Bernard Knox, 95

Bernard Knox, 95, dies; one of world's foremost scholars of classical literature

Bernard Knox, founding director of the Center for Hellenic Studies.
Bernard Knox, founding director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. (1992 Photo By James A. Parcell/the Washington Post)
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By Emma Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 20, 2010

After two years of fighting in Europe during World War II, a swashbuckling U.S. Army captain named Bernard Knox took momentary refuge in a bombed-out farmhouse in Italy. There, peeking from beneath the rubble, was a gilt-edged volume by the ancient Roman poet Virgil.

Capt. Knox had studied Latin in college and remembered enough to translate a bit: "Here right and wrong are reversed," began a passage about war that served as an epiphany for the young soldier.

"These lines, written some thirty years before the birth of Christ, expressed, more directly and passionately than any modern statement I knew of, the reality of the world I was living in: the shell-pocked mine-infested fields, the shattered cities," he later recalled.

"I thought to myself: 'If I ever get out of this, I'm going back to the classics and study them seriously.' "

After the war, Bernard Knox became one of the world's foremost scholars of classical literature and served as the founding director of the Harvard University-affiliated Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington.

Dr. Knox died July 22 at his home in Bethesda of a heart ailment. He was 95.

A British-born expert in the works of Sophocles, he was known for his ability to brush the cobwebs off ancient texts and illuminate their enduring relevance in the modern world. He wrote and spoke widely, often seeking out popular audiences to argue that buried beneath the classics' dead languages are durable truths about the human experience.

He said the brilliance of Homer's "Iliad," for example, was the epic's ability to show that war is at once horrifying and magnetic -- that it "has its own strange and fatal beauty, a power which can call out in men resources of endurance, courage and self-sacrifice which peace time, to our sorrow and loss, can rarely command.

"Three thousand years have not changed the human condition in this respect," he said in a 1979 speech.

"He was a great light in our profession," said Deborah Boedeker, a Brown University professor who succeeded Dr. Knox as director of the Center for Hellenic Studies. "He was a great philologist -- and I think that is where his appreciation of literature started, with his real knowledge of and nuanced appreciation of the language. But he was able to translate that into terms that could be of great interest to any lay person."

Dr. Knox established himself as a force in classical scholarship with his first book, "Oedipus at Thebes" (1957), which examined Sophocles' tragic hero in the context of 5th-century Athenean civilization and won praise for its lucid prose. The volume was reissued in 1998 by Yale University Press.

He edited the "Norton Book of Classical Literature" (1993) and wrote frequently for popular publications including The Washington Post and the New York Review of Books. He wrote critically acclaimed introductions for modern translations by his one-time student Robert Fagles of Sophocles' "Three Theban Plays" (1982), the Homeric epics "The Iliad" (1990) and "The Odyssey" (1996) and Virgil's "The Aeneid" (2006).

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