Gilbert Murray

The Australian-born British scholar Gilbert Murray (1866-1957) first made a name for himself as an innovative scholar of Greek literature. He taught at Oxford and Glasgow Universities and translated ancient Greek texts. He applied his own unique approach to translating the works of the ancient Greek masters—including Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, and Aristophanes—and in the process generated new interest for Greek drama on the contemporary London stage. Murray was also a staunch advocate for world peace, and he gained international renown for his efforts in establishing the League of Nations and the United Nations.

Early Life and Career

The future renowned British scholar and political activist Gilbert Murray was born George Gilbert Aimé Murray on January 2, 1866, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. When he was 11 years old, he moved with his family to Britain. He attended Oxford University and graduated at the top of his class in 1887.

In 1888, he became a fellow at Oxford. From 1889 to 1899, he was a professor of Greek at the University of Glasgow. Only 23 years old when he started at Glasgow, he was one of the youngest professors ever at the esteemed institution. As a professor, he was noted for his enthusiasm and insight into Greek tragedy. His lectures consisted in large part of his own translations of Greek plays. These translations would later be published and presented in the London theatre. During the period between 1904 and 1912, he directed many stage productions of Greek plays. In doing so, he helped revive the Greek theatre as a vital performance art. When translating the plays, he employed rhymed verse rather than blank verse, trying to restore the rhythmic quality that was such an important element of the ancient Greek literature. In 1908, he became Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University. He held that position until his retirement in 1936.

Innovative Scholarship

Murray is considered one of the most important scholars of Greek history and culture. As a scholar and educator, he was noted for incorporating anthropology, then an emerging science, into his studies of Greek texts. As a result of this novel approach, he increased the academic world's understanding of the writings of Homer as well as the ancient Greek religions. A recurrent theme in his scholarly works involved the continuing importance of ancient theology and religions to modern thought. He illustrated this by recounting the many theological trends of ancient Greece.

This approach guided his writing in such scholarly works as The Rise of the Greek Epic, which was published in 1907, and Five Stages of Greek Religion, published in 1925. In the latter work, Murray described the earliest and most primitive rites as well as the classic Greek religion that included the Olympian gods and the later religion of the philosophic schools of the fourth century B.C. By outlining Greek theology in this fashion, he postulated that Christianity resulted from a cultural clash between Greek and Eastern religions. His other well-known works include History of Ancient Greek Literature (1897), The Classical Tradition in Poetry (1927), and Hellenism and the Modern World (1953). His Euripides and His Age (1918) is considered on of the best books written about its subject. Essentially, he ripped the name down from the pantheon of great Greek authors, brought the subject down to earth, and made Euripides a compelling flesh-and-blood figure, placing the writer squarely in the context of his times while emphasizing his continued relevance. "As a playwright the fate of Euripides has been strange," wrote Murray in Euripides. "All through a long life he was almost invariably beaten in the State competitions. He was steadily admired by some few philosophers, like Socrates; he enjoyed immense fame throughout Greece; but the official judges of poetry were against him, and his own people of Athens admired him reluctantly and with a grudge. After death, indeed, he seemed to come into his kingdom. He held the stage as no other tragedian has ever held it, and we hear of his plays being performed with popular success six hundred years after they were written, and in countries far removed from Greece."

Commenting about Greek scholarship and the value of the ancient texts, Murray once said, as quoted in, "Between us and [ancient Greek authors], there has passed age upon age of men … who sought in the books that they read other things than truth and imaginative beauty, or who did not care to read books at all. Of the literature produced by the Greeks in the fifth century B.C., we possess about a twentieth part; of that produced in the seventh, sixth, fourth and third, not nearly so large a proportion. All that has reached us has passed a severe test and far from discriminating ordeal. It has secured its life by never going out of fashion for long at a time."

In another scholarly book, with subject matter more anthropological than classical, Stoic, Christian, and Humanist, published in 1940, Murray took a look at the world's earliest rites and religions and considered their relevance to later religions.

Became Interested in International Affairs

Murray not only made a name for himself as an important Greek scholar, he also became an important international figure as a peace advocate who was instrumental in the creation of the League of Nations and the United Nations.

In the early part of the twentieth century, Murrary's concerns grew to include world affairs. His interest began in earnest in 1914, as Europe became the center stage of World War I. Murray was stirred by Sir Edward Grey's speech before the House of Parliament on August 3, 1914, that called for Great Britain's entrance into the great conflict. Even though it meant his country was going to war, Murray recognized the "rightness" of the decision. From that point on, Murray became active in the cause of world peace. He later supported the Covenant of the League of Nations, drafted by United States President Woodrow Wilson and submitted on February 14, 1919. The document advocated the need for an international organization that could preserve peace and settle disputes by arbitration as opposed to war. The League of Nations Union itself was formed after World War I, and Murray was one of the founding members. He was appointed as a South African delegate from 1921 to 1923. From 1923 to 1938, he was chairman of the League. During World War II, he served as joint president. During this period, he published several books about international politics, including Liberality and Civilization: Lectures Given at the Invitation of the Hibbert Trustees in the Universities of Bristol, Glasgow and Birmingham (1938).

In 1924, while in Geneva, Switzerland, working with the League of Nations Union, Murray took part in a discussion about effective contributions to world peace. He suggested the development of an international students' group that would provide the intellectual, artistic, and social exchange of ideas among individuals of various national backgrounds. His suggestion led to the creation of the Committee of Intellectual Cooperation. Not only was he instrumental in its development, Murray served as chairman for eight years.

In 1934, Murray was one of the organizers of the famous League of Nations "Peace Ballot" of 1934-1935. More than 11 million British voters supported the ballot as well as Britain's membership in the League. Murray himself considered the ballot to be the League's greatest achievement. However, the League's efforts did little to affect the rising tide of Fascist aggression that came out of Germany and Italy during the 1930s. Murray blamed the failures on the United States' lack of participation up to that point. However, the eventual outbreak of World War II only caused Murray to be a more staunch advocate in his efforts toward world peace.

Engaged in Famine Relief

In 1942, Murray became one of the founding members of the Oxford Committee for Famine Relief, or Oxfam, as well as one of its trustees. The formation of the committee resulted from a situation in Europe directly attributable to the German invasions. In April 1941, when Greece surrendered to Germany, food and supplies belonging to the citizens were given to the German soldiers, which made a bad situation even worse. Before the invasion, the Greek people already suffered shortages due to Allied blockades intended to deplete the German army. A famine ensued and, at its peak, more than 1,500 people died a day. The situation was almost as bad in other occupied countries, including Norway, Belgium, and Poland. Not helping matters was the British government's stance on relief for the starving countries. It firmly believed that it was the duty of the occupying enemy to feed the citizens. Britain was reluctant to send relief, because it feared that any supplies offered would be given instead to German soldiers, and that could prolong the war. However, awareness of the situation—as well as their government's stance—grew among the British civilians. A movement was formed to appeal to the government to change its stance. Oxfam was part of this movement. Murray felt that in light of the deaths in Greece, the blockade was unjustifiable.

The committee first proposed a "controlled relief" program that included providing dried milk and vitamins for Greek and Belgian children. The response of the British War Cabinet was pretty much the same as before. The supplies, they believed, would inevitably be taken by the Germans and diverted to its workers in munitions factories and thus help the German war effort. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill was even bold enough to suggest that hunger might help provoke citizens of occupied countries to rise against their oppressors.

Oxfam officially came into existence on May 29, 1942. George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, a man known for his humanitarian positions, and Murray were among the members. Murray, because of his knowledge of Greece as well as the immediate Greek situation, was deemed a valuable advisor to the committee. The committee included academics and public figures. The committee's goals were to gather information about famine conditions in occupied countries and provide food relief where most needed. To support the committee, a Famine Relief Fund was established that help fund relief that the government deemed permissible. Oxfam was comprised of more than 200 local committees. However, its effect was relatively modest. The British government stuck fast to its policy on the blockade and would only allow relief to Greece. After the war, Oxfam continued its efforts on behalf of the lingering needs of European countries.

Even before Oxfam was formed, Murray had attempted to help stem the growing famine. In October of 1941, the League of Nations Union created the Committee on Starvation in Occupied Countries, and Murray and Lord Robert Cecil were appointed as joint presidents. The two men sought a meeting with the Ministry of Economic Warfare to see if anything could be done, but the government would not change its policy.

Helped Form the United Nations

In 1945, the United Nations Association was formed. It was a direct successor of the League of Nations Union. The purpose was to "help bring about a just, ordered and lasting peace, and better conditions of life for all mankind." Working out of the organization's first home office in London, Murray was integral to its creation. He was part of the early leadership that also included Viscount Cecil, C.R. Attlee, Lady Violet Bonham Carter, and Churchill. Murray would, in fact, become the first president of the general counsel of the United Nations. He would also serve as its joint president from the end of the war until his death in 1957.

Passed Away in Oxford

Murray died on May 20, 1957, in Oxford, Oxfordshire, England. After he had retired from teaching from Oxford University he always remained close to the institution. After his death, his family, friends, and fellow Oxfam supporters created a small capital fund to establish the Gilbert Murray Memorial Lecture Fund. The lectures, held every other year, feature subjects relating to international affairs, particularly relief and overseas development.


"Before Oct. 5th—The Origins of Oxfam," website, (March 15, 2003).

Haslett, Michael, and Isobel Haslett, "Buchan and the Classics:School and University," John Buchan Society website, (March 15, 2003).

"Historical Overview: 1924-Present," website, (March 15, 2003).

Meade, James E. "Autobiography," Nobel e-Museum website, (March 15, 2003).

"Murray, Gilbert," website, (March 15, 2003).

"Murray, Gilbert," website, (March 15, 2003).

"Murray, Gilbert," website, (March 15, 2003).

Powell, Jim, "Voice for Liberty in the Ancient World," website, (March 15, 2003).

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