Oswyn Murray, classical scholar and historian, was born in Surrey, U.K. in 1937 into a family of scholars and public servants descended from Sir James Murray, editor of the Oxford English Dictionary; his grandfather (after whom he was named) was Permanent Secretary to the Admiralty (1917-36), his father was administrative head of the Special Operations Executive, organising sabotage and resistance in occupied countries during the Second World War, and later in the Ministry of Power was responsible for the nationalisation and subsequent denationalisation of the electricity supply industry, and for the development of the British nuclear power program.
Murray took a first class degree in Classics at Exeter College Oxford in 1961, and was subsequently Research Fellow of Saint Edmund Hall and the Warburg Institute London. From 1968 to 2004 he was a Fellow of Balliol College Oxford and member of the famous team with Jasper Griffin, Oliver Lyne, Anthony Kenny and Jonathan Barnes, that dominated classical education in Britain in the late 20th century, teaching Greek and Roman history. He fulfilled most of the normal administrative offices of his college (notably Vice-Master and twice Senior Tutor), and on its behalf designed and built with the architect Richard MacCormac a new street in central Oxford (Jowett Walk Buildings). In his last four years he was Praefectus (head) of Holywell Manor Graduate Centre and chairman of the Graduate Committee of Oxford University, where he tried to reform graduate studies. He retired in 2004, and devotes himself to academic writing, village life, his family and cider-making.
The main influence on his formation as a scholar was his doctoral supervisor, Arnaldo Momigliano, from whom he learned that the study of history runs from antiquity to the present, and that the classics are the foundation of all western culture. From him he learned the importance of uncertainty, and that the relativity of historical truth depends on the historian and his or her viewpoint. He also had close connections with the Centre Louis Gernet in Paris (notably Jean-Pierre Vernant, Pierre Vidal-Naquet, François Lissarrague and Pauline Schmitt Pantel) and with many individual Italian scholars.
His own work can be divided into the following fields:
In the sixties he studied Hellenistic Greek political thought, and wrote a thesis on ideas of monarchy in that period: the thesis remains unpublished, but a number of articles have appeared.
In the seventies he wrote a study of the archaic period of Greece, Early Greece (1980, second edition 1993); published in Britain and the United States and translated into many languages including Chinese, this has become the standard introduction to early Greek history.
In the eighties, together with colleagues in Italy and France, he opened up the subject of the Greek symposion (or male drinking group) as the dominant cultural form of pleasure in the archaic and classical world of Greece. The best introductions to the importance of this phenomenon are the collections of essays edited by him called Sympotica (1990) and In Vino Veritas (1995). He also wrote important studies on the rationality of Greek political institutions (The Greek City, edited by Murray and Price (1990)); and he was an editor of the best-selling Oxford History of the Classical World (1986).
In the nineties he worked on the history of classical and historical studies during the last three centuries, and created a research team devoted to the study of the diffusion of a common European classical culture through the translation of works of scholarship. This resulted in a website catalogue of all known translations of works of classical scholarship from 1701 to 1917, called Bibliotheca Academica Translationum, launched on the EHESS Paris website in 2010 (bat.ehess.fr). During this period he produced editions of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Greeks and Greek Civilization (1998) and the forgotten first radical history of Greece, Bulwer Lytton’s Athens its Rise and Fall (2004). He also rediscovered the first critical history of ancient Greece by the forgotten Irishman, John Gast (1753).
Since retirement he has continued these interests; in particular he is working on a history of the relations between historical studies in Europe and Britain from 1700 to the present. His main new concern has been the editing of an English version of the great Italian commentary on Herodotus, the first volume of which (Books i-iv) appeared in 2007.
He has been twice married, since 1976 to the classical scholar Penelope Murray, and he has five children. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, a foreign member of the Royal Danish Academy, and holds an honorary degree from the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.