96 Years of
Life and Learning
Quite unexpectedly, I bumped into an old friend recently and scarcely
recognized her. Having treasured Mythology since I was 12, I thought I
knew all about Edith Hamilton. To my surprise, during a research
project, I found more zip in the old girl than my Greek professor even
Born in 1867, Hamilton lived to be 96. Enlightened parents encouraged
her enthusiasm for Latin at age 6 and watched her absorb the fustiest
of English writers alongside Thucydides and Xenophon, whom she read
via self-taught Greek.
By the time Hamilton reached puberty, the Victorian mind-set
shanghaied her from home study to Miss Porter's, a prissy New England
girls' academy, where she studied sampler embroidery and niceness.
Undaunted by the headmistress's unsubtle shove toward debutantehood,
Hamilton struck out for Bryn Mawr, polished off two degrees in
classics, and snatched a fellowship to the notoriously sexist
University of Munich, where she continued to develop her mind while
ignoring the taunts of misogynist professors.
On her return to the Untied States, she joined suffragists and marched
in protest against the anti-female sentiment of her day.
Heading her own preparatory school in Baltimore, Hamilton found
teaching remarkably onerous. It wasn't the counseling of teenagers or
grading of Latin exercises that drained her, but the constant upstream
swim against male administrators who urged her to omit history lessons
for her little dears and zero in on ladylike refinement.
At 50, the famed classicist retired from the fray and inaugurated a
second career. As the Western world's crackerjack classical essayist,
lecturer, and historian, she produced a readable, lucid account of
ancient Greece's accomplishments.
From that success came a parallel book on Rome and, in 1942, her
masterwork, Mythology. She followed with a deluge of translation,
critical analysis, and commentary.
Honoring the ancient concept of "nothing in excess," Hamilton spent
her summers on the Maine shore, vegetating among the rocks, where she
could absorb the healing sun and invigorating tides.
On her return to work in the fall, she pushed harder each year, into
her early 90s, never giving in to stereotypical old-ladyhood.
In August 1957, Hamilton received the appropriate crown for a
90-year-old classical debutante. Proclaimed an honorary citizen of
Athens, she stood at the base of the Acropolis and bestowed a life's
love of the ancient world on her new hometown.
Before a performance of her version of Prometheus Bound, she honored
the spirit of Greece with typical clarity and lyricism: "We are met
tonight to see a play which has lived for 25,000 years. In those years
the Greeks have been outstripped by science and technology, but never
in the love of truth, never in the creation of beauty and freedom."
Five years before her death, Hamilton vowed to retire for good from
the discipline of scholarship and literature. At 91, she tramped about
Spain and France, then, to get her juices flowing again, returned to
the lecture circuit.
"Catawba Valley Neighbors,"
September 9, 1992