Professor Sir Kenneth Dover: Hellenist best known for his work on Greek homosexuality and for two controversial presidencies

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Professor Sir Kenneth Dover was the foremost Hellenist of his generation, a skilled and authoritative interpreter of almost all the multifarious genres of ancient Greek literature. Somewhat to his regret he was probably most widely known as a disarmingly frank pioneer historian of Greek male same-sex gendering and sexuality, but he should better be remembered, and his work long revisited, as a quite formidable exponent of a unique combination of precise philological mastery with broader historical, sociological, and aesthetic exegesis, both of major canonical texts and of Greek (mainly Athenian) popular thought and morality. His career of high academic office-holding was attended by some considerable notoriety as well as renown.

Kenneth James Dover, born in London, was from 1932 one of "John Colet's children", a Scholar of St Paul's School in London, where the teaching of Classics was given pride of intellectual place. He acknowledged a particular debt to the teaching of Philip Whitting and George Bean. A Domus Scholarship took him thence to Balliol College Oxford, where he promptly won the Gaisford Prize for Greek verse (Thomas Gaisford himself being an Old Pauline) in 1939. This was the first of a string of Oxonian awards (the Ireland Scholarship, the Derby and the Amy Mary Preston Read Scholarships) on top of his predictable Firsts in Mods (1940) and – after honourable war service with the Royal Artillery in the Western Desert and in Italy – Greats (1947).

Following a brief translation to Merton College, and after starting on a doctorate under Arnaldo Momigliano he returned to Balliol in 1948 to a Tutorial Fellowship, a teaching post he relinquished in 1955 to take up the Professorship of Greek at St Andrews. A recall to Oxford as Regius Professor was on offer to him in 1960 (he would have been an entirely worthy successor of E.R. Dodds), but he preferred partly for personal reasons to remain in St Andrews until 1976, when he did return to Oxford, as President of the small but classically distinguished Corpus Christi College. He was knighted in 1977.

The decade of his Presidency of Corpus was one of unusual academic productivity and peregrination, and public notoriety. Indeed, a compelling but misleading version of his life story could be written around the three major controversies that he then either engendered, or had engendered for him, or both. The publication of Greek Homosexuality in 1978 (revised version 1989) marked an era, and still arouses hot feelings among both confessedly gay scholars and specialist and non-specialist readers with different commitments.

Strictly, the title should have been something like "Athenian Pederasty", since Dover had very little to say (understandably enough, given the evidence) about female homosexuality, and the principal type of social-sexual relationship he explored (using the evidence of scenes on painted pottery as well as of written texts, above all forensic oratory and comic drama) was that between an adult and a sub-adult partner. What shocked and disgusted some as well as delighted others was the almost brutal candour of approach and expression: "I am fortunate in not experiencing moral shock or disgust at any genital act whatsoever, provided that it is welcome and agreeable to all the participants..."

Essential preliminary works were his Aristophanic Comedy of 1972, and his Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle of 1974. Between them this 1970s trinity set the benchmark for scholarship on Athenian moral behaviour and sensibilities for the next several decades. A commentary on Plato's Symposium (1980) partly developed a similar line of thinking, but the choice of dialogue was determined further by a distaste for more severely abstract philosophy.

The year 1980 also saw two rare forays into direct engagement with broader publics: a collection of essays that he edited and contributed to under the title of Ancient Greek Literature, and a BBC TV series, The Greeks, which was itself rather ineptly directed, though Dover's accompanying book of the same title is still well worth reading, not least for its chapter on Syracuse.

These will have afforded him something like light relief from the "Blunt affair" that had afflicted his Presidency of the British Academy. Sir Anthony Blunt, art historian and then recently retired Surveyor of the Queen's Pictures, had been exposed in 1979 as a pro-Soviet wartime spy, and Dover came under extreme pressure to have him expelled from the Academy Fellowship. Blunt in the end anticipated such a fate by resigning, but other Fellows chose to resign too because he had not been expelled.

A similar, if initially more local, difficulty for him blew up over his reactions to the wayward behaviour of a Fellow of Corpus, Trevor Aston, but rather as in the case of Blunt, extreme public outrage was not caused and expressed until some years later, when Dover published experimental memoirs (1994).

Refused by the Oxford University Press, Marginal Comment was published, as Greek Homosexuality had been, by Colin Haycraft's Duckworth. Both Dover's tone and his manner of expression seemed to some to express undue pleasure at the death of a colleague through suicide. But the best explanation probably is that Dover was motivated largely by a greater concern for the well-being of a community than for that of any one of its members, and by an overriding commitment to plain-speaking. Index entries in Marginal Comment for "duty", "morality", "right and wrong", and "truth" tell their own tale. At any rate it was undoubtedly from his perception of the damage being done to Oxford and to the wider UK academic community by the funding cuts of Mrs Thatcher's Conservative government that earlier in 1985 he, alone of all the Heads of House, had signed the flysheet urging Congregation to reject the proposal of the customary honorary degree for an Oxford-educated Prime Minister.

His less politically charged academic CV reads as that of an intellectual Midas. A maiden publication on Greek Word Order (1960) was followed by: commentaries major and minor on the second half of Thucydides (1965, 1970, 1981, complemented in 1973 by a brilliant gem of a review of Thucydides scholarship), the published version (1968) of the Sather Lectures he had delivered on the orator Lysias at Berkeley in 1967, commentaries on Aristophanes' Clouds and Frogs (1968, 1993), an edition of Theocritus (1971), two collections of his scholarly articles, with added retrospective comments (1987, 1988), and a final return to his first philological predilections in The Evolution of Greek Prose Style (1997) – all of superlative quality.

He collected a slew of honorary degrees and academy memberships on both sides of the Atlantic, not least election to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and was awarded the Kenyon medal of the British Academy. He served as President successively of the Hellenic Society (a Fund of the Society to further the study of the Greek language until the 15th century AD is named in his honour), the Classical Association and the Joint Association of Classical Teachers. For almost a quarter of a century Dover held the Chancellorship of St Andrews, the first holder to be neither a peer nor an archbishop. Among the many honorands whom he capped between 1981 and 2005 surely not the least amusing instance – at least Dover found it so – was a notably taciturn Bob Dylan. Outside academia Dover was a dedicated gardener and a noted birder.

In conclusion, two quotations that somehow reveal l'homme même: from his early youth Dover was fascinated by insects, the world of which, he wrote, was opened up to him by an English abridgement of J.-H. Fabre's Souvenirs entomologiques. Yet towards spiders he uncharacteristically felt something akin to phobia: "I prefer them", he once wrote to me, "to be less than an inch in overall length". The last words, too, should be Dover's: "I do not spare the dead, nor do I expect to be spared when I am dead".

Paul Cartledge

Kenneth James Dover, Hellenist: born London 11 March 1920; Tutorial Fellow, Balliol College, Oxford, 1948-55; Professor of Greek, University of St Andrews, 1955-76; President of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, 1976-86; President of the British Academy 1978-81; Kt 1977; married 1947 Audrey Latimer (died 2009; one son, one daughter); died 7 March 2010.