A century of excellence: classicist Joyce Reynolds receives an Honorary Doctorate 6 months before her 100th birthday

Born in 1918, Joyce Reynolds is one of the world’s leading ancient historians. She drove an all-woman party of archaeologists through Egypt, Syria and Turkey in the 1950s, and is still to be found in the library working on a major publication of the graffiti of Pompeii in Italy. Now, 67 years after she became a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, Reynolds is to be honoured by the University of Cambridge with an Honorary Degree.  

In her distinguished career, Reynolds has taught students who have gone on to shape the field of classics in their turn. Among them are fellow classicists Prof Mary Beard and Prof Pat Easterling, the philosopher Prof MM McCabe and Byzantinist Prof Charlotte Roueche. She is shown in this photograph with Mary Beard (left) and Pat Easterling (right).

Reynolds has always been interested in how the Roman Empire was governed and how its subjects responded. Her work has centred largely on Roman epigraphy: the study of ancient inscriptions. These might be the formal inscriptions of the ruling elite, graffiti scratched out on walls, or messages on anything from pottery to pieces of clothing.

In the quest for new inscriptions, she explored remote areas of Libya, Syria, Romania and Turkey – often the only woman on an archaeological dig. Dangerous exploration was combined with painstaking work in deciphering and interpretation. Despite the practical difficulties of exploring ancient sites, she refused to wear trousers: “I don’t ever wear trousers! They remind me of the war.” In a biography of her life, The Century Girls, Reynolds recalled “I didn’t think I was being terribly intrepid… Mostly it was fine, but in parts it wasn’t very easy to be alone as a woman… We went to Palmyra. I remember walking down ancient streets, there was nobody else there. No one else.” Remembering the experience again today, she added, “Only the odd wild animal and birds.”

Her most influential work has been on the inscriptions from the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey. There an extraordinary series of official documents, and letters between the Aphrodisians and high ranking Romans, has been discovered, inscribed and preserved on a wall in the city’s theatre for all to see (now known, for obvious reasons, as the ‘Archive Wall). Reynolds deciphered these, no mean feat in itself, but in a classic volume Aphrodisias and Rome (1982), she explored the importance of these documents for big historical questions about Roman government and the relations between the imperial centre and the provinces.

Mary Beard said, “Joyce’s work at Aphrodisias really changed historians’ views about how the Roman empire worked. I bet it will still be being read in 200 years time.’

But Reynolds became a classicist and an epigrapher almost by accident. After a civil service job during the Second World War, she planned to continue there – only to fail the entrance exam, a so-called ‘intelligence test’. “It was depressing,” she recalled. “I took my time over each question, but in fact you have to go like the clappers. Nobody told me this, so I was giving each answer due consideration and I ran out of time.” Instead she took up a research scholarship and headed to post-war Rome, to find that a French researcher had just published an important article on the very subject that she had planned to work on. Fortunately, her supervisor needed help with some inscriptions from his excavations – and the rest was history.

Joyce’s words of wisdom: “When I have had troubles, I have always found that it helped to get back to work – starting with an hour a day and building up to eight or, eventually, ten.”

Returning to the UK, Reynolds became a lecturer in Ancient History at Newcastle University. Three years later, she became a Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, which has had an outstanding Classics tradition over its 147 years, including the revolutionary classicist and suffragist Jane Harrison, ‘Bloody Jane’, who argued that ancient Greece was a much more thrilling, gory, and disgusting place than its white marble image suggests. Since then, as well as Mary Beard, prominent Classical fellows of Newnham have included Professor Jocelyn Toynbee (Cambridge Professor of Classical Archaeology) and Professor Pat Easterling (the first and, so far, only woman to hold the Regius Chair of Greek).

Joyce Reynolds was Director of Studies at Newnham College, Cambridge, from 1951-1979, was a University Lecturer in Classics from 1957-1983 and Reader in the Epigraphy of the Roman World at Cambridge from 1983-1984. She is a Gold Medallist of the Society of Antiquaries and a longstanding Fellow of the British Academy, receiving its Kenyon Medal for her outstanding achievement in Classical Studies and Archaeology.

Reynolds is now Reader Emerita at the University of Cambridge and an Honorary Fellow of Newnham. She is an Honorary Fellow of Somerville, the Oxford College where she took her undergraduate degree.

(Quotes taken from The Century Girls by Tessa Dunlop, available to read in Newnham College Library)