Obituary: Professor George Forrest

William George Grieve Forrest, ancient historian: born Glasgow 24 September 1925; Fellow, Wadham College, Oxford 1951-76 (Emeritus); Wykeham Professor of Ancient History, Oxford University 1977-92 (Emeritus); Fellow, New College, Oxford 1977-92 (Emeritus); married 1956 Margaret Hall (two daughters); died Oxford 14 October 1997.

George Forrest taught Greek history at Wadham College, Oxford from 1951, appointed by the man who became his deep friend, Maurice Bowra. In 1977 he took up the Ancient History Chair, but will be remembered especially as a thrilling undergraduate tutor who taught many of today's classics stars. "Why," I asked, "was he such an exciting teacher?" "He made the fragmentary come alive," said one. "He made you see connexions."

His writing ranged throughout Greek history. The Delphic oracle had been excavated by the French and interpreted as religion; no one had sifted its history and politics. Forrest's articles on that are still the basis of Delphic history. In his books, The Emergence of Greek Democracy (1966) and A History of Sparta (1968), he brought crucial journalistic qualities - clarity, accessibility, fair-minded debunking - to Greek history, without selling scholarship short.

He preferred people to ideas, making intellectual history exciting by doing it through personalities, and arguing that Greek democracy - therefore everyone's democracy - was not designed; it came about by accident. (Some of his pupils have spent their lives arguing the opposite, but this is still the dominant view in America.) His hallmark was, "Don't believe anything anyone says. Why did they say what they did?" He was the first (with Moses Finley) to defend Athenian democracy against the dominant upper-class academic establishment, who for centuries mainly parroted Plato's attacks on it hook, line and sinker. ("Of course they were stupid: look - they killed Socrates"). Forrest kick-started a radical re-appreciation of the astonishing Athenian experiment (government effectively by referendum, lasting 200 years); an appreciation whose details are only being filled in today.

His work was powered by profound knowledge of sources, fierce democratic feeling, and inextinguishable political enjoyment. Even on his deathbed, he must have adored the spectacle of Tory politicians trying to become the caring society. The last news conversation I had with him was on Gadaffi's conspiracy theory about Princess Diana's death. Riddled with cancer, only on fluids (and barely on those), he roared with laughter. "If Gadaffi's right", he said, "it'll be the only plot MI5 thought up that ever worked."

George Forrest did something to his friends which made them unwitting members of an international confederacy: a band of people who loved him and his wife Margaret, the supreme beauty of her Oxford generation. (Forrest carted her off, against all competition, in his scarlet sports car Lily Christine.) You could take the pair of them into the lowest Cretan dive and they'd be instantly at home, remembered fondly by the establishment for years. "How's your friend?" they'd say. "That Georgaki. What a lively boy! What wicked eyes!" (A big Cretan compliment - or it was, in the Seventies.) "Why did you like him?", I asked an English sculptor. "He was so personal," he said. "When he talked to you, there was always a hidden little barb. He was endearing and wicked. Underneath he was sentimental; on top he was a hard-headed Scot. And there was that enormous sense of fun."

Forrest was proud of being Scots and knew the best fields to steal frozen turnips from when hungry. His father William Forrest was a brilliant journalist who covered the Spanish Civil War and Second World War for the News Chronicle. George himself was in the second wave of the Normandy Landings, a radio operator (in "Weather") in the RAF. Breakfast on the day was a nightmare.

"The Americans brought food we hadn't seen for years," he said. "We went along the line with our plates, our eyes getting bigger as the mound grew. Then the last chef dipped a ladle in his pot and poured strawberry jam over the whole bloody lot. Couldn't eat a thing!" Forrest loathed unnecessary things: jelly on bacon, water (he preferred gin), or showing off. He was a tolerant, conservative communist: from strawberry jam to pretension, he wasn't going to forbid what disgusted him. But he did, very quietly, find it hugely funny.

He loved Greece in all its forms and shadows. "Ancient Greece, modern Greece: on both he would come out with a quiet one-liner that changed everything and made you see differently," said an Athens-based journalist. His love affair with modern Greece began at the British School at Athens in the Fifties. When the junta appeared in 1967, he was a key figure for Greek intellectuals. Several would have been imprisoned, maybe tortured, but for his tireless letter-writing. Greece in exile beat a track to the door of his chaotic Wadham room. He knew where and how to protest and could be relied on to do it, and stop British academics visiting the country. Afterwards, he was deeply loved as a philhellene who'd really come across for Greece, and got an honorary degree at Athens; but you'd mainly find him in the lowest-life tavernas, with Margaret's wit, grace, beauty and humanity giving his wickedness and crumpled off-dun jacket (he hated slickness of every kind) their perfect foil.

He loved Wadham and all connected with it, deeply. His central table, rampant with books and epigraphical squeezes, revealed itself out of term as a billiard table. Only he knew the secret of its mystic slope. He also knew every story to the discredit of every Wadham-made ambassador and politician. Unfailingly courteous, kind and loyal, he delighted in pomposity. Even in extremis, he had a gift like the kick of champagne for appreciating human failings. He once broke his ankle at a mountain festival on the island of Chios. No one wanted to leave; everyone, down to the donkeys, was hopelessly, as he put it, pie-eyed. Eventually we persuaded a policeman and his friend to drive the three- hour roller-coaster into town. En route, the policeman disagreed with his friend about how to put tapes in the cassette-player. They stopped; they argued; the car was on an outside bend above a precipice in the dark. Forrest, now in real agony, but with his collector's delight in idiocy, leant over and chuckled. "Magnificent incompetence," he whispered.

As a student stuck on chamber music, I refused to countenance the idea that Verdi was the man to love. "Come round and listen, ducks," he said, and through a summer night played his entire collection of early records acquired by cigarette-barter in post-war Berlin. There was Galli-Curci singing "Caro Nome" over 1930s crackles and George pouring endless drinks that said, in triumphant silence, "See?" He'd find something funny on a limo to Hades, some hitherto unknown idiocy in Elysium. In his last conscious hours he made effort after generous effort to respond to the many people desperate to talk to him. Wherever George Forrest has gone, he'll still be giving people something new to think and laugh about.