Professor Oliver Lyne

Olympian Balliol classicist
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The Independent Online

Oliver Lyne was one of the most distinguished classicists of his generation, internationally acclaimed as a scholar and celebrated as an inspirational and much-loved teacher in Oxford.

Richard Oliver Allen Marcus Lyne, classical scholar: born Peterborough, Northamptonshire 21 December 1944; Fellow and Tutor in Classics, Balliol College, Oxford 1971-2005; Professor of Classical Languages and Literature, Oxford University 1999-2005; married 1969 Linda Rees (one son, one daughter); died Gualdo, Italy 17 March 2005.

Oliver Lyne was one of the most distinguished classicists of his generation, internationally acclaimed as a scholar and celebrated as an inspirational and much-loved teacher in Oxford.

Alongside his many books - Ciris: a poem attributed to Vergil (1978), The Latin Love Poets from Catullus to Horace (1980), Further Voices in Vergil's Aeneid (1987), Words and the Poet (1989), Horace: behind the public poetry (1995) - he produced numerous influential articles of which several, such as "The Neoteric Poets" (1978) and " Servitium amoris" (1979) in Classical Quarterly, achieved classic status. At the time of his death he was working on the Roman poetess Sulpicia and on a wide-ranging study of daughters in Greek and Latin literature.

Oliver Lyne was born in Peterborough in 1944, son of Rosalind and Richard Lyne, himself a Classics teacher, and younger brother of Adrian (the film director). He was educated at Highgate School in London and St John's College, Cambridge. He briefly held Fellowships at Fitzwilliam and Churchill colleges, in Cambridge, before becoming a Tutor and Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, in 1971. He married Linda Rees in 1969; their son Raphael was born in 1971 and their daughter Rosy in 1973. In 1999 Oliver Lyne became Professor of Classical Languages and Literature at Oxford University.

At Balliol his Classics colleagues for over 30 years were Jasper Griffin and Oswyn Murray. Griffin and Lyne were close friends and a formidable teaching team in classical languages and literature. Although notionally Griffin was responsible for Greek and Lyne for Latin, in practice Balliol undergraduates knew Lyne as an eye-opening teacher of Homer as well as of Virgil, and a master of Greek prose composition no less than of Latin. Herodotus and Euripides were in fact among his favourites, and he told with amusement how, when starting out on graduate work, he meant to be a Hellenist, before being assigned the Ciris as his doctoral subject by his supervisor, F.R.D. Goodyear.

Hallmarks of his publications were meticulous scholarship, close textual analysis, sensitivity to verbal nuance, and critical readings of great humanity and insight. His acumen as editor and textual critic were revealed early in his edition of Ciris; they continued to be displayed to years of Oxford students in classes on the text of Catullus which Lyne gave together with his dear friend and acknowledged mentor, Don Fowler.

Lyne's position as a leading classical literary critic was definitively established by his second book, The Latin Love Poets, subsequently a staple of school and university reading lists. He will probably be remembered, however, most of all for his discussions of poetic style ( Words and the Poet) and of subversive allusion in Virgil ( Further Voices): "Vergil", of course, as Lyne insisted on spelling him. Lyne was famous - and controversial - for his demonstrations of the complex poetic strategies by which Virgil, Horace, and Propertius strove to retain a recalcitrant independence under the patronage of Augustus.

He was a born tutor and was adored by his students. Tutorials felt like a voyage of mutual discovery, with Lyne leading (or was he?) step by step toward insights of ever greater significance. He was both exciting and excited by the ideas of the young, which he greeted when they deserved it with glee and approbation. He was a holder of firm views (although they changed over time, notably on the date of the Ciris), but was remarkably free of dogmatism. His publications and teaching fed strongly into each other: after Ciris, he wrote on the poets that he taught, and the probing, conversational style of the tutorials is well captured in the books.

In his published work, it was common for Lyne to acknowledge debts to students, as well as to classical colleagues, and the acknowledgement was more than formulaic. The phrase "working with", which Lyne coined to describe the propensity of the gods of the Aeneid to "effect a change in degree if not in kind in the humans they work upon", when susceptible to such influence, can serve as a model of Lyne's own teaching. Too modest and prone to self-doubt to see himself as the Olympian that he was, he benefited, and benefited from, his contact with the young all the more.

If his teaching and publications were the "public voice" of Oliver Lyne, there were also further, private, voices. The one that obtruded most into the public sphere - whether cued by a family photograph or a phone call during a tutorial - was his affection for his family. Italy, too, loomed large in the private life of the Lynes; it was here, since 1988, to their house in Gualdo in the Marches that Oliver and Linda retreated after the term's teaching in Oxford.

Other great loves of the private man were Wagner and the blues artists Son House, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters. Oliver had a profound knowledge and interest in the First World War, which was stirred by the diaries of Linda's grandfather. More surprising was an enduring interest in boxing. In his youth Oliver had even donned the boxing gloves; later, as a don he followed keenly the fortunes of Frank Bruno ("greatest living Englishman"), and he was tickled in January 2000 by the story of the Daily Mirror sponsoring Francis Julius on the night of his match against Mike Tyson by advertising its masthead on the soles of his shoes.

He also admired America, and enjoyed brief teaching spells at the universities of Michigan and Philadelphia. In the 1990s, he could frequently be seen in a baseball cap in the quadrangles of Balliol, and he did not disguise a liking for American football.

Oliver Lyne died unexpectedly, of a heart attack, clearing snow at Gualdo.

Bruno Currie