Skip to main content

The Globe and Mail

Elaine Fantham: Scholar was a ‘rock star’ of the classics world

Dr. Elaine Fantham’s expertise in the classics spanned over a thousand years of history.

Robert Matthews/Princeton University

The caller on the phone was from National Public Radio, and had a strange, urgent question: Where does the phrase "halcyon days" come from?

Whoever was serving on the front lines of knowledge at Princeton University that day knew to put the call through to the Giger Professor of Latin.

The outrageously gregarious woman who answered to this title turned out to be a natural: In her brisk, bantering Oxford style, she reconnected NPR's cliché with the irrepressible wonders of the ancient world she loved.

Story continues below advertisement

This telephone encounter launched a late-life adventure into broadcasting for Elaine Fantham, who died on July 11 from the effects of chronic pulmonary obstructive disease in Toronto, at the age of 83. Once a subversive outcast from the classics establishment, she remade herself into the grande dame of Latin scholars with an extraordinary career as a teacher, scholar, global lecturer, mentor and all-purpose entertainer.

From 1996 until 2010, when extended speaking became too difficult, Dr. Fantham was classics correspondent for NPR's Weekend Edition, blending irreverent erudition with witty topicality on such timeless subjects as death by poisoning, Brad Pitt's pecs in Troy, the meaning of a sneeze and the invasion of Iraq.

A trained soprano, she'd break into song despite her failing lungs, and offer Nero's aria from the film Quo Vadis or a gibberish chant recited by Roman priests to placate the god of war (which, she maintained, had been her preferred drinking song at Oxford).

Notwithstanding her operatic manner, she became known as "the rock-star of classics" according to University of Toronto professor Alison Keith.

"She sounded like an English schoolmarm, but she was also warm and funny and a wicked gossip. She had a mastery of Latin literature, made it widely accessible, knew every major scholar and all their students and spoke the languages of modern scholarship fluently. People flocked to her and she was game for anything."

Her restless energy made her highly productive, and she took advantage of her outsider status as an undeferential female to break new ground in the study of women in antiquity.

Her great gift was to recognize the connection between Roman literature and social history, which allowed her to ask (and answer) penetrating sociological questions beyond the reach of most specialists.

Story continues below advertisement

Her expertise was vast, extending from the bawdy Roman comedies of Plautus via the oratory of Cicero, the poems of Virgil, Ovid and Lucan, and the plays of Seneca, to the scholarship of the Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whose works she co-edited – a range of 1,750 years.

I encountered her larger-than-life persona as a Toronto student in 1970, when I walked into a class on a speech by Cicero. Within the conservative world of classical studies, Elaine Fantham was unmistakably other, a blonde apparition who smoked Sobranie Black Russians and leaned defiantly against a desk with her leather miniskirt hitched up her thighs, revelling in Cicero's brilliantly corrupt defence of a Roman bad boy.

She spoke with a conspiratorial eagerness that became her trademark, talking to 18-year-olds as if we were born scholars who sang Roman chants at our drinking parties.

This learned, demanding, totally enthralling teacher seemed destined for greatness. But for years, she languished in a male-dominated profession, trailing her mathematician husband Peter Fantham as he moved from post to post, raising their two children, Julia and Roy, scraping by in a series of low-level jobs and easily dismissed as a "wife of" in the casual misogyny of the academic status quo.

Her students knew better. Brad Inwood, professor of classics and philosophy at Yale, took her seminar on Cicero's oratory in 1974.

"She was someone who had zero interest in philosophy and, by her own account, zero inclination," he says.

Story continues below advertisement

"And yet she turned this one-year seminar into an entire history of ancient rhetoric, all based on her idea that rhetoric was an actual subject with a structure and organization, based on rational principles, and yet fundamentally a real-world performance. As an intellectual experiment, it was transformative. Her historical sweep and sheer power of organization represented how I wanted to think about the history of thought and ideas."

Eric Csapo, a professor at the University of Sydney, was equally impressed with her dominating style and refusal to back down in public forums. He believed her tough exterior concealed a more maternal private side.

"There were some hard lessons behind her professional shock and awe. She was confident and eloquent in meetings and brilliant at cocktail parties when recounting anecdotes or delivering repartee. Doubtless these arts had once been acquired as a survival strategy, but one day she discovered she was better at these verbal games than anyone else. The fact that this academic banter was held to be a masculine virtue just added to her pleasure."

Rosamund Elaine Crosthwaite was born in Liverpool, England, on May 25, 1933. For all her brash brilliance and refined delivery, she was very much a self-made scholar, and her upbringing was much humbler than that of her Oxford contemporaries.

