Professor Keith Hopkins

Provocatively modern ancient historian
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The Independent Online

Imagination is the key to good history; that and a recognition that history-writing itself deserves the same care and meticulous effort as the very best of novels. Keith Hopkins would have been an enthusiastic advocate of both propositions. Marooned in an Essex boarding school in 1940, the six-year-old Hopkins wrote home with a list of requests. His demands were uncompromising; his aim clear, even if expressed in uncertain childish capitals. He was to become a historian of the Roman Empire and to that end enclosed a long list of books which he asked his mother to supply.



Morris Keith Hopkins, historian and sociologist: born Sutton, Surrey 20 June 1934; Assistant Lecturer in Sociology, Leicester University 1961-63; Research Fellow, King's College, Cambridge 1963-67, Fellow 1985-2004, Vice-Provost 2000-04; Lecturer and Senior Lecturer in Sociology, London School of Economics 1963-67, 1970-72; Professor of Sociology, University of Hong Kong 1967-69; Professor of Sociology, Brunel University 1972-85, Dean, Faculty of Social Sciