All Scholars

PAGE, Denys Lionel

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  • Date of Birth: May 11, 1908
  • Born City: Reading
  • Born State/Country: UK
  • Parents: F.H.D, Chief Engineer for Great Western Railway Co., & Elsie P.
  • Date of Death: July 06, 1978
  • Death City: Tarset, Northumberland
  • Death State/Country: UK
  • Married: Katharine Elizabeth Dohan, 1939
  • Education:

    Newbury Grammar school; A.B. Christ Church, Oxford, 1930; study in Vienna, 1930-1; LL.D. (hon.), Oxford; honorary degrees from Trinity College, Dublin; Newcastle; Hull; Bristol.

  • Professional Experience:

    Lectr. Christ Church, Oxford, 1931-7; junior censor, 1937-50; Regius Prof. Greek & prof. Trinity College, Cambridge, 1950-74; fell., British Academy, 1952; Kenyon Medal, 1969; pres., 1971-4; master, Jesus College, 1959-73; knighted, 1971; corr. memb. Academy of Athens; AAAS; American Philosophical Society; Greek Humanistic Society.  

  • Publications:


    Actors’ Interpolations in Greek Tragedy (Oxford, 1934); Euripides Medea (Oxford, 1938); Greek Literary Papyri (=Select Papyri iii), Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge & London, 1941); Alcman: The Partheneion (Oxford, 1951); Corinna (London, 1953); Sappho and Alcaeus: An Introduction to the Study of Ancient Lesbian Poetry (Oxford, 1955); The Homeric Odyssey(Oxford, 1955); Aeschylus Agamemnon, with J. D. Denniston (Oxford, 1957); History and the Homeric Iliad, Sather Lectures 31(Berkeley, 1959); Poetae Melici Graeci (Oxford, 1962); The Oxyrhynchus Papyri xxix (London, 1963); The Greek Anthology: Hellenistic Epigrams, with A. S. F. Gow (Cambridge, 1965); Lyrica Graeca Selecta (Oxford, 1968); The Greek Anthology: the Garland of Philip and Some Contemporary Epigrams, with A. S. F. Gow (Cambridge, 1968); Aeschyli Septem Quae Supersunt Tragoediae (Oxford, 1972); Folktales in Homer’s Odyssey (Cambridge, MA, 1973); Supplementum lyricis Graecis (Oxford, 1974); Epigrammata Graeca (Oxford, 1975); The Epigrams of Rufinus (Cambridge, 1978); Further Greek Epigrams (Cambridge, 1981) (Posthumous).


    A full Bibliography may be found in Dionysiaca, Nine Studies in Greek Poetry by Former Pupils presented to Sir Denys Page on his Seventieth Birthday (Cambridge, 1978).

  • Notes:

    Denys Lionel Page’s father achieved two distinctions not granted to ordinary mortals: he became Chief Engineer for the Great Western Railway Company, and he lived to celebrate his hundredth birthday, surviving Denys, the third of his five children. Originally from South Wales, the family moved to Berkshire, and Page’s education in the classics began at Newbury Grammar School, to such good effect that the boy won a scholarship to Christ Church, Oxford. There were three scholars in classics of that vintage, 1926-1930. The two others were Donald Allan (1907-78), who went on via Balliol and Edinburgh to hold the chair of Greek at Glasgow. The other was a man who was to become a lifelong friend, Quintin Hogg (Viscount Hailsham) (1907-2001). Page’s undergraduate life was not focused solely on the study of antiquity any more than Richard Jebb’s (1841-1905) had been. He had sporting ambitions, including, mirabile dictu, that of playing cricket for England, and oral tradition still speaks with awe of him as a fast bowler. While Hailsham busied himself with undergraduate politics, Page and Allan were occupied in lifting various University prizes. Hailsham remembers at a distance of some sixty years how he and Page both attended a dinner at the time of their final examinations “when we conversed solely in inappropriate Latin: mainly imprecations of which I only remember ‘pereant examinatores; morbum obscoenum capiant examinatores,’ none of which happily came to pass.”

