Professor Colin Austin

Classical scholar who co-edited the definitive work on the Greek comic dramatists
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The Independent Online

Time both gives and takes. Beginning in the mid-19th century, and continuing at intervals through to the 20th and the present, the stock of surviving Ancient Greek texts that has nourished our civilisation has been augmented by discoveries of works long lost. Mostly, though not exclusively, they come from papyri excavated in Egypt, where the climate has favoured their survival.

Unlike the morning paper, they do not land on the mat crisp and ready to read. Whole books, or substantially whole books, very rarely survive. Alongside tens of thousands of documents, such as contracts, wills and inventories, we have leaves, columns and scraps from discarded or recycled copies of once valued works of literature. They are often tattered, distorted and discoloured. It is in the art and science of recovering poetry and drama from such discouraging remains that the scholarship of Professor Austin has excelled.

Euripides and Menander are two authors who have conspicuously benefited from the discoveries. A collection of new fragments of Euripides from papyri, published in Berlin in 1968, gave a foretaste of much of Austin's work to come. It is in a series of compact format and meticulous presentation; it included a substantial new portion of Euripides' once well-known tragedy Erectheus, extracted from a mummy casing in Paris, of which the first edition was Austin (1967).

Likewise, when it came to the publication in 1969 of the first and third plays from the Bodmer Codex of Menander (the second play, the Dyskolos or Misanthrope, has a first edition dated 1958), Austin collaborated with Rodolphe Kasser in Geneva to produce first editions of Samia, The Woman from Samos and Aspis, The Shield, while "Austin" (1969) is the academic shorthand for his own edition of the two comedies, including the remains previously known: it was published in the same series as the Euripides volume, with innovative restorations and helpful brief notes. These and other rediscoveries have transformed modern knowledge of one of the founders of a style of light drama now universally familiar, with its portrayal of people like ourselves and those we recognise in our own very different daily lives.

Very many lost works have not had the good luck to be resuscitated from papyri. They survive, if at all, in quotations, echoes and reminiscences by other authors, including grammarians and lexicographers of later ages, not always available in fully documented modern editions. Involvement with the new will often involve close encounters with the old.

That is very much in evidence in the work that will probably last longest among Austin's achievements, the comprehensive edition of the Greek Comic Dramatists, Poetae Comici Graeci, which he undertook in partnership with Rudolf Kassel, beginning publication in 1983. The volumes that have so far appeared, up to 2001, give the surviving text of over 250 authors. With their prefaces, critical notes and parallels for the interpretations offered, they are already on the way to 4,500 pages, not reckoning with the provision made for the main works of Aristophanes and Menander and for indexes. Of course, there will be addenda and corrigenda (there already are), but it is hard to see how this monumental publication will ever be adequately replaced.

Other original and fertile studies should here be mentioned, notably work in collaboration with Italian colleagues on the rediscovered epigrams of Posidippus, and the subsequent edition of the Hellenistic poet's complete surviving works with critical notes and translations (Austin–Bastianini, 2002). Several imaginative reconstructions of passages of Menander of great verve and style appear in recently published conference papers.

The magic may not always work: in a stern mood, one can feel that the extraordinary fluency in verse composition that is in evidence is sometimes carried away by its own momentum. One can, however, take to heart the Latin tag that the composer affixed to one of his earlier publications, in which he invited the reader not to hesitate to point out errors and omissions, but otherwise to join him in exploiting the results. Relentless care over details and lively inspiration are hard to find in so close a partnership.

Colin François Lloyd Austin was born in 1941 in Melbourne, Australia. He grew up in France, the homeland of his mother's family. and was a lycéen in Paris. Long after his migration to England and to Manchester Grammar School he retained the warmest affection for the country of his earlier years, for its scholarship and for Maman. Married, settled in Cambridge, and with young children, he regularly enjoyed vacations in France; and indeed turned them to benefit by buying wine as Steward for his College, Trinity Hall, with a flair at least half inborn.

Undergraduate years at Jesus College, Cambridge were followed by doctoral studies at Oxford. He learnt much from his supervisor, Hugh Lloyd-Jones (jointly with Rudolf Kassel in Berlin), from seminars in Palaeography with Peter Parsons, and from contact with Eduard Fraenkel. The DPhil thesis of 1965 was on Aristophanes' Thesmophoriazusae, "Ladies' Day": it presented a text and commentary on lines 1–550 of the play. This work was to be revised, and completed in partnership with Douglas Olson. It was published nearly 40 years later in 2004 – Menander and the comic fragments had intervened – in the Oxford series of Aristophanes commentaries, whose General Editor and distinguished contributor was Sir Kenneth Dover. In 1983 came election to the Fellowship of the British Academy.

The sharp, scholarly mind that sometimes produced pointed criticisms of others' work had also a courteous and friendly side. There was a talent for administration that was willingly, though perhaps not passionately, deployed in the service of College and Faculty, and a great capacity for relationships with fellow scholars worldwide, with frequent invitations to visit and give lectures. These qualities persisted even in latter years, when severe health problems and serious surgery might have been expected to quell them.

He emerged from hospital more than once with a quiet display of exemplary courage and spirit. He was working until the very last in the hope of completing his Oxford Classical Text of Menander, with a companion volume of notes on the remains of the 21 plays that he proposed to include. He leaves behind his devoted wife Mishtu, artist, printmaker and pillar of the household; there are a son, a daughter, and grandchildren. They, together with a host of colleagues, pupils and friends, will miss him deeply and treasure their memories.

Colin François Lloyd Austin, classical scholar: born Melbourne 26 July 1941; Fellow, Trinity Hall, Cambridge 1965–2008, now Emeritus (Director of Studies in Classics 1965-2005); Professor of Greek, University of Cambridge 1998–2008; married 1967 Mishtu Mazumbar (one son, one daughter); died Cambridge 13 August 2010.