Classicist and Secessionist

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

 Classicist and Secessionist

Darrell Sutton, on Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve

The critical study of classical texts in America does not have a long history. Its development is traceable to two or three individuals whose names are of varying degrees of importance. The foundations for such study, however, were first laid in preparatory schools and colleges, and anyone curious enough to search through the histories of colleges in America before and after the Revolutionary War will find that the charters of most of them were theologically orientated. The initial core of their curricula centred on the study of biblical and classical literatures, ancient Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Headmasters and professors of seminaries held that the mastery of ancient languages was essential for the preparation of the upper classes of the citizenry. Eventually, the mounting influence of German scientific research could not be resisted, as distinguished theologians and other academics appropriated German methods.

Classical studies in eighteenth century Great Britain were of a different kind. Culture controlled the limits of instruction. The era was one of versification and translation. The technique of rendering Greek and Latin words into English poetry and prose, and vice versa, was a manifestation of suitable classical training, and the basis of preferment for respectable men of letters.[i] Little modification to this practice occurred in the earlier periods of the nineteenth century when Cambridge and Oxford dominated. Change was slow in coming. In an introductory lecture, a distinguished Victorian literary critic, elected in 1885 to the Professorship of Poetry in the University of Oxford, endorsed the use of classical texts for appreciating the English classics:

“The thorough study of English literature, as such, — literature, I mean, as an art, indeed the finest of the fine arts, — is hopeless unless based on an equally thorough study of the literatures of Greece and Rome. When so based, adequate study will not be found exacting either of time or of labor. To know Shakespeare and Milton is the pleasant and crowning consummation of knowing Homer and Aeschylus, Catullus and Virgil; and upon no other terms can we obtain it.” F.T. Palgrave, ‘Province and Study of Poetry’.

Britain’s influence on early American educational institutions is well known. America’s Founding Fathers were influenced by ancient ideas of mixed constitutions (e.g., Polybius’ Book VI on the Roman constitution). In the newly freed colonies in the 1790s, numerous students examined the writings of ancient peoples. Literary journals in America published the latest findings of progressive thinkers overseas for readers who preferred a different program of textual investigation.

During the nineteenth century, classical studies developed into a fully scientific field. Valuable discoveries were made. Students went to France to learn medicine and papyrology, and to Germany to acquire high-minded standards of philology. In the field of papyrology, German efforts needed improvement. But in the areas of editing ancient texts and producing grammars and lexicons, they excelled.

German lecture halls overflowed with earnest students who stood in awe of their professors. The German classical seminar, usually conducted in Latin, became the envy of several American institutions. In Maryland, Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1831-1924) later employed the same German model – albeit in English language – to build a formidable classical seminary in Baltimore, at Johns Hopkins University.

Gildersleeve (hereafter, BLG) was a man of restless energy. A proud Southerner, his sadness over the Southern States’ defeat in the Civil War never abated. During Reconstruction, his affection for the old South’s way of life persisted even after slavery was abolished. He supported segregation. On account of his strongly held but now unfashionable beliefs, a coterie of scholars have challenged the citation of BLG in academic papers. Scholars who do not share his political convictions are being encouraged to reject his technical scholarship also.[ii]

The Gildersleeve name was well known in Charleston, South Carolina where he was born. He was a young prodigy. He read the Gospel of John in Greek before his sixth birthday. In his adolescent years, he was homeschooled by his clergy-man father, a Southern Presbyterian. His mother’s importance to him was undoubted but understated in his reminiscences. BLG attended a couple of colleges before he matriculated at Princeton when aged fifteen, graduating in 1849. Of his college days not much was said because he had a low estimate of its worth for classical studies. He reviewed that period of study in his 1916 paper, ‘The College in the Forties’.

BLG briefly taught in an academy to save funds for further studies in Germany. Germans had taken the lead in pioneering philological studies of pagan and patristic texts. He studied with Professors of high repute at the universities of Berlin, Göttingen and Bonn. No scholar was more important to him than Friedrich Ritschl (1806-1876) whose head and shoulder bust BLG kept in his office. Ritschl was a Plautine scholar, and like BLG, the son of a minister. In 1853, BLG received his PH.D. from Göttingen with his study De Porphyrii Studiis Homericis.