    All three obtained first-class degrees, and Page went on to spend a year in Vienna before returning to become a classics don at Christ Church. In those days no person with an Oxbridge Fellowship would do anything as vulgar as writing a Ph.D. dissertation, but it was still necessary to establish oneself. In Page’s case this objective was attained in one leap with the publication of Actors' Interpolations in Greek Tragedy, studied with special reference to Euripides’ Iphigenia in Aulis. It is still indispensable for those who have protracted dealings with that play. In later life Page had some of Jebb’s reluctance to excise from tragedy lines that others might have thought spurious, perhaps in reaction against his own youthful work. But there was nothing in this first book that the mature scholar need have deplored. Page was now seen to be a young     man with a brilliant mind and a command of his subject. But the world is full of young men with brilliant minds and a command of their subjects, and most of them sink from sight after a few years. Was Actors’ Interpolations to be a springboard, or was it to be the once-and-for-all passport to the comfortable life of an Oxford don? With the publication of the Medea edition the answer seemed to be taking shape. Many years later Page confided to a friend that the whole thing needed doing again, thinking perhaps of    advances made by others that ought to be incorporated. Even so, it remains a worthy contribution to what has proved to be a distinguished series, and the many who use it will include among their reasons for gratitude its moderate compass. Editions tend to get ever bigger, in obedience to the tacit law, which we all recognize, that classical books exist not to serve the reader but to parade the erudition of their authors. Page did not parade his erudition, but it was beyond even his powers to conceal it.

    It has been said, by one who is not a member, that there are three ways into the British Academy (of which Page was later to be President): sodomy, papyrology, and treason. Page was qualified only in the second of these, developing an interest in the subject long before it became fashionable. This interest brought him into contact with Edgar Lobel (1888-1982), a scholar for whom he had the very highest regard, and led to the next book, an unpretentious-looking volume in the Loeb library series, now going under the unexciting title Select Papyri iii. It was devoted to fragments of Greek poetry and gave Page the chance to deploy his ever-increasing skills to fill out the gaps in the texts. In the preface, he writes, “I began eager to fill every gap with flawless fragments of my own composition; I ended with the desire—too late—to remove all that is not either legible in the papyrus or replaceable beyond reasonable doubt. At the eleventh hour, indeed, I expelled handfuls of private poetry. . . .” At least one reviewer expressed his regrets at the probable loss to scholarship brought about by this unhappy access of modesty.

    By now it was wartime. Page became part of the not-quite-as-secret-as-it-ought-to-be Intelligence department located at Bletchley, and then ended his military service in a coordinating capacity in the Far East. A large slice had been taken out of his life, and on his return to the academic world he renewed his studies with an intensity all the greater. He was soon to be rewarded, for in 1950 he was elected to the Cambridge Chair that he was to hold with such distinction for a quarter of a century. It was an inspired choice, based on academic merit, assessed for once by the scholar’s contribution to his subject rather than by the loudness of his voice, Salonfahigkeit, or a sustained record of boats left unrocked. The removal from his shoulders of the weight of undergraduate teaching enabled him to romp ahead, and as Jebb said of Richard Porson (1759-1808), “he served the true purpose of his chair, as few have served it, by writings which advanced the knowledge of his subject.” In 1951 was published the edition of Alcman’s Partheneion, a wonderful clarifier of the mind. Anyone familiar with the problems of the poem will understand that it is no disparagement to say that it was more successful on such matters as the rigorous classification of evidence for the dialect used by Aleman than in its explanation of what exactly is going on, and when he writes of one problem, “It must surely seem surprising that the lucid evidence of the text should ever have been misunderstood” and the adoption of a hypothesis not favored by him would lead to a state of affairs where “instantly chaos and confusion obnubilate the scene” we may feel that he is pressing ahead too hard; yet we remain grateful for a trail blazer whose combative methods so often yielded greater rewards than ever fall to the lot of the mildly judicious. As was remarked at his farewell dinner, Page was a fast bowler in Greek studies too.

