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Kathleen Freeman’s Ancillary Classicism


“Just a little handmaid to celebrated male scholars[?]”

freeman01Appreciate Kathleen Freeman, the girl from humble origins in Yardley, Birmingham, who brought ancient Greek authors to a wide audience in South Wales and far beyond. Her father was a travelling salesman. She won a scholarships to study Classics at Cardiff. In 1919 she was appointed Lecturer in Greek, and for the next forty years, until her death in 1959, produced an extraordinary stream of accessible works on the ancient Greeks, as well as detective novels under the name of Mary Fitt, and studies of Jane Austen and Dylan Thomas.

She was and still is widely known for her Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers (1948), which for the first time made Thales, Parmenides, Zeno and Democritus etc. available to people without the training to understand them in Greek.

freeman04Freeman’s first book was The Work and Life of Solon (1926). She was attracted to Solon because he played an important role in laying the foundations for Athenian democracy and is often adopted as one of the classical ‘heroes’ of the political Left. Typically, she later adapted the same material for a book for children, Man of Justice  (under the pseudonym of Mary Fitt).  Several books and articles devoted to political topics or using the ancient Greeks to address contemporary political issues followed:  It has all happened before : what the Greeks thought of their Nazis (1941), Voices of Freedom (1943), Greek City-States (1950), The Paths of Justice (1954), God, Man and State (1952). But she also wrote erudite and vivid books on a breathtaking range of classical topics and authors, philosophical, historical, legal, rhetorical and literary.

Freeman ploughed her own furrow. She lived with her girl-friend, a G.P. She never got promoted or an honorary doctorate except for one for fiction. She never won any classical honours, fellowship, memberships of academies, prizes, or distinctions. She was never invited to give any prestigious lectures. Instead she worked hard for the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, the Save the Children Fund and the National Council of Women.  She lectured to miners and to soldiers.

freeman02Many reviewers wondered why Freeman had called her book an Ancilla, the Latin for ‘a little handmaid’. Freeman was having a jolly good laugh at them. We know she was hilarious because of the portrait of a Latin Professor in her first novel, Martin Hanner. She had used her excellent brain to make the Greeks intelligible and accessible to every man and woman in the English-speaking world. But of course she was not going to get uppity. She was just a little handmaid to celebrated male scholars, after all.


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