After a temporary stint engaged in literary ventures, he wound up at the University of Virginia (U.Va), teaching Greek and Latin for twenty years. The University was an experiment. Hitherto, Americans had never had what President Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) proposed for the education of youth, namely, an institution that was to be thoroughly secular, respecting all religions. The first faculty members at Virginia were well equipped. They all were born outside America coming mostly from Europe. In 1824, George Long (1800-1879) became Professor of Ancient Languages. BLG reports that his was ‘a name never to be mentioned without respect’. He stayed a few years then returned to England to be a professor at University College in London.

Prior to his departure, Long recommended his former student, Gessner Harrison (1807-1862) to replace him in Virginia. Excellent with ancient languages and Methodist in his faith, Harrison impressed Jefferson with his piety too, even refusing his invitation to dine at Jefferson’s home on the Lord’s Day. Harrison’s appointment was announced in a letter to him by James Madison (1751-1836), the fourth President of the United States. His scholarly work was solid but traditional. Eventually, he won the respect of pupils and peers. He wrote a few books and was advised by Long to keep abreast of the better literature, i.e., critical scholarship by Germans.

Overworked after thirty-one years of giving instruction, Harrison retired in 1859. His son-in-law John A. Broadus (1827-1895) was recommended by him to U.Va. administrators. But stronger spirits were needed. Though the majority favored the status quo, among the student-body were some Republican unionists who favored Free Soil politics. The atmosphere was rife with dissent. War was looming. Soon, the nearby city of Richmond would become the capitol of the breakaway Confederate States of America (1861-1865). In advance of that conflict, Broadus entered upon his duties as an Instructor in Ancient Languages in 1851, specifically to lighten Harrison’s load in the sphere of exercises. But ministry opportunities were too attractive for Broadus to resist. So in 1853 he severed connections with the university, seeing that he also shepherded the congregation at Charlottesville Baptist Church. A man of signal skill, two years later the university was still eager to maintain affiliation with him and so offered him the position of Chaplaincy at the university (see W.M. Thornton, ‘John Albert Broadus’, The Alumni Bulletin [U.Va.], May 1895, 1-10). Broadus accepted.

Being married to Gessner Harrison’s daughter, Broadus was doubtless approached by his father-in-law to succeed him in the Professorship; and had Broadus been inclined to do so, he likely have done: this point even BLG emphasized. But Broadus chose the newly formed Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, South Carolina. As a result of Broadus’ fresh start at preparing ministers for Christian service, and because of the help of Socrates Maupin (1808-1871), secretary of the faculty, in 1856 BLG was hired to hone his skills upon some of the best and brightest minds of southern gentry.

U.Va’s ethos was agreeable, and corresponded with BLG’s values. Through twenty years of dedicated industry he capitalized on his appointment, testing his scholarly ideas on inquiring minds. From 1856-1876, his duties included a Professorship of Greek and Hebrew. He showed an interest in Arabic; and from 1861-1866 his duties included Latin, during which time he prepared himself to teach Roman History by abridging a copy of Mommsen’s Römische Geschichte. Already, in the 1860s, he was ‘nursing the project of a parallel syntax of Greek and Latin’. He saw what lay ahead. The University scene was changing. This fault was not attributable to the original faculty. And while BLG praised Harrison’s accomplishments on occasion, he may not have been entirely fond of the former’s Greek and Latin productions. Nevertheless, Gessner Harrison’s comparative philological work did raise the University of Virginia’s regional reputation. Still, BLG felt that his own abilities were not being tapped to the fullest. But he published his Latin Grammar (1867), which first made his reputation, A Latin Exercise Book (1871), A Latin Reader (1875) and A Latin Primer (1875). He hoped to do more.

It was an auspicious day when BLG accepted Daniel C. Gilman’s (1831-1908) invitation to become part of the founding faculty of Johns Hopkins. BLG guided the classical seminary of JHU in its formative years. His department flourished. Under his tutelage many dissertations came to fruition. He edited The American Journal of Philology (AJP) for 40 years. The journal achieved an international status. In addition, BLG published occasional papers and reviews in educational journals in the USA.

Esteemed by his peers for exacting methods and golden prose, he was beloved by his pupils. Many of them told of experiences under his tutelage. One student, J. Gresham Machen (1881-1937), who went on to become a specialist in New Testament language and literature, a Professor at Princeton Seminary, and later the founder of Westminster Theological Seminary, said: ‘Gildersleeve may perhaps be regarded as the most notable classical scholar that America has yet produced. In him was found a rare combination of accurate philological learning with something akin, at least, to literary genius.’ Of his method, Machen continued, ‘With magisterial disregard of anything like a system, he started with Greek syntax and then allowed his thought to range over the literature of the world’ (ed., D.G. Hart, Machen: Selected Shorter Writings, 2004, 550-551).

Similar sentiments can be found in the diary notes of others. BLG’s articles, reviews and the Brief Mention sections in AJP illustrate his genius, to say nothing of his critical editions of Persius (1875), Justin Martyr (1877) and Pindar (1885) and his two volume Syntax of Classical Greek (1900, 1911 ). Since 1970, BLG has been the subject of much study. Many details remain to be filled in. Ward W. Briggs’ decades-long interest in the history of classical studies in America increased Gildersleeve’s fame. A symposium about him was conducted in 1982, the papers of which were published in Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve: An American Classicist (1986), a volume Briggs co-edited with H.W. Benario. Afterward, some letters were edited and published by Briggs in The Letters of Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve (1987). (Also see Briggs, Soldier and Scholar: Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve and the Civil War (1998)).

As a topic in the history of scholarship, debates about his reputation will continue. Some classicists argued that the recognition given to BLG in old age, and the subsequent regard extended to him, are unmerited. J. Rufus Fears (1945-2012) wrote:

“Classicists continue to treat Gildersleeve’s memory with a reverence verging on hagiography. The edition of his letters by Ward Briggs is a monument of misplaced diligence (First Principles, ISI Web Journal).”

Fears’ assessment of Briggs’ edition is wide of the mark. The first sentence is justifiable. From certain discussions in print one might infer that classical studies in America began with BLG. A deduction of that kind would be fallacious. Competition between Professors of Latin and Greek was fierce between the years 1830 and 1875, each accusing the other of irrelevant or sloppy scholarship. Formal relations among them are not easy to classify since so many literary journals served as battlefields, and numerous bitter reviews, anonymously written, circulated in the public arena. But Briggs gives new value to the scope of BLG’s work.

BLG kept pace with current scholarly trends at home and abroad. But his chief preoccupation was the formation of abstractive studies in those spheres related to the writings of classical Greece and Rome. He was a formidable commentator, textually conservative by nature. Less inclined to emend texts by conjecture, his conservatism was balanced by a powerful grasp of ancient Greek idioms, which allowed him to produce their literary parallels at random. He considered Ulrich von Wilamowitz (1848-1931) to be ‘indisputably the foremost Greek Scholar in the world’. Others thought so too.

Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff

And yet, mistakenly, BLG imagined that Wilamowitz loathed him; however, Wilamowitz’ disdain was directed largely at American classical work. That specious belief was repaired in later years by Edward Fitch (1864-1946), Professor of Greek at Hamilton College (1889-1934) who was the only English-speaking doctoral student whose dissertation was directed by Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff. The judgments BLG formed about scholars were sometimes generous, rating Richard. Jebb’s (1841-1905) scholarship higher than later appraisals.

As a member of JHU’s original faculty, library acquisitions for the classics department benefitted from his knowledge. He intended to write a volume on the Greek Life of the Second Century after Christ but other commitments dashed that hope. Greek linguistics evolved; his papers Studies in Pindaric Syntax [1],[2] and On the Stylistic Effect of the Greek Participle have not been surpassed. BLG did not collate mss, but he guided nearly 70 dissertations. He regarded his magnum opus to be his 40-year editorship of AJP. Many people agreed. Twice he served as President of the American Philological Association. And he received honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge in 1905. Already an elected member of The National Institute of Arts and Letters, the following year, in 1906, the Academy of Arts and Letters elected him to its membership.


People were solicitous to understand his analytic and literary views. Several books disclose them. These are his important works. His 1885 edition of Olympian and Pythian Odes of Pindar met with success. Criticism was leveled against it but North American critics produced no comparable pieces of scholarship. Their assessments, however scientific, were undermined by judgments that were inferior to the ones they opposed in the book. Essays and Studies: Educational and Literary (1890) consist of papers published previously in the Southern Review and in the Princeton Review. A couple of occasional addresses are included. Readers interested in true literary criticism will find a storehouse of material. The insights he accumulates in articles on Lucian, the emperor Julian and Maximilian need no further endorsement from me; the value of the papers to classical scholarship overall is minimal. Hellas and Hesperia: Or, The Vitality of Greek Studies in America (1909) consists of three Barbour-Page lectures: ‘The Channels of Life, Greek Language and Literature’, and ‘Americanism and Hellenism’. Wide-ranging and urbane, BLG admitted that it was ‘a thinly disguised autobiography’ (AJP [1912] Vol.33, No.1, 105).

One century after America’s founding, BLG was putting the finishing touches on a volume that generally is overlooked, The Apologies of Justin Martyr, to which is Appended the Epistle of Diognetus (1877). It is a credible work, written with peculiar force, ignored somewhat by international classicists in his day, but closely read by biblicists who repaired their knowledge of Greek grammar with its notes. Misfortune attended it early on, as its sponsor in the Series of Christian Greek and Latin Writers was bankrupted (AJP[1908] Vol.29, No.2, 241). BLG used the Notes section to stockpile rules of Greek language. These explanations and formulae he developed further for later statements on Greek syntax.

The descriptive work BLG did on Justin Martyr (AD100-165) was, in his own view, exceptional. He focused on a definite object, to wit, styles of expression. He considered Justin’s Greek phrases to be ‘model language’. Justin delighted in philosophical inquiry. In his Apologies, he defended the Christian faith against what he believed were absurd speculations. He carefully explained Christian belief, demonstrating that it was superior to, and was no less reasonable than, belief in the Greek legends of the sons of Zeus. BLG’s text is devoid of any application of text-critical theory, and it follows the standard critical texts edited by Germans. BLG was primarily a commentator in this sphere, and there is nothing derogatory in that claim. His method was to engage previous critics’ textual descriptions, then to reject, elaborate on, or correct their views.


The items treated in BLG’s articles at times were incomprehensible even to the best of scholars. Benjamin Ide Wheeler (1854-1927), President of the University of California and no mean epigraphist, declared that ‘the exaggerated attention paid to syntax in American class-rooms of Greek and Latin’ constituted ‘the severest menace to the usefulness and therefore to the continuance of classical study’. He was referring to the cryptic papers issued by parties under the sway of Gildersleeve.

The best summary of BLG’s general principle is given where he states ‘We cannot expect to discover many startling facts in Greek syntax, but we may hope by the assemblage of facts to master more fully the secret of Greek expression, and we see here, as we have seen elsewhere, that while the tide has its rights, the swimmer has his also’. Gildersleeve knew things that others had no desire to know.

The bulk of the material that comprised his two volume Syntax of Classical Greek from Homer to Demosthenes originated in articles for the AJP. In each published paper, he is aware of strengths and weaknesses of other grammarians. Raphael Kühner’s (1802-1878) masterwork Greek grammar, Ausführliche Grammatik der griechischen Sprache (1834-1835), is treated by him fairly but critically. Thousands of scholars and students used it for purposes of reference (a few still do); but after forty years in print, hardly more than twenty researchers in the 1870s-1880s could have provided a qualified review of its contents. BLG offered such critiques and more.

An inventory of his Greek syntactical observations through thirty-six volumes of the AJP is available in AJP[1915] Vol.36, No.4, 481-487). See the register entitled, ‘Indiculus Syntacticus’.