    Three years later appeared the standard commentary on Sappho and Alcaeus, with the same mastery of technical detail. Those who envied Page his superlative professional competence felt it necessary to detect some weakness, and his apparent preference for the more versatile Alcaeus over the sacred cow, Sappho, provoked sneers in certain quarters. (One may be confident that if “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” had been preserved as a papyrus fragment and attributed to Sappho, in those same quarters ecstasy would have prevailed.) The Poetarum Lesbiorum Fragmenta, being devoid of literary judgments, could not be similarly assailed, but The Homeric Odyssey, being full of them, could be, and was. It was a very necessary book, for the English had been sheltered for too long from the chill blasts of Homeric analysis. It met with a virulent response from some reviewers but was read with delight by the audience for whom it was intended. The charm of the exposition was backed up by deep erudition resting in the notes. Possibly the most curious feature of the book is the debt it owes to Adolf Kirchhoff. The debt was openly and frequently acknowledged, yet somehow one never quite believed that Page, the original thinker par excellence, would be relaying the views of others with so little alteration. Only when one reverts to Kirchhoff himself does one see that the extent of the borrowing is indeed as great as Page had said it was. But if Kirchhoff had got it right, why interfere? The Homeric Odyssey is Page’s most enjoyable book. There is a light touch to the rhetorical style. The ability ridentem dicere verum comes over beautifully on p. 85:

    There follows at once an omen: a hawk was observed holding a dove in its talons, plucking it and shedding its feathers to the ground, midway between Telemachus and his ship. Theoclymenus accepts the challenge to his professional skill, and interprets the omen as follows (first calling Telemachus to stand apart from his companions, nobody knows why). “Telemachus, not without divine agency came the bird on our right; I knew, when I looked full upon it, that it was a bird of omen” (so far, it needed no prophet come from Argos to tell us this). Now the interpretation: “Among the people of Ithaca there is no race more kingly than yours, but you are supreme forever.” That is not the work of a man who has gone far in his profession; he might, without excessive intellectual effort, have interpreted the killing of a dove by a hawk as symbolising the killing of the Suitors by Odysseus. That is presumably what the hawk had in fact intended: away it flies, disgusted by this drab non sequitur.

    In 1957 appeared another book that annoyed a lot of people. “I warn my students against it” said one Scandinavian professor. It was the Agamemnon edition, which had been begun by Page’s old teacher, J. D. Denniston (1887-1949). Page lectured on the play at the same time as finishing the written version. To one undergraduate who had read through Fraenkel’s three volumes twice before coming to the University and thought them the ultimate in scholarship, Page’s lectures seemed shocking to the point of sacrilege, and he fumed righteously as Fraenkel’s shortcomings were exposed to the undiscerning merriment of the youthful audience. G. T. Griffith (1908-85), wisest of men, on learning of these outraged feelings suggested with an evanescent smile that the two should meet, and Page’s Introduction, with its cross-examination of Aeschylus, was the direct result of refuting ideas that the Fraenkel-indoctrinated undergraduate put forward at that meeting. In sessions of this kind, given in what Americans call “office hours,” Page would effortlessly win every argument with his younger antagonists; but he never did so by crushing them under a weight of superior learning. It was on commonsense reasoning and the use of knowledge that both parties shared that he relied. The esprit de I'escalier was a frequent visitor to the minds of those who emerged dazed from these encounters, but they had been enriched by an exhilarating intellectual experience.

    Page understood as well as Cicero the different requirements of lecturing before a large or a small audience, and he understood better than most scholars of his eminence what the intellectual capacity was of the average undergraduate. Before large audiences he practiced the technique that Harold Macmillan (1894-1986) said had been recommended to him by an old hand after his maiden speech in the House of Commons: say one thing, or two, and say it in as many ways as you like; but do not try to cover every aspect of the topic under debate. Page would hammer home just one or two great verities. The technique was successful, as one examiner can attest. Page had been lecturing on Oedipus Rex. Early in the play the blind prophet Teiresias blurts out the whole truth, and the play then continues as if nothing had happened. Page several times in his exposition used the phrase, “He has let the cat out of the bag.” It found its way into so many essays that when the weary examiner went at the end of the day into a fitful sleep he had visions of countless cats jumping out of bags beyond number. But from that one phrase many people had learned something very important about the structure of a masterpiece. It was all done with great good humor, and generations of Cambridge men will remember Page as the funniest, as well as the most interesting, lecturer in an admittedly subfusc department: funny for his entirely conscious exaggerations as he piled a semi-theatrical contempt on those who had incurred his intellectual displeasure. It was all without malice, and he knew perfectly well that what he represented as black and white was often in reality a lighter or darker shade of grey. But he knew too that only in this way would he keep the interest of those young men and women for whom the delights of exercising the mind generally came a poor second to those of the body.

