Elaine Fantham, née Crosthwaite, was born in Liverpool, England, to parents she described as "ill-paid but educated,” and who skimped to send her to a good school. She began studying Latin at age nine. She won a scholarship to Oxford University, where she read classics and received a First degree in 1954. She completed a master's degree at Oxford in 1957 and held a fellowship at the University of Liverpool in 1956-1958 before earning her PhD at Liverpool in 1965. She married Peter Fantham, a mathematician with whom she had two children, and accompanied him to Scotland when he took a post at the University of St. Andrews. There she taught at a girls' secondary school for several years. She then moved to Indiana University in the USA, where she was a visiting lecturer in 1966–1968. For the next 18 years, she taught at the University of Toronto. In 1986, she was appointed Giger Professor of Latin at Princeton University, New Jersey, a position she held until her retirement in 2000. She served as chair of the Department of Classics from 1989 to 1992 and was a classics correspondent for National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. She was considered by colleagues in the field to be one of the great Latinists of her generation. Much of her work was concerned with the intersection of literature and Greek and Roman history. Her special interests included comedy, epic poetry and rhetoric; Roman religion; and the social history of Roman women. She was president of the Canadian Society for the History of Rhetoric in 1983-1986 and president of the American Philological Association from 2003 to 2004. She wrote numerous commentaries, articles, conference papers, and books, including Women in the Classical World: Image and Text (1995) and Roman Literary Culture: From Cicero to Apuleius (1996).