BLG’s reviews were pointed. His preferences for books treating of Plato, Thucydides, Dramatists, Lyric poetry, Homer and Greek syntax come to mind here. Penetrating analyses form the framework for his constructive arguments. Early on in AJP his concern for Homer’s poems is apparent. His theory of the poem’s invention involved neither divine inspiration, nor composition by several hands; the basis of his unitarian views is expressly laid out in his review of M.V. Terret, Homère, at AJP [1899] Vol.20, No.1, 87-90. His deep knowledge of syntax likely prevented him from embracing the more fantastic theories regarding ‘The Homeric Question’.

Ever the gentleman, BLG subjected each volume under review to careful study, but mostly refrained from the kind of caustic language and personal attacks that were published in British and Dutch classical journals. Occasionally, German writers were extensively reviewed by BLG, always in an efficient manner. The supply of resources at his disposal was vast. In order to illustrate a grammatical point on which he was working in a Greek classical text, BLG invariably referred to words in the Greek Old Testament or Greek New Testament. He cited Greek and Latin Church Fathers and Patristic writers frequently. He even proposed that F.C. Baur (1792-1860) ‘preached one thing to his village congregation and taught another thing from his chair in Tubingen’; but he refrained from entering into extended reviews of biblical theology, not wanting AJP to become ‘the powder magazine of a theological review’.


The launch of AJP saw BLG create an editorial column entitled Lanx Satura. The objective was to have numerous contributors and to fashion it after the book notice segment in the Atlantic Monthly. Some commentators disliked the title, so he changed it to Brief Mention (AJP [1904] Vol.25, No.3, 351). Brief Mention [BM] became the literary theatre for his scholia and for ruminations on various matters related to classical studies.

Few stones were left unturned. Ovid, at one time, was his favorite poet. The origins of the Greco-Roman gods were not neglected; books that have little in common with each other came under inspection. The wording of each BM was less technical than that found in his reviews. Occasionally, however, BM treated an issue with scrupulous precision. It was governed by a proven set of norms. One of them, for example was founded on the notion that ‘every grammarian knows how often interpretation and criticism halt because the interpreter and the critic do not command the entirety of the grammatical material and method’. Statements about grammar were required to be composed with minute exactness.

BLG lauded the Euripidean renderings of Gilbert Murray (1866-1957), labeling him ‘an apostle of Hellenism’. Some of Murray’s renderings were works of original merit; but I distrust BLG’s claim that he wished more conjectural criticism to have been done in the USA (AJP [1902] Vol.23, No.2, 349). He related to readers a tale about submissions of ‘enthusiastic authors’ that lay in his drawer only because more pressing matter was in the queue before them. Those papers contained publishable conjectures, BLG alleged, but he averred that the authors tended to retract their emendations before he could print them. This accounts for the few conjectures that were published in AJP, especially by Americans.

He praised biblical scholars who engaged in Patristic and/or classical research. As stated above, BLG was no devotee of conjectural emendation. So C.G. Cobet’s (1813-1889) editorial duties and his submissions to Mnemosyne highlight the vast differences in their text-editing programs. Until Cobet’s death, BLG criticized him, justly sometimes; even though, in my judgment, BLG did not equal or exceed Cobet in any sphere of Greek or Latin classical scholarship.

BLG acknowledged the distinction of both Jebb and Wilamowitz. His attitudes toward the latter tended toward deference; but for an objective evaluation by BLG of Wilamowitz’ Greek text of the Persians, see AJP [1903] Vol.24, No.2, 222-238). In BM, the deaths of prominent classicists were noted. The notices that BLG provides are judicious and instructive. He supplied another index of extra-grammatical topics adverted to in Brief Mention entitled, Index Scoliodromicus, in AJP [1921] Vol.42, No.4, 270-382.


BLG was not one to embrace novel theories; and his edition of Justin Martyr is of limited value today, with notes, logically paraded, but restricted to grammatical matters. His notes were impressive. The impression made on academy teachers of lower forms of school who were familiar with various college series of Greek and Latin texts is not hard to judge. Undergraduate instructors could make little use of his academic research unless they wanted to discourse on obscure topics. He was equipped to do much more in the way of comparative linguistics, but he chose to do less.

