Gilbert Highet, 71, a retired professor of Latin literature at Columbia University, author and critic, died of cancer Friday at New York Hospital.

Dr. Highet was known as a popularizer of the classics, especially after the 1949 publication of "The Classical Tradition," in which he braced the influence on modern Western literature back to that of Greece and Rome.

He had a radio program carried by more than 300 radio stations during the 1950s, called "People, Places and Books," and was a judge for the Book of the Month Club for many years.

Dr. Highet served as a literary critic for Harper's magazine during the early 1950s, and was the author of more than a dozen books, including works on literary history, essays, poems, and criticism.

Dr. Highet was born in Glasgow, Scotland. He earned degrees from the University of Glasgow and Oxford University.

From 1932 to 1938, he was a fellow and tutor in classics at St. John's College, Oxford. He was a visiting professor of Greek and Latin there from 1938 to 1950, and finally Anthon professor of Latin language and literature from 1950 until he retired in 1972.

Dr. Highet was the husband of the mystery and suspense writer, Helen McInnes. They were married in 1932.

During World War II, he served with the British mission to the United States, and then from 1943 with the British Army. He served with the military occupation forces in Germany, then retired from the Army in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Dr. Highet became an American citizen in 1951.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a son, Gilbert Keith MacInnes, and three grandchildren.