Martin Litchfield West

Martin Litchfield West
Born (1937-09-23)23 September 1937
London, England
Died 13 July 2015(2015-07-13) (aged 77)
Oxford, England
Nationality British
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford [1]
Occupation Professor, academic and author
Known for Classics scholar
Honours OM

Martin Litchfield West, OM, FBA (23 September 1937 – 13 July 2015) was a classical scholar, acknowledged, on receipt of the Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies from the British Academy, as "the most brilliant and productive Greek scholar of his generation, not just in the United Kingdom, but worldwide."[2] At the time of his death he was an Honorary Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford.[3]

He wrote extensively on ancient Greek music, Greek tragedy, Greek lyric poetry, the relations between Greece and the ancient Near East, and the connection between shamanism and early ancient Greek religion, including the Orphic tradition. This work stems from material in Akkadian, Phoenician, Hebrew, Hittite, and Ugaritic, as well as Greek and Latin.

In 2001, West produced an edition of Homer's Iliad for Teubner, accompanied by a study of its critical tradition and overall philology, entitled Studies in the Text and Transmission of the Iliad; a further volume on The Making of the Iliad appeared ten years later for Oxford University Press, and one on "The Making of the Odyssey" in 2014.

In addition to the Near-Eastern connection, in 2007 he wrote on the reconstitution of Indo-European culture and poetry, and its influence on Greece, in the book Indo-European Poetry and Myth. In recognition of his contribution to scholarship, he was awarded the Order of Merit in 2014.

Life and career

West was born in Hampton, Middlesex, the son of Catherine (née Stainthorpe) and a civil engineer, Maurice West. After graduating from St Paul's School, he proceeded to Balliol College. He married a fellow scholar Stephanie Pickard in 1960 at Nottingham, after meeting her at a lecture given by Eduard Fraenkel at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.[4][5] He became a junior research fellow at St John’s College from 1960-1963, where he produced his first work, an edition of Hesiod's Theogony. From the mid-sixties he took especial interest in the relation of Greek literature to the Orient, and over several decades, culminating in his masterpiece The East Face of Helicon (1997), defended his view that it was a variation on Near Eastern literature. He took up a position as tutorial fellow at University College, a position he filled from 1963 to 1974. In 1973 he became the second youngest person to be elected a Fellow of the British Academy, at the age of 35. He obtained a chair at Royal Holloway and Bedford New College, which he held from 1974 until 1991, when he became a fellow of All Souls College.[6][7]

West died in 2015 in Oxford at the age of 77.[8] Fellow Oxford academic Armand D'Angour paid tribute to him as 'a man of few words in seven languages.'[9]

Awards and honours

West was a DPhil and DLitt of Oxford University, and was elected a Fellow of the British Academy, a Corresponding Member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften, Göttingen, and a Member of the Academia Europaea, London. HM The Queen appointed him a Member of the Order of Merit (OM) in the 2014 New Year Honours.[11]

Academic teaching and research history


A dedication to West from The British Academy, upon awarding him the 2002 Kenyon Medal for Classical Studies :

"Among classical scholars, and in the field of ancient Greek literature, Martin West's intellect and productivity have put him in a class of his own. In a career of 35 years, he has published 15 major books, several smaller books, and nearly 200 incisive and original papers. All of his writings maintain the highest standards of traditional scholarship, combining acute intelligence and technical mastery with an admirable clarity and directness of mind and style.

His work falls into three overlapping categories.

First of all, he is the author of the standard manuals of Textual Criticism (1978), Greek Metre (1982) and Greek Music (1992). In case 'manual' suggests a second-hand compilation, it should be explicitly stated that all three books represent a deeply original viewpoint. Secondly, in the editing and explication of Greek poetic texts, West has contributed exemplary editions of the fragments of Hesiod (with R. Merkelbach, 1967); of the Greek Iambic and Elegiac poets (1971-2; 2 1989, 1992); of the Anacreontea (1984; 2 1993); of Aeschylus (1990); and of the Iliad (vol. I, 1998). His contribution to Iambus and Elegy was reinforced by invaluable adversaria in Studies in Greek Elegy and Iambus (1974), and his papers on Greek lyric poetry would in themselves make a substantial volume. He celebrated the millennium with a new text of the fundamental poem of Western civilisation, Homer's Iliad. In addition, there are critical texts, with magisterial commentaries, of Hesiod's Theogony (1966) and Works and Days (1978), and The Orphic Poems (1983) and The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women (1985), which reconstruct with great acumen and ingenuity two literary genres familiar to the Greeks but lost to us except in fragments. Thirdly, his interest in the Greeks and the Orient, first exemplified in Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (1971), recently re-emerged in The East Face of Helicon (1997), a comprehensive and timely investigation of parallels between Greek literature and the literatures of the Ancient Near East based on first-hand acquaintance with the texts.

In the field of classical scholarship, as traditionally understood, Martin West is to be judged, on any reckoning, the most brilliant and productive Greek scholar of his generation, not just in the United Kingdom, but worldwide."

A dedication to West upon receiving the 2000 Balzan Prize for Classical Antiquity :

"For his masterful editions and explanations of Greek poetry from Homer to the Attic tragedy as well as for his groundbreaking research in the alleged and still violently debated relationships between Greece and the Orient. Born in 1937, a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, West is considered one of the world's leading classical philologists. His masterly critical editions include Hesiod's works, Greek lyric, orphic poetry and all of Aeschylus' tragedies. His Early Greek Philosophy and the Orient (published in Italy by Il Mulino, 1994) offers a decisive and well-balanced contribution to the age-old debate over the 'originality' of Greek culture and its indebtedness to other cultures. His groundbreaking studies on early Greek music are also noteworthy."

In a review of his last work, Peter Green expressed admiration for West's 'marvellous polyglot and off-beat omnicompetence . .his mischievous wit, his loving resuscitation of so many great nineteenth-century scholars, the erudition which, however formidable and obsessional, always concealed (or so it seemed to me) a vein of slily (sic) ironic amusement.'[12]


Selected list of books

Editions, commentaries and translations of classical texts

Selected articles

His works also include contributions to dictionaries and books and more than 200 articles and papers since 1960.

See also



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