    Before small audiences he was different. The final-year students who had textual criticism as their specialty approached the subject with much Angst. They were swiftly reassured, as after some introductory lectures that spoke of manuscript descent, types of error (“the jollity of Percy is not strained”), etc.—all very much cut and dried—he embarked on textual exegesis. One who attended his lectures on Philoctetes remarked that the professional expertise shown would have been worthy of someone who had devoted his whole life solely to that one topic. But the expertise was always the servant of common sense, and the sometimes complex chains of reasoning were made easy to remember by the genial lucidity of the lecturer. Perhaps the most important general lesson he imparted was this, and it is one of wide applicability: first define your difficulty with the utmost possible precision; the solution will then often present itself.

    With his research students, too, Page gave the impression of total professional competence in their own specialized fields. Cambridge professors do not found schools, and one hardly knows whether to say that it is by accident or example that, if we confine ourselves to Greek tragedy, the standard texts of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides are either the product of Page himself or of one or the other of his pupils leaning heavily upon his advice. He also saw through the dissertation that has made it an eccentricity to regard Prometheus Vinctus as the work of Aeschylus. How many other books and articles he improved before publication it is impossible to say. What is certain is that any assessment of Page’s written contribution to scholarship that considers only the books published under his own name will fall a long way short of the truth.

    In 1959 another Homer book appeared, this time on the Iliad. Like the Odyssey volume of four years earlier it was the outcome of a series of invited lectures delivered in America, his Berkeley Sathers. Its dealings with the notorious Catalogue of Ships have not passed unchallenged, but the Appendix on Multiple Authorship should be required reading for any student approaching the Iliad who feels that Benedetto Marzullo’s (1923-2016) pronouncement, “Il problema omerico è morto,’ is a premature obituary. More than any other book, this one gave Page the chance to indulge his passion for archaeology. And it was a passion: he once confessed that he would have found archaeology an attractive alternative career (exactly how he would have fitted it in with playing cricket for England and exercising command on the high seas—another of his passions—we had better not enquire). It might have been a dangerous one: Spyridon Marinatos (1901-74), the Greek Director of Archaeological Services, almost literally died in Page’s arms on a site in Santorini, and an almost identical accident there a year or two later left Page himself badly bruised. It was not, however, his own health that preoccupied him, but that of his wife, who had a serious heart condition, making it necessary for the scholar to discharge many of the duties that normally fall to the distaff side. This lady, an American whom he met on a cruise, had been Miss Katherine Dohan, the daughter of an archaeologist mother who had excavated in Crete and written about Etruscan tomb groups. Their marriage produced four daughters, whose interests range from medical research to Assyriology, and from vegetarian cooking and bereavement (any connection?) to bringing up five children.

    In the same year as the appearance of the Iliad book Page accepted the invitation to become Master of Jesus College. In reply to a congratulatory letter he wrote that he had no intention of giving up Work: the capital letter indicating a proper understanding of priorities. All the time articles were flowing from his pen, but the next major work was the Poetae Melici Graeci, the standard edition of the major lyricists not already dealt with in the edition of the Lesbian pair. It was a book of over six hundred pages, calling for the highest professional competence. Only a year later a volume in the Oxyrhyncus Papyri series came out under his name. Thereafter and until the end of his life the greater part of his academic energies—apart from such chores as being President of the British Academy, which he did not particularly enjoy—went into the Greek Anthology. In collaboration with the crusty old Trinity don A. S. F. Gow (1886-1978), the fearsomely austere editor of Theocritus, he produced Hellenistic Epigrams and the Garland of Philip, Gow’s role in the latter being comparatively slight. But these four large volumes were not the end; besides a small separate edition of Rufinus, there was the huge posthumous collection called, for want of a better name, Further Greek Epigrams. Just about everything in the Greek Anthology down to 50 CE was thus covered. When one thinks of Page’s name, this work on the Anthology is not what springs first to mind, though in bulk it is his biggest contribution to Greek scholarship: the Anthology is not a fashionable area of study at the moment, and Page’s distinctive humorous style is only occasionally given the opportunity to surface.

