (1963-2004). The university conferred on him the titles of reader in 1990 and professor in 1992.

He also served as TS Eliot memorial lecturer at the University of Kent in 1984; those lectures were later published as The Mirror of Myth (1986). He was elected fellow of the British Academy in 1986. From 1992 until 2004 Griffin also served as public orator, composing speeches for Oxford’s honorary degrees.

After Miriam died in 2018, he was able to continue living in his home with the support of his daughters, Julia, Miranda and Tamara. He is survived by them and his granddaughter, Zuzana.

• Jasper Griffin, classicist, born 29 May 1937; died 22 November 2019

Contributor

Philomen Probert

The GuardianTramp

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