WHEN UNIVERSITIES are fighting for every dollar they can get, even the smallest donation is welcome. But the University of Melbourne's Centre for Classics and Archaeology never dreamed that one generous graduate would give it $1 million.
The donor, who has insisted on anonymity, believes more young people should experience the joy of studying classics, pro vice-chancellor Professor Warren Bebbington says.
Melbourne receives more than $20 million annually in donations and bequests, although about $9 million of this comes from existing trusts and wills. It also gets another $4 million in cultural gifts, such as books and artworks.
The university receives about 2500 donations a year, with the average gift $280. More than 80 per cent come from alumni, and most go to medicine, followed by music and the arts, especially creative arts.
"Many donors are very self-effacing and prefer anonymity," Professor Bebbington says. "Their pleasure is in giving." He describes the $1 million donation as "major", adding that "it will ensure classics remains central to what we do."
The centre's director, Associate Professor Chris Mackie, says it is "getting harder and harder to protect small language subjects" and the gift is a fantastic boost.
"Classics has had a profile in the history and mission of the university for more than 150 years," he says.
"We are also one of the few Australian universities that has continued to teach a full program of Latin and ancient Greek."
The centre, part of the arts faculty, offers a multi-disciplinary perspective on ancient Graeco-Roman, Aegean and Near Eastern civilisations. Topics covered include religious, political and social life in ancient societies, classical literature and mythology, philosophy, art and architecture.
About 1200 students, including postgraduates, enrol each year, says Professor Mackie. Some do just a couple of classics subjects, reading the texts in translation.
Others have a deep passion for it and major in either classics, which requires the study of Latin and/or ancient Greek, or ancient world studies, where these languages are not compulsory.
A small number of students have studied VCE Latin or ancient Greek, says Professor Mackie. The languages, which are not easy to learn, are intended more for reading than speaking.
"However, many students enjoy the analytical challenge and wrestling with difficult languages written by highly skilled people.
"They are also very interested in Greece and Rome and want to study these civilisations in more depth. If they can read the original texts (rather than translations), they get closer to the spirit of the material."
The centre also runs an community access program, where the public can study single subjects without assessment, and public lectures.
James O'Maley is writing on Homer's The Iliad for his honours thesis, including studying ancient Greek.
"As a kid, I loved reading the children's version of The Odyssey by Homer, although then it seemed like fairy-tale stuff," he recalls.
"Later we had Latin on our high-school syllabus. The more I got into it - for example, reading Virgil - the more fantastic I found the writing.
"And when I got to university and discovered I could study this full-time - I thought 'Why not?' I find it very enjoyable."
Apart from being "gateways to the texts", Mr O'Maley says Latin and Greek improve students' understanding of English grammar.
"Classics also provides a good knowledge of your own history and the Judeo-Christian civilisation. The Greeks taught about the way to live a good life 2500 years ago, and in terms of humanities-based thought, it's a very rich area. You can find things in The Iliad and The Odyssey that are relevant to modern life and modern political thought."
Professor Mackie, who was senior academic consultant on Winged Sandals, the ABC Online children's program about Greek myths, believes community interest in classics is growing. "More people than ever" are reading them in translation because they are so readily available, he says.
He also cites the popularity of films such as Ridley Scott's Gladiator and Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and television documentaries.
On a personal level, studying classics enriches people's lives, but there are also pragmatic benefits in studying classics, he says. "Many big companies in Britain and the US see classics graduates as well-rounded, erudite, articulate and good thinkers, and this is increasingly the case in Australia. I have graduates working in business, finance and the public service," he says.
"Many people want to give back because they had a wonderful time here (as students)," Professor Bebbington says. "Others are very interested in our new Melbourne Model and want to support that. Some have a special interest - for example, finding a cure for a disease - and give for research."
Medicine attracts the bulk of donations, but the next biggest faculty is music. Arts, particularly creative arts, are very popular.