Miriam T. Griffin was born in New York City but found her career an ocean away and 2,000 years in the past.
Griffin, one of the world’s foremost classical scholars and the author of important books on Seneca, the Roman philosopher and statesman, and Nero, the infamous emperor, died May 16 in Oxford, England. She was 82.
The cause was acute myeloid leukemia, her daughter Julia Griffin said.
Griffin taught at Somerville College, Oxford, for decades and was an emeritus fellow in ancient history there.
“Miriam Griffin was a very unusual combination of ancient historian and philosopher,” Kathleen M. Coleman, the James Loeb professor of the classics at Harvard University, said by email. “This enabled her to achieve profound new insight into the motivation of figures such as Seneca, the Stoic philosopher, millionaire and adviser to the emperor Nero.”
Those insights can be found in “Seneca: A Philosopher in Politics,” published in 1976. The book explored the relationship between Seneca’s philosophy of Stoicism and his public roles, and, as a later volume of essays inspired by Griffin put it, “whether anyone ever managed to integrate philosophical belief and political responsibility.”
Griffin then took up the emperor counseled by Seneca, Nero, whom history had tended to pigeonhole into the “nutty tyrant” box. Her “Nero: The End of a Dynasty,” published in 1984, “added complexity and nuance to the emperor’s shallow reputation as a cruel, greedy and selfish exhibitionist,” Coleman said.
Miriam Tamara Dressler was born June 6, 1935, in Brooklyn, New York. Her father, Leo, was a teacher, and her mother, Fanny (Natelson) Dressler, was a stenographer.
Griffin attended Erasmus Hall High School in Brooklyn, received a bachelor’s degree at Barnard College and a master’s at Radcliffe College, and, in 1957, went to Oxford as a Fulbright scholar. It proved to be a life-changing move.
At an Oxford seminar she met Jasper Griffin, later to become a prominent classical scholar as well. They married in 1960. She earned a doctorate in philosophy at Oxford and, in 1967, became a fellow and tutor in ancient history at Somerville. In 2002 she became an emeritus fellow. She also had appointments to Trinity College, Oxford, and Florida State University.
“Her Oxford pupils always imitated her (lovingly) with an American accent,” Julia Griffin said, “even though her American relatives insisted they could no longer hear it.”
To mark her retirement, two of her former students, Tessa Rajak and Gillian Clark, published “Philosophy and Power in the Graeco-Roman World: Essays in Honour of Miriam Griffin,” featuring contributions from numerous leading scholars.
Griffin was interested in the interplay between powerful, sometimes troubled historical figures and the social and political systems in which they operated. The dynamics of yore, she found, resonated in modern times.
“A delicious malice seems to infect public life,” the scholar Anthony A. Barrett wrote in discussing her Nero book, “allowing no real friendships, only temporary alliances of convenience seething with suppressed animosities. Miriam Griffin’s biography of Rome’s most notorious emperor, ‘Nero: The End of Dynasty,’ shows us that this has always been so.”
As Rajak put it, the Nero book “exposed to a wide range of readers how disastrously wrong things can go when unbalanced and inadequate individuals acquire control of a political system that is open to abuse.”
That book contributed to a rethinking of Nero, who rose to power while still a teenager, something that Griffin said should be factored in by anyone trying to pin a simplistic label on him.
“In the Roman tradition, one didn’t really enter politics until one was 25, under the empire,” she told The New York Times in 1985. “And one didn’t matter until one was in one’s 30s and could hold important positions. For someone of 17 to try to command the respect of the governing class was a very, very difficult thing to do.”
Griffin’s later works included “Seneca on Society: A Guide to ‘De Beneficiis,'” his treatise on reciprocity and related themes. She was also the author of numerous papers and an editor on various volumes.
In addition to her daughter Julia, Griffin is survived by her husband; two other daughters, Miranda Williams and Tamara Sykorova; and a granddaughter.
At a memorial service in June, Lesley Brown, another emeritus fellow at Somerville, delivered a tribute that mentioned the guise in which the British public frequently encountered Griffin.
“Miriam was often invited to contribute to radio and television programs,” she said, “anything from Nero or Augustus to the burning of Rome or ancient cynicism. She spoke with authority but without any flashiness, always giving the impression that she was thinking as she spoke, and never patronizing the hearers.
“But,” she added, “you had to be lucky to catch those media appearances, because Miriam never let it be known that they were about to be broadcast.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.