Legendary scholarship, ‘tough love’, and cocktails: Joyce Reynolds’s trailblazing life and unique and multifaceted legacy

Legendary scholarship, ‘tough love’, and cocktails: Joyce Reynolds’s trailblazing life and unique and multifaceted legacy

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    Joyce Reynolds at the British School at Rome in 1949
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    Joyce Reynolds and companions on horse and camel at Giza, 1993

Formidable, gifted, and just as passionate about her own work as her students’ learning and success, Joyce Reynolds was, and remains, an inspiration. Warm and admiring anecdotes about her abound — and one thing is clear: no one whose life was touched by Joyce will ever forget her. Now, her spirit and commitment will continue to support future generations thanks not only to her own legacy giving, but to the giving she inspired in others.  

Joyce offered her students the very best sort of ‘tough love’. It was ‘tough’ because she had almost impossibly high standards and did not suffer fools gladly.... But it was ‘love’, because she never once let us down.

Professor Mary Beard

Joyce’s no-nonsense self-possession, courage, and strength of character were an extraordinary combination — and her intellect, curiosity, plus a touch of serendipity, shaped a phenomenal career. Throughout her working life, Joyce was a strong advocate for the role of women in academia. Across College, Classics and her beloved students, she has left an indelible mark.  

According to Joyce’s nephew Greg Reynolds, "It is interesting how well she was able to separate work and family life. We remember Joyce fondly as an unassuming and kindly aunt who never had a cross word to say and who enjoyed playing snakes and ladders at Christmas. She was delighted to spend time over the years with three generations of nieces and nephews, and always keen to keep in touch with family news from her former students."

A questing life of discovery and interpretation  

Born in 1918, Joyce Reynolds was one of the world’s leading ancient historians, and nothing if not intrepid. She drove an all-woman party of archaeologists through Egypt, Syria and Turkey in the 1950s, and was still visiting sites around the Mediterranean in her 80s and working from home and in the library into her late 90s.  

In 2017, at the age of 98, the Newnham academic was awarded the prestigious Kenyon Medal by The British Academy — the UK’s national body for the humanities and social sciences — for her lifetime’s contribution to the research and study of Roman epigraphy. Joyce was the first woman to receive the award in its 60-year history.  

And 67 years after she became a Fellow of Newnham College — and six months before her 100th birthday — Reynolds was honoured by the University of Cambridge with an Honorary Doctorate.  

Professor Mary Beard, Joyce Reynolds and Professor Pat Easterling at Newnham College in 2018

In her distinguished career, Reynolds taught students who went on to shape the field of classics in their turn, including fellow classicists Professors Mary Beard and Pat Easterling, the philosopher Professor MM McCabe and Byzantinist Professor Charlotte Roueche.  

Her work centred largely on Roman epigraphy: the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions, which might be the formal inscriptions of the ruling elite, graffiti scratched on walls, or messages on anything from pottery to pieces of clothing.  

In the quest for new inscriptions, Reynolds 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. Her most influential work was on the inscriptions from the Greco-Roman city of Aphrodisias in modern Turkey, where Reynolds deciphered an extraordinary series of official documents and letters between the Aphrodisians and high-ranking Romans. Then, 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, contributing to changing historians’ views about how the Roman Empire worked.  

But Reynolds became a classicist and an epigrapher almost by accident. After a civil service job during the Second World War, which she planned to continue, she failed the entrance exam. Instead, in 1946, she took up a scholarship at the British School at Rome leading to field research in North Africa under the supervision and encouragement of Professor J B Ward-Perkins. In 1952 Joyce published her first book, Inscriptions of Roman Tripolitania — and the rest was history in all senses.  

As Professor Beard tells it, "Joyce offered her students the very best sort of ‘tough love’. It was ‘tough’ because she had almost impossibly high standards and did not suffer fools gladly.... But it was ‘love’, because she never once let us down. We had no doubt at all that she was on our side and that whatever scrape we got into, intellectual or otherwise, she would be there for us (supervisions sometimes lasted for hours until she was absolutely convinced that we had understood whatever point we were struggling with). I have such fond memories of her combination of committed seriousness and wonderful sense of fun, summed up in the slightly incongruous parties she hosted for colleagues and post-graduate students: they started with a lecture on some, often abstruse, subject of classical history, and they finished with her signature concoction of gin and lychees."

A legacy less ordinary: bequests to Classics and Newnham  

Joyce was Director of Studies at Newnham College, Cambridge from 1951–1979, a University Lecturer in Classics from 1957–1983, and a Reader in the Epigraphy of the Roman World at Cambridge from 1983–1984. Later she became a Reader Emerita at Cambridge and for 50 years was a Fellow of Newnham.  

It’s a Collegiate Cambridge legacy for the ages in terms of one person’s presence, influence, and scholarly example.  

But Joyce wanted to give more. She left £20K to Newnham alongside £10,000 and her library of books to the Classics Faculty — gifts reflecting her deep personal relationship with Collegiate Cambridge. In recognition of this multi-layered legacy, a room will be named after her in the Classics library.  

Six degrees of inspiration?  

No doubt Joyce never expected, at the long-ago start of her remarkable career, that she would have such an influence during her lifetime — even though her personality and character made this almost inevitable. But even she might be surprised at how her impact story continues in the hands of those she inspired, and deeply impressed by the remarkable students who have taken up her mantle.  

When Mary Beard retired in 2022 after almost 40 years of teaching at the University, she established the Joyce Reynolds Award in her tutor’s honour to help fund two UK Classics students from underrepresented backgrounds. Then, inspired by Mary’s ‘retirement gift’, Karen and Peter Ventress made a generous donation to fund a further studentship in this ‘amazing subject’ under the banner of the Joyce Reynolds Awards.  

Award recipient and Newnham student Zaynab Ahmed remarked: “I was lucky enough to attend a state grammar that offered Classics/Latin, but it isn’t something that’s taught in many state schools. This means a lot of BAME students aren’t exposed to the subject and the opportunities it offers. That’s why the four-year course here is so important, with the preliminary year as a foundation, and these gifts will hopefully mean more students from under-represented groups feel able to apply.”  

With the end of one Newnham era comes the beginning of the next, equally inspiring, chapter. 

Find out more about leaving a legacy gift

If you would like to know more about remembering Cambridge with a gift in your Will, we would be delighted to hear from you. Whether you pledge to support the arts, student scholarships, scientific research or one of our Colleges, your generosity will help transform Cambridge for future generations.

For an informal discussion about a legacy gift, please contact:

Alice Macek

Alice Macek

Associate Director — Legacies


07761 042151

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