Ancient Greek, modern scholars

Plaster model of the Acropolis on display in the Nicholson Museum. NM2008.4

Plaster model of the Acropolis on display in the Nicholson Museum. NM2008.4

While Ancient Greek may “never be as popular as Psychology 101”, Professor Bill Ritchie’s generous bequest will advance the study of languages, literature, philosophy and civilisation.

Professor Bill Ritchie was always one of the first University staff to arrive at the Quadrangle in the morning. In his office beneath the famous Clocktower, he would spend most of the day immersed in his life’s great passion: the study of ancient Greek.

“He was an absolutely devoted servant of the University,” recalls classicist Professor Peter Wilson, who was taught by Professor Ritchie as an undergraduate in the 1980s and is now head of the University’s Department of Classics and Ancient History. “Bill was like something from another era.”

Professor Ritchie’s main research interest was Greek drama – he published a book on Athenian tragedy Rhesus, thought by him to be by Euripides, as well as important work on comic playwright Menander. However, he is perhaps best remembered as an inspiring teacher.

After serving as chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History for more than 25 years, Professor Ritchie retired in 1991. Yet he remained closely involved with the University as an emeritus professor, and sought to kindle a love of classics in the next generation through his involvement in the Latin and Greek reading competition for high school students.

Professor Ritchie wasn’t known for making grand gestures and was always modest and softly spoken. “Sometimes it was difficult getting more than a few words out of him at a stretch,” remembers Professor Wilson. So it came as a surprise to many when, after his death in 2004, it was revealed that he had left a bequest of more than $5 million to the University of Sydney.

His will specified that the gift be used to advance teaching and research in the “languages, literature, philosophy and civilisation of Ancient Greece/ Classics”, with the capital to be managed externally by the Perpetual Trustee. The gift has yielded more than $2.6 million in income to date.

A substantial amount of this gift has been used to create a new chair, the William Ritchie Professor of Classics, which is currently held by Professor Wilson. “Greek is one of those fields that can be sensitive to fluctuations in taste and attitudes to its value,” Professor Wilson explains. “It is popular, but it’s never going to be as popular as Psychology 101. This professorship provides solidity for the subject by putting it above the normal fray of budgetary demands for student numbers.”

Another initiative established by the bequest is the William Ritchie Memorial Lecture, which provides funds for a world expert in Greek studies to be flown to Sydney every two years or so to deliver a public talk on their research.

The bequest also supports a highly competitive fellowship program that brings distinguished classicists from around the globe to Sydney to share their ideas with local scholars.

Yet another beneficiary is the Centre for Classical and Near Eastern Studies of Australia, an important hub for research into the ancient world, housed in the University’s Madsen building. The Ritchie bequest is helping to provide administrative and library services at the centre, which was founded in 2009. “To be able to have our own incredibly active research centre partly supported by Bill’s gift is a wonderful thing,” says Professor Wilson, who is the inaugural director of the centre.

There are some striking similarities between the careers of Professor Wilson and Professor Ritchie, after whom his professorship is named. Like Professor Ritchie, Professor Wilson is a specialist in Greek drama, although his main interest is not the philological study of literary texts but the social, economic and institutional history of Greek theatre.

Also like Professor Ritchie, Professor Wilson studied classics at the University of Sydney before going to Cambridge to undertake a PhD, then returning to Sydney where he took up the helm of the department. “It provides a nice sense of continuity,” he says.