Sir Kenneth Dover, 1920-2010

March 18, 2010

A classical scholar celebrated for his pioneering work on Greek homosexuality has died.

Sir Kenneth Dover was born in London on 11 March 1920 and studied at St Paul's School and Balliol College, Oxford. After completing the first part of his degree in 1940, he was called up to serve in the Royal Artillery, but later returned to complete the course and win a number of university prizes. He then secured a position at Merton College, Oxford, followed by a fellowship at Balliol in 1948.

By 1955, Sir Kenneth had acquired such a reputation that he was appointed professor of Greek at the University of St Andrews. He eventually came back to Oxford as president of Corpus Christi College in 1976. He was later knighted for services to classical scholarship and served as president of the British Academy. He ended his public career back at St Andrews as chancellor of the university, combining this role for several years with a visiting professorship at Stanford University in the US.

Sir Kenneth was a supreme master of the Greek language and made a number of major contributions to academic scholarship, such as Greek Word Order (1960) and editions of works by Aristophanes, Plato, Theocritus and Thucydides. More popular and wide-ranging are Greek Popular Morality in the Time of Plato and Aristotle (1974) and the essays collected in The Greeks and their Legacy (1988).

Famously frank, Sir Kenneth took advantage of more liberal times in Aristophanic Comedy (1972) to elucidate obscene jokes and references earlier writers had shied away from. His celebrated study of Greek Homosexuality (1978), drawing on vase paintings long hidden away in museum basements, was equally candid.

Even Marginal Comment: A Memoir (1994) attracted a level of controversy unusual for a scholar's autobiography, both for its treatment of sexual matters and its account of Trevor Aston, a depressed Fellow of Corpus Christi, whose disruptive effect on the college made Sir Kenneth contemplate "how to kill him".

For Mary Beard, professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge, Sir Kenneth was "both a very precise philologist and the man who re-gave us Greek homosexuality.

"To make an awful pun, he always wanted to get to the bottom of things, from what Lysias did with a sentence to what old men did with their willies in the 5th century BC.

"He was against cant and was intentionally taboo-breaking - the fearlessness was admirable."

Sir Kenneth died on 7 March, four days short of his 90th birthday, and is survived by a son and a daughter.

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