Her parents, who she described as "ill-paid but educated," skimped to send her to a good school where she began Latin at the age of nine.

The wartime bombing of Liverpool affected her deeply. Studying the fall of Troy, she couldn't help but see Britain under siege. Her talent for treating the past as a living thing began with her astonishment that she could experience ancient hexameters as if they were written for her.

She later said that Britain's wartime isolation gave her a lifelong sympathy for underdogs – she railed against bullies and tirelessly promoted clever students who lacked the easy social skills prized on the job market.

She studied at Oxford's Somerville College (which also produced Margaret Thatcher) and perfected her scholarly manner in a class with a celebrated professorial refugee from Nazi Germany. She used to recount with theatrical disappointment how he made passes at all the other female students but left her alone. ("I always assumed it was because he respected her knowledge of Latin," Prof. Keith says.)

She returned to Liverpool for her doctorate, married and followed her husband when he took a post at the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland.

Despite her credentials, she had to settle for a job at a girls's school, where she mastered the art of classroom control: Speak softly and they will go quiet trying to hear you. (The technique, she reminded NPR listeners, was a favourite of ancient orators)

When Peter Fantham moved on to Indiana University, she followed. In 1968, they relocated to University of Toronto, where she taught at Trinity College, in those days a small Anglican institution whose priggish High Church types offended her inclination for straight talk.

The power-brokers in the university's classics hub disdained her, and saddled her with courses no one wanted to teach. But less-rigid undergraduates adored her disruptive outspokenness.

Much of her research was practical rather than theoretical, even in the years when theory ruled academe.

A detailed commentary she wrote on Seneca's Trojan Women elevated her status and in 1986 she was recruited by Princeton. With Ivy League schools now desperate to hire women, Dr. Fantham observed with a characteristic arched eyebrow, being female was suddenly an asset.

"Princeton was a liberation for her," Prof. Inwood says. "She was surrounded by brilliant graduate students, and acquired the freedom and flexibility to do her work. She was worshipped for her integrity and vivacity and sheer interestingness."

Katharina Volk, a professor at Columbia, came from Germany to study and was delighted at her disdain for hierarchy. Students thronged her IKEA-filled house (her husband continued to teach in Toronto until his death in 1992) and she ensured they were well fed.

"Elaine was larger than life," Prof. Volk said, "but never a prima donna. While it would be going too far to say she was self-effacing, she didn't have an overinflated sense of herself. She was spontaneous and spoke her mind, which made her very appealing to students."

Returning to Toronto in retirement to live with her daughter, she began working with University of Toronto graduate students, which for her meant non-stop socializing, frequent concert-going, lengthy lunches and irreverent conversations fuelled by tumblers of Scotch.

Though her health was in decline, these were halcyon days (in the modern sense of happy and prosperous – Ovid's beguiling version, she would point out, described a loving couple turned into sea-birds by the gods, who calmed the blustery winds so they could breed in peace).

She roamed the world on lecture tours, travelled with her son, a pilot, kept up NPR duties from a CBC studio, produced books non-stop and made yearly trips to Cambridge, England, where everything a non-driving scholar could need was steps away.

"Obviously there was an eccentricity to her," said Richard Hunter, Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, "and she took pleasure in shocking people. But everyone loved talking to her because she was clearly so interested in sitting down with you and finding out what you were doing."

Some 40 years after I first encountered these qualities, Megan Campbell had the same experience. Arriving in Toronto from Texas, she entered a class on Latin poetry to find a grandmotherly woman who "would take the dirtiest poem of Catullus and recite it to the shock of everyone in the room. She had the gravitas of a great scholar, but she was completely ballsy about not caring what came out of her mouth."

As Dr. Fantham's movements became limited, Ms. Campbell served as her book courier, and after the delivery of each week's tomes, they sipped tea and chatted.

There would be gossip about characters in the classics world coupled with fast-paced observations on every genre of literature and classical music, updates on her latest projects (a translation of Petrarch's letters, a commentary on a Cicero speech) interrupted by phone calls about job-hunting students whose careers she was assisting.

And, finally, because Ms. Campbell was having trouble passing her compulsory Latin sight-reading exams, they would sit in the suburban Toronto basement and read the timeless poems of the ancient world together.

Dr. Fantham is survived by her daughter, Julia Washbrook; son, Roy; and their families.

Report an error Licensing Options
Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.

Thank you!

You are now subscribed to the newsletter at

You can unsubscribe from this newsletter or Globe promotions at any time by clicking the link at the bottom of the newsletter, or by emailing us at privacy@globeandmail.com.