    For all his amazing productivity the impression Page made on others was not that of an academic wrapped up in his work. As Master of Jesus he would watch his College teams playing cricket or rugby, and he was valued by students who had no idea of his academic stature as a friendly old soul with a genuine interest in their welfare. He could talk to anyone about anything. From newspapers and television he followed the fortunes of tennis players around the world, and his pronouncements on their merits and defects—less reliable than his pronouncements on matters of scholarship, e.g., he had a quite irrational dislike of the charming Miss Chris Evert (b. 1954)—were delivered with his customary air of authority. One of his less probable enthusiasms was for naval strategy. Once he found himself explaining to another apparent enthusiast whom he had just met how some great battle—perhaps the battle of Midway—could have been better conducted, only to find as the other left that he had been lecturing the Commander-in-Chief. Refighting these battles was a hobby that he put to good use. Page had one massive blind spot: music was a totally closed world to him. Duty once called him to a concert. A friend expressed surprise at finding him there. “Scarcely had the opening bars died away,” he was told, “than the low grey hulls slipped from their moorings. . . .” But if music was a closed world, the literature of Europe was not. This side of Page’s life was not disclosed to public view and does not find frequent expression in his books. But it is not every Greek scholar who reads Faust half a dozen times in the original. Those who seek to find some weakness in the apparently impregnable fortress of his scholarship make patronizing remarks about Page as not really a cultured man—the implication being that no textual critic or metrician could be at the same time actually cultured—should know that he was a voracious reader of French, German, and Russian novels. How he found the time to pursue these interests on top of his other duties is a mystery; but so are those other duties themselves, for whenever one saw him his desk seemed to be clear of anything that spoke of work in progress.

    In 1973, one year after the Aeschylus edition, appeared a third book on Homer, again from an invited series of lectures in America. The Aeschylus and Folktales stand at opposite ends of the Page spectrum: exact textual criticism, of a type that some would call arid, coming from the same pen as the good-humored romp through that part of the Odyssey that is concerned with the hero’s wanderings into the lands of ogres and enchantresses. Some scholars are noted for their versatility, others for the penetration of their minds; Page’s combination of these qualities is rare.

    He retired a year or two before the statutory time and moved to as remote a part of England as it is possible to imagine, to a place in Northumberland, marked only on maps of the largest scale, where there was, as one wit unkindly put it, nothing beyond the baaing of a few sheep to remind him that he had ever presided over the Fellows of Jesus. Here he was visited once by a former student and his family and delighted the young children by acting the role of busy traffic policeman as he ushered them out into a road that seemed never to have had wheeled traffic on it in its life. It was a very peaceful existence, but with the shadow of his wife’s illness hanging over it all the time. In fact, he predeceased her.

    Honors had been showered on him in plenty, including a knighthood and an honorary doctorate from Oxford. Trinity College, which had conducted open warfare against Richard Bentley (1662-1742), dishonored an understanding to give Porson a lay fellowship and elected some inferior candidate to a fellowship for which Jebb was a candidate, continued its campaign against Greek scholars—-still vigorous as I write today—by refusing Page a memorial brass in the Chapel; though it did at least have the grace to elect him to an honorary fellowship. During his tenure of office, the Faculty of Classics at Cambridge had been perhaps the best in the world, and he its brightest star. Whether one takes written contributions to scholarship as the criterion, or the whole range of duties that fall to a professor in the encouragement of his subject, Page was the best Professor of Greek that Cambridge has had in the four centuries since the chair was founded. “My memories of him,” Lord Hailsham writes, “was of a friend without blemish, in whom learning was an ornament and never dull.” With an epitaph like that, memorials made of brass are perhaps neither here nor there.

  • Sources:

    P. H. J. Lloyd-Jones, “Denys Lionel Page,” PBA 65 (1979) 759-69; ------, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 42 (2004); R. Renehan, DBC 3:736-7; letters from Lord Hailsham; personal knowledge.

  • Author: Roger D. Dawe