An interview with MI5's Jonathan Evans

Classicists have certainly had some interesting career paths. Jonathan Evans studied Latin and Greek at Bristol University  . He is now the Director General of the Security Service, commonly known as MI5. For our series on famous classicists, Jonathan Evans took time out from his demanding role  to answer these questions submitted on behalf of Iris by another classicist Martha Kearney from The World at One on Radio 4.


When did you first become interested in classics?

I started to learn Latin at quite a young age but my real interest came from reading "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God" by Robert Graves when I was about twelve. I loved the intrigue ad the characters.

Did you study both Latin and Greek at school?

I studied Latin at school, but only started Greek at University. I soon realised that starting a language at 19 is harder going than at 9 and sadly, though I learned it in quite a short period of time, I also lost most of it quite rapidly through non-use. My housemaster at school spoke good latin because he had spent some time as a novice monk and had studied at the Vatican where he had used Latin as an everyday working language.

What did you find most difficult?

Greek particles.

Which author did you enjoy most?

At school, Suetonius. He is scurrilous, entertaining and very human. At University, I enjoyed Juvenal for the scathing satire (an original grumpy old man!) and Aristophanes. I really ought to say Homer, Virgil, and Sophocles, but actually I preferred the less elevated writers.

Why did you decide to take classical studies at University?

Mostly chance really. My other university choices were for English, but Bristol University was just launching it's new classical studies degree, and I liked the sound of it. When they offered me a place, I took it, and am very glad I did. There were only 3 of us on that specific course, and in addition to learning Greek it also provided a wide curriculum including historiography, social anthropology, ancient philosophy and what I believe is now called "classical reception studies" (i.e. what later generations made of classical civilisation).

Are there any skills which transfer to your current job?

MI5 needs people with good intellectual skills, the ability to spot connections, the ability to absorb and assess a variety of material. Natural ground for a classicist.
Are you a fan of any films or TV programmes about the ancient world which have been made recently?

I enjoyed "Gladiator" though I am not sure about its historical accuracy.

How important is it that state schools offer the opportunity to study classics?

I think it is important. Not only is it interesting and fun in its own right, but the classical world is so central to the development of western civilisation that it is wrong to deny most of our children access to it. My own children had the opportunity to study classics at state schools and really benefitted from it. Classics should not be an elitist ghetto.

Do you ever see parallels between events and personalities in the modern era and the ancient world?

I think that Sulla would have found a soul mate in some of the security chiefs I have met from despotic regimes elsewhere in the world. And I was struck when reading "Rubicon" by Tom Holland that war elephants were the weapons of mass destruction of the Roman world and that Romans were able to decommission them through hamstringing.  It makes you eel sorry for the poor elephants.

Is it true that many people in your profession in the past were classicists?

There has been something of a classical tradition in the intelligence world, perhaps because of the mental disciplines I referred to earlier. The retired officer who first interviewed me for a job in MI5 was a classicist and I once recieved a minute from one of my bosses in perfect ancient greek when I was a young officer. I am happy to say that my current private secretary is also a classicist, though that was not a criterion for getting the job; his predecessor had studied chemistry.