In high school, we all learned stories from Greek and Roman mythology. This was made a whole lot easier by an educator and writer named Edith Hamilton.
Edith was born in Germany in 1867 to American parents, the oldest of five children. She grew up with her family in Fort Wayne, Indiana. She and her siblings were homeschooled because her parents believed that the public school curriculum at the time was inefficient. At an early age, Edith learned to read and showed interest in creating stories. Her father taught her Latin and Classics while she was only seven years old. He also introduced her to Greek. Her mother, on the other hand, taught her and her siblings French and had them tutored in German.
At the age of 17, she entered Miss Porter’s Finishing School for Young Ladies, a tradition for women in the family. Edith studied here for two years before leaving to prepare for college, which she finally entered in 1891. She took both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Bryn Mawr College near Philadelphia, majoring in Greek and Latin. She stayed in the college a year after graduating as a Latin fellow and was awarded the Mary E. Garrett European Fellowship. This allowed her to pursue higher studies abroad and to become the first woman to enroll at the University of Munich in Germany.
Sadly for Edith, and her sister Alice who had come along, they weren’t informed that women were allowed to attend lectures but were expected to remain silent. After just one year in Germany, the sisters returned to the United States, Edith having been invited back to become head of Bryn Mawr School, a college preparatory school for girls in Baltimore. She also taught classics at the school. In 1906, she was made the school’s first headmistress. She retired in 1922 after 26 years of service.
After her retirement, Edith moved to New York City in 1924 to start a second career as a writer. Edith channeled her love and passion for Greek and Roman civilizations into essays and, eventually, best-selling books. She started by writing about Greek drama and comedy for Theater Arts Monthly. She then immediately went to writing books.
The Greek Way was published in 1930. This was Edith’s first book, published when she was 62. The book is a compilation of essays comparing Greek life to modern life. Some consider this book as her most “honored” work. The book explored how Greeks embraced athletic games, love of knowledge, and fine arts. Edith, who considers Greeks the first Westerners, claimed that the Greeks channeled Eastern ways through their constant innovation.
Her second book, aptly titled The Roman Way (1932), contrasted life in Rome to modern life. She did this by interpreting works by renowned Roman poets such as Plautus, Virgil, and Juvenal. She also interpreted Roman thoughts and manners, suggesting how they could be applied to the 20th century.
After her books in Roman and Greek life, she ventured into writing about the Catholic Bible. One of her books, The Prophets of Israel (1936), compared biblical ideals to modern life. Edith returned to her bread and butter in 1941 with her book Mythology, which compiles and details popular stories in classical mythology.
In 1957, Edith finally visited Greece at age 90, which she considered a high point in her life. She was able to see her translation of Prometheus Bound by Aeschylus performed at the ancient Odeon theater. Then-king Paul of Greece gave her the Golden Cross of the Order of Benefaction, Greece’s highest honor. The mayor of Athens also made her an honorary citizen.
Edith Hamilton passed away in 1963 in Washington, D.C., at the age of 96. By this time, she was already known as one of the greatest classicists of her time. Her books continued to sell well, after having been written in a way that is accessible for many people. Today, her books are still used as primary study material for Greek and Roman studies.
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