Obituary: Professor Eric Birley

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The Independent Online
Eric Birley dominated the study of the Roman army, of Hadrian's Wall and Roman frontiers in general for much of his 40 years as a teacher at Durham University, interrupted only by six years of war service, when he was engaged in the study of the German army for Military Intelligence. He had an exceptional talent for seeing patterns, of careers, of promotions and of government, in a mass of unconnected detail. As the distinguished ancient historian Arnaldo Momigliano once observed, after a conducted tour of Hadrian's Wall, Eric Birley could reconstruct history from a pair of used railway tickets.

From a first interest in Roman history aroused by Michael Holroyd, his tutor at Brasenose College, Oxford, Birley fell under the influence of Robin (R.G.) Collingwood for whom, though he had inherited at Oxford the mantle of the founder of modern study of the subject, Francis Haverfield, the study of Roman Britain was a diversion of the vacation from the serious business of philosophy. Introduced to Hadrian's Wall by Collingwood, the Lancastrian Birley purchased the house at Chesterholm that had belonged to the 19th-century antiquary Anthony Hedley; he was never to leave the Wall area, dwelling successively at Chesterholm, Durham, Corbridge, Durham again, Hexham and then finally back to the wall at Carvoran, where he died within three months of his 90th birthday.

After graduation in 1928 he spent several months watching construction work in the City of London on behalf of the Society of Antiquaries, from which time he gained the friendship of Mortimer Wheeler at the London Museum and a lasting interest in the study of the imported Roman "samian" pottery with moulded decoration. His appointment to a teaching post at Armstrong College, Newcastle upon Tyne, part of Durham University, marked the start of that institution's leading role in Hadrian's Wall studies. Soon he transferred to Durham, to be replaced at Newcastle by Ian Richmond, a close colleague for more than 20 years.

The pre-war years were occupied with excavations on and around the Wall, at Chesterholm, Housesteads (in a house of the civil settlement he found the concealed skeleton of a murder victim), Corbridge and Birrens in Dumfriesshire. Before he came to the north he had already begun his travels to the Roman frontier in Germany to meet colleagues there, including Ernst Fabricius, leader of "Limes" (or frontier) research in Germany. He continued to visit the area from Durham, sometimes in company with Ronald Syme, a fellow student in Oxford and a lifelong friend. In the late summer of 1939 he was summoned back from the Congress of Classical Archaeology at Berlin by a telegram which, purporting to come from his wife Margaret, one of his first Newcastle students and forever known as Peggy, had in fact been sent from the War Office.

During the Thirties Birley and Richmond added significantly to knowledge of the Roman frontier in northern Britain. They had both taken part in the Birdoswald excavation of 1929 under the direction of F.G. Simpson: Richmond drew the plans and Birley analysed the pottery for a report which finally defined the principal historical phases of Hadrian's frontier. A memorable photograph taken by Richmond shows Birley (wearing a hat) pointing at an "altar"; F.G. Simpson stands behind the altar facing the camera and on the far right is R.G. Collingwood. On the following day, when Collingwood had left for Oxford, it was discovered that the flagstones on which he and the altar stood were both inscribed and furnished vital evidence for dating the fort's history.

Birley also found time for his studies of samian pottery, even engaging successfully in a prolonged dispute with Sir George Macdonald on the date of the Roman withdrawal from Scotland before the construction of Hadrian's Wall in AD122-126. Nor were his military studies neglected and he gained a European reputation through hiscritique of Herbert Nesselhauf's publication of the bronze tablets (diplomas) recording the grants of citizenship to Roman auxiliaries, which even 60 years after can be read with profit.

The war years in Military Intelligence took a toll of Birley's health and his post-war career was more than once interrupted by periods of recuperation following breakdowns caused by overwork. In 1945 he and Richmond resumed their collaboration in Wall studies. Birley turned from fieldwork to military studies and through a notable succession of papers, many drawing on his wartime experience of analysing a modern army, established his claim as the successor to the giants of an earlier generation, notably Alfred von Domaszewski, author of a fundamental study of the Roman military hierarchy, Die Rangordnung des Romischen Heeres.

In a 1949 paper on the middle-ranking officers of the Roman army, Birley argued that the patterns of career and promotion which could be detected served to dispose of an older notion that the commanders of auxiliary regiments and the like were gentleman amateurs. Some undoubtedly were but there was also, Birley argued, a pattern of selection and advancement where merit and experience counted more.

A few years later there was some resistance to the argument that a form of selection for the highest commands could be detected in the pattern of appointments even for those who were yet to reach the threshold of public office and full membership of the senatorial order. The main lines of a man's career in the senatorial service were likely to be established by his grading in the vigintivirate; a man singled out at that stage could count on the emperor's backing through the series of senatorial magistracies, on early promotion to the consulate, and on the certainty of a consular command: only a change of emperors, or his own shortcomings, could change the pattern of a career mapped out for him at an age when the English schoolboy is likely to be seeking a scholarship at university. Some have challenged the notion of preselection for the imperial high command but Birley's analysis remains persuasive and has attracted many supporters.

At Durham, Birley will be remembered as the founder of that university's distinguished School of Archaeology, starting from a hut on the tennis court of Hatfield College (he was Master there until 1956), then moving to the Old Fulling Mill, alongside the river Wear below the towering west front of the cathedral. Before the war Birley could count several Durham pupils who had advanced to careers in archaeology, including Peter Wenham (St John's, York), Kenneth Steer (Royal Commission on Ancient and Historic Monuments, Scotland), John Gillam and George Jobey (Newcastle University).

Birley was generous in acknowledging his own debts to his pupils over the years but those who had the unique privilege of his personal tuition gained an inspiration which lasted a lifetime. That was also true for several who heard his lectures on Roman history and archaeology given to German prisoners at Featherstone Park, near Haltwistle, in Northumberland, and subsequently advanced to senior academic posts in post-war Germany.

At Durham, many of Birley's pupils and friends were granted generous access to his own comprehensive indexes and working notes on the personnel of the Roman army, and also to his considerable personal library of books, periodicals and offprints. In addition to a succession of Durham pupils, he was also generous to many from farther afield who came for advice, including Margaret Roxan (London), Hubert Devijver (Belgium) and Geze Alfoldy, who gave eloquent testimony of the debt which many owed to Birley as a teacher and friend on the occasion of his promotion as Doctor honoris causa of the University of Heidelberg in 1986.

During his fifties, Birley gave more time to his studies of the northern antiquaries who had recorded so much of the Roman remains, and the results of his labours appeared in Research on Hadrian's Wall (1961) which for some colleagues seemed too marginal in scope and to lack the utility of a full study of the Wall he might have written. Yet his choice of theme proved justified and the work has retained a lasting value, while the exposition of current knowledge he could have written might soon have been rendered obsolete by sensational discoveries at Vindolanda with which he was to be closely involved. He played a leading part in the life of the northern societies. Many of his papers were published in their journals and he contributed to their proceedings, in lectures, in committees and on excursions, including the several pilgrimages to the Wall which he attended.

Of all honours, he was most proud to have been elected President of the Dumfriesshire and Galloway Society, and of the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne. In 1974 he was elected Honorary Life President of the Congress of Roman Frontier Studies, a movement he had inaugurated at Newcastle in 1949, when he worked tirelessly to make possible the participation of many old friends and colleagues from all corners of post-war Europe, to the extent that the distinguished Hungarian scholar Andrew Alfoldi was on one occasion partly clad in Birley's demobilisation clothing.

For most of his life, Birley found recreation in the composition of light verse, and in 1980 his friends were surprised to receive his privately printed volume Fifty-one Ballades. In these he often made light of the over-earnest debating of historical or archaeological matters among colleagues. So on hearing the matter of the disappearance of the Ninth Legion from Britain raised in argument he would often respond:

The Fate of the Ninth still engages

The minds of both nitwits and sages;

But that problem, one fears,

Will be with us for years

And for ages and ages and ages!

His years of retirement at Hexham and latterly Carvoran were both happy and academically productive. He took great pride in the achievement of his younger son Anthony, biographer of Marcus Aurelius and Septimius Severus and editor of Ronald Syme's Collected Papers. He lived to see and study the sensational find of written documents made by his elder son Robin at Vindolanda and to admire the transformation of his old home Chesterholm into a museum and research centre for the Vindolanda Trust.

John Wilkes

Eric Birley, historian, archaeologist: born Eccles, Lancashire 12 January 1906; Lecturer, Durham University 1931-43, Reader 1943-56, Professor of Romano-British History and Archaeology 1956-71 (Emeritus), Dean of Faculty of Social Sciences 1968-71; FSA 1931; MBE 1943; Vice-Master, Hatfield College, Durham 1947-49, Master 1949-56; FBA 1969; married 1934 Peggy Goodlet (two sons); died Carvoran, Northumberland 20 October 1995.