BLG trained scores of students. They matched their wits with fellow biblicists and classicists, wrangling over the meaning of ancient terms, and for decades marched in the front ranks of philological studies in the USA. Specialized hypotheses were revised. Grammarians are needed, but a revival of their type of scholarship is not a desideratum. Experts who made BLG their preoccupation have not attempted to renew interests in all the syntactical phenomena that occupied him. He triumphed over his critics because they knew less Greek than he, although he made no pretense to a priority of invention. The dull work he did provided new shades of meanings for reading Greek texts. He did what others refused to do.

The philological school that BLG pioneered looks less impressive today when one takes into account the limited regard in which it was held by the last decade of his teaching career. Students of his who swerved toward exposition and literary studies fared better because they moved beyond the orbit of his syntactical thought. Other areas of his scholarship deserve exploration. BLG’s interpretative remarks about Greek mythos and mythography have gone without notice. Obviously his strength was grammar, and by this strong suit he won for himself admiration. BLG could have specialized in epigraphy. In the handful of instances that he addresses epigraphic issues, he shows himself to be a close reader of Greek inscriptions, and an avid student of published discussion about them. So great was his taste and zeal for ancient Hellas that he stated that ‘the Greeks were the last of the ancients’.

By any measurement, BLG revolutionized classical studies in America. Tyros called him Zeus. They came from the north, south, east and west to receive his instruction. His scholarly efforts were seminal, and there is much to admire therein. A product of his times, BLG used classical literature to affirm southern states’ rights and to defend the South’s cause in the catastrophe that Southerners labelled ‘The War Between the States’. [Editorial note; he also defended slavery]. But his academic achievements and publications should not be disregarded because such views are now deemed unacceptable.

Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve died knowing the ancient Greek mind would live on through the seeds that he, the master, had planted in the hearts of his scholars. He was a phenomenon, a Charlestonian to the core who spent his career in Baltimore. A great writer, he could have excelled in the field of Belles-lettres. Providentially, the Muses had other plans, fitting him to be studiosus philologiae.


[i] Several English men of letters stand out. R. Porson (1759-1808), P. Elmsley (1774-1825), T. Gaisford (1779-1855) and C. Blomfield (1786-1857) just to name a few, distinguished themselves in classical scholarship. Of others, one man stands out because of his work in America. Charles D’urban Morris (1827-86), Collegiate Professor of Greek and Latin in the Johns Hopkins University (1876-1886), represented ‘the best characteristics of the English school’ and combined all the ‘refined taste, sound sense, exemplary accuracy’ one should expect of an excellent philologist trained in mid-19th century England (See The American Journal of Philology [1886] Vol.7,No.1, pp.127-131). He completed Literae Humaniores in Lincoln College, Oxford (1849); became a Master of Arts at Oriel College, Oxford (1852). In 1853 he moved to America. Head of a private boys school, later he became a Professor in the University of the City of New York. His distinction gained him an appointment to the original faculty of Johns Hopkins. The English tutorial system formed the basis for his governance of undergraduates. Gilman would have appointed him to the Professorship occupied by Gildersleeve had Gilman spoken to him earlier. Morris, too, was a grammarian, and a better historian of ancient Greece than most; his critical acumen stood him apart from other classicists working in undergraduate departments on the east coast. Outside of a select circle of erudite men, his labors mainly went unnoticed. The quality of his output, c.40 published items, is not diminished by their small number or by the fractional notes that appeared in the JHU Circular. His Thucydides Book I (1887) stands out and is a repository of valuable information. His articles in Transactions of the American Philological Association were learned, along with his reports and reviews in AJP epitomize the better elements of English philology that Americans came to respect from the 1850s onwards.

[ii] See Mary Frances Williams, ‘How I was Kicked out of the Society for Classical Studies Annual Meeting’ in Quillette (Feb 26 2019) at

Darrell Sutton publishes papers on ancient texts and reviews biblical and classical literature

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