Ask Alma's Owl: American Classicist Charles Anthon

July 10, 2015
Charles Anthon Columbia University

Dear Alma,
A Classics Department professorship is named for Charles Anthon. What else can you tell me about him?
— Classic Buff

Dear Classics Buff,

Anthon (CC’1815, LLD’1831) was a major American figure in the field of classics during the 19th century although his reputation has since receded into history. The current Anthon Professor of the Latin Language and Literature is James E.G. Zetzel, an expert in Latin literature of the first century BC.

Anthon was a prolific scholar, publishing textbooks for all levels ranging from grammar school students to professors. In addition to his fulltime teaching at Columbia, he also ran Columbia Grammar School.

Since library resources and teaching materials were not always available at that time, particularly in rural areas, “Anthon’s full commentaries and reference books filled a vital educational need in the United States,” said Francis J. Sypher (CC’63, MA’64, PhD’68), who recently wrote a monograph on Anthon.

Anthon’s connection to Columbia ran deep; his father was a trustee and three brothers also attended the College. Charles arrived at Columbia as a freshman at age 14 and earned highest honors.

After preparing for a career in the law, he accepted an offer to teach classics at his alma mater. He went on to become the Jay Professor of the Greek and Latin Languages, an endowed chair named for John Jay (CC’1764) and later changed to the Jay Professorship of the Greek Language and Literature.

Anthon was in the running for president of Columbia after Charles King resigned in 1864. He got several votes, but Frederick A.P. Barnard—a defector from the Confederate cause who arrived in New York two years earlier from the University of Mississippi— took the prize in an easy victory.

Anthon began corresponding with Edgar Allan Poe in 1837 when Poe sought his help with publishing contacts. Poe praised Anthon for doing “more for our classical literature than any man in the country.”

Sypher says he was inspired to write about Anton because he used to study in the classics library, then on the fourth floor of Butler, under a fulllength portrait of Anton with walking stick and top hat.

“During long afternoons there I often felt that he was looking directly at me, and somehow communicating his encouragement of my studies,” writes Sypher in his book, Charles Anthon: American Classicist.

— Gary Shapiro

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