Peter Fraser

Classical scholar and pre-eminent historian of the Hellenistic age who also loved modern Greece


Peter Marshall Fraser, historian and classical scholar: born 6 April 1918; MC 1944; Lecturer in Hellenistic History, Oxford University 1948-64, Reader 1964-85; Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford 1954-85 (Emeritus), Acting Warden 1985-87; FBA 1960; Director, British School at Athens 1968-71; married 1940 Catherine Heaton-Renshaw (one son, three daughters), 1955 Ruth Renfer (two sons), 1973 Ann Stewart; died Oxford 15 September 2007.

The Oxford scholar Peter Fraser was the pre-eminent historian of the Hellenistic age, the world created by Alexander. There was no kind of evidence he could not handle with mastery – for instance, he knew Arabic – but his special expertise was Greek inscriptions on stone. He had several lives, both in succession and in tandem (for three years from 1968 he contrived to combine his university readership with the directorship of the British School in Athens, two jobs normally considered full-time), including an unusually interesting war behind enemy lines in Greece.

His second Greek identity was an essential part of him. He spoke Greek impeccably, and this, and nerves of iron, once got him through a lengthy Gestapo interrogation. Visits to the country which he loved, though with a critical and ironic affection, always had a noticeably rejuvenating effect.

Deeply and widely learned, Fraser was also phenomenally productive. He published, when not far off 80, an important and original book about the city-foundations of Alexander – Cities of Alexander the Great (1996) – which reduced the usually accepted total by means of a brilliant literary hypothesis, a royal "battle of the books". He posited a mendacious Ptolemaic list which attributed cities to Alexander himself, so as to diminish the achievement of the rival dynasty, the Seleucids, who had really founded them.

The book built on his period (1972-82) of leading involvement in the Society for Afghan Studies, when he masterminded British excavations in Old Kandahar in southern Afghanistan, and visited that still more-or-less normally functioning country several times until the Soviet Russian invasion put a stop to everything.

In a month spent there in 1978 with his wife Ann and some academic friends, he showed his enviable ability to drink hard – malt whisky for preference – and talk entertainingly till far into the night, with no noticeable effects next morning. The embassy Landrover driver, a tiny Afghan, must have recently graduated from donkeys, because he never changed down gears when climbing hills, but urged the vehicle on by a series of "gee-up!" movements, to Ann's futile exasperation.

A short Greek metrical inscription found during the excavations, published by Fraser in 1979 ("The son of Aristonax at Kandahar" in the journal Afghan Studies), indicated that Kandahar was a foundation of Alexander himself: "Alexandria in Arachosia". But Fraser was not content with this new evidence; to write the book, he familiarised himself with Chinese and other exotic sources, and came up with further new proofs, derived from an Arabic adapter of a late Greek geographer, to clinch the Kandahar identification.

His most enduring achievement and legacy is, however, A Lexicon of Greek Personal Names, a multi-volume, multi-contributor project which, when complete, as it nearly is, will facilitate and make more exact the writing of the social and political history of the ancient Greek world – prosopography, migration, demography, servile origins, the spread of cults – from the Archaic to Byzantine periods.

He started this lexicon on a small scale at the beginning of the 1970s, when it consisted of cards in shoe-boxes in one of the Hawksmoor towers in his college of All Souls. By his death it was, thanks to a remarkable collaboration between him and his co-editor Elaine Matthews, an internationally admired computer-based resource, adopted many years earlier as a major research project by the British Academy and eventually affiliated to Oxford University. A conference at the British Academy in 1998 to mark his 80th birthday resulted in an unusual festschrift, Greek Personal Names: their value as evidence: unusual because the honorand was persuaded to contribute.

Five majestic Lexicon volumes appeared between 1987 and 2005, and there are a couple more in the pipeline. In 2006, when nearly 90, he completed his final book, Greek Ethnic Terminology, in effect a monograph about the sources of an important but gappy and inscrutable compilation of place-names, the Ethnika of Stephanus of Byzantium. It was a great source of satisfaction to him to know that this will be published by the British Academy, of which he was a Fellow for nearly half a century.

Fraser was proud to be not only a Scot but a highland Scot, who served with the Seaforth Highlanders in the Second World War. He went to City of London School. Then, as a young undergraduate, he met one day, over tea at the Hellenic Society in London, the dominant Hellenistic historian of the day, William Woodthorpe Tarn, another highlander, but by marriage and residence; like Fraser, he lived to nearly 90 (he died exactly 50 years ago). The meeting was formative, as Fraser acknowledged long afterwards in the preface to the Alexander book.

His undergraduate college was Brasenose, which to his enormous pleasure made him an honorary fellow in 1977. He took Mods, the first half of the Oxford classics degree course, but the war intervened and he never completed it by sitting Greats. He was parachuted in 1943 into the Peloponnese as part of Special Operations Executive, and though for most of his life he rarely spoke about the war, and never wrote about it (this attitude softened towards the end), it is known that he blew up the airport near Argos, and that by the end of the war, still only 27, he was in effective command of the Volos region. He was decorated with the Military Cross in 1944.

It was in this early phase that he made his first acquaintance with Alexandria in Egypt, which was to be the subject of his magnificent three-volume Ptolemaic Alexandria (1972); his knowledge of the poetry of Cavafy and his collection of Cavafiana were superb, and represented a continuing personal link with the city. But he only ever taught modern Greek literature as a visiting professor at Bloomington Indiana in the 1970s.

Returning to Oxford to do research after such a war cannot have been easy for him, or others like him; but the support of the Camden Professor of Ancient History, Hugh Last, was decisive. Fraser set to work on a thesis about Hellenistic Rhodes, an island which became part of the Greek state only in 1947 and was for a while under British occupation. Scorning to supplicate for a doctorate with this, he instead, rather superbly, entered it for the prestigious and lucrative Conington Prize, which it duly won. He did not publish it as such, but built on it for two later books on Rhodian epigraphy and monuments.

Fraser applied for conventional Oxford tutorial posts at this period, including that at Oriel, in succession to the great Marcus Niebuhr Tod. Another Last protégé, Peter Brunt, himself a future Camden Professor, went in gloom to see Last after the Oriel interviews, sure that Fraser would be elected, but Last said, "You needn't worry about Fraser, he's made it clear to the fellows of Oriel that he doesn't want to teach."

Actually he did teach undergraduates at Brasenose for a few years in the early 1950s, and his pupils at that time included the future Wykeham professor George Forrest from New College – whom he taught relatively early Roman history, from a distinctively Greek viewpoint.

It might be thought that All Souls, that famously undergraduate-free institution to which he migrated in 1954, was the perfect berth for the man who "didn't want to teach". But that would be wrong. He held a specially created university post in Hellenistic history in combination with his All Souls Fellowship, and he did teach, in two valuable ways. First, he supervised a choice but outstanding series of successful doctoral students, in decades when truly professional supervision of ancient history graduates at Oxford tended to be confined (David Lewis apart) to the Roman side of the sub-faculty. Second, he "taught the teachers", by a series of extraordinary high-level seminars, most famously on the bafflingly obscure poet Lycophron (his long article in the 1996 edition of The Oxford Classical Dictionary is a gem), but more often on the inscriptions of Cyrene, Rhodes, Asia Minor, the Antigonids, and so on.

His attitude to All Souls was loyal and affectionate – he edited anonymously but with typical care and precision a collection of college memorial addresses – but at times wary: in early decades he did not much like being patronised by clever and sometimes conceited junior fellows. But when in the 1980s he served as acting warden for a couple of years, as surrogate for the warden Patrick Neill in his period as Vice-Chancellor, he became an unexpectedly popular, even cult, figure with precisely that frivolous constituency, largely because of his amusing, but subversive and unprintable, "Fraserisms". He was also a surprisingly good and courteous chairman, there and elsewhere – surprising only if one knew his private opinion of some of the committee members.

Simon Hornblower

Peter Fraser also taught undergraduates in London, writes Robert Allen . I was one of them. This was in the 1960s when Arnaldo Momigliano was Professor of Ancient History at UCL. At his invitation, Fraser came weekly for several terms to give a series of classes on Hellenistic history, and another series on Alexander. These were enormously stimulating and we were extraordinarily lucky to be taught by two such brilliant men.

After graduating and inspired by Fraser's teaching, I undertook doctoral research in Hellenistic history under his supervision. As a result I spent several months as a student at the British School at Athens during his directorship, and it was a rare privilege to have known him then. As well as learning much about Greece – ancient and modern – I appreciated his many other skills, including a formidable talent at table tennis.

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