Jacqueline de Romilly. Photo by Louis Monier. www.canalacademie.com

Jacqueline de Romilly – who died at age 97 in 2010 – was a classical scholar, writer and Franco-Greek philologist all rolled into one. The list of awards and honours assigned to this scholar during her lifetime is absolutely astounding. She was the first female professor to be elected (and become chair!) to the Collège de France, the first woman to become a member of the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (a French society devoted to the humanities), as well as being awarded Greek citizenship and being named as an ambassador of Hellenism by the Greek government as a result of her extensive work promoting ancient Greek culture. Somehow amazing doesn’t quite seem to cover it.

She was an exceptional student coming first in the country for Latin and second for Classical Greek while studying at the Lycée Molière (a school in Paris). While she wrote on many topics as an adult, her lifelong passion was the historian Thucydides whose works she translated and wrote about extensively. She once told the French magazine Lire in 2004 that “Pericles and Aeschylus…fill my life, from morning to night”. Any university humanities library worth its salt, still has a good stock of de Romilly books on its shelves.

Her passion for the Humanities and Classics in particular became of huge interest to her in the 1970s, when she realised that the study of ancient Greek culture in French schools was diminishing. She spoke widely on the topic, appearing on television interviews to promote her growing concern for the disappearance of Greek from schools, which she believed concealed a greater problem with literary teaching in general. In 2004, she said, “I do not think you learn wisdom just like that, by reading Thucydides and becoming reasonable. But I do believe that if young people came into contact with that period of reflection which is different from our time, but which nevertheless has elements in common, we would think better, in a more measured, more reasonable and more tolerant fashion. Of that I am convinced.” She also cared deeply for the heritage of her own French language, founding an Association for the Defence of Literary Studies in 1992.

Her life as a teacher and scholar became even more challenging during the years of the Second World War. When Vichy France surrendered to the Nazis, she was forced to stop teaching due to her Jewish heritage. Following the war in 1947, she finally obtained a doctorate for her thesis on Thucydides and continued to teach. Having begun her career as a schoolteacher, she went on to teach at the University of Lille and the Sorbonne after the war and eventually became the first female chair of the Collège de France.

Jacqueline de Romilly was an inspiring woman who was impressively active throughout her whole life, driven by her scholarly devotions. She was a pioneering 20th century female academic who truly believed in her mission for education. If you want to read more about her, there are plenty of interviews to be found (in French!) as well as her huge bibliographical output both scholarly and intended for a wider audience.

-Emily Lawry
Junior Girl
Girl Museum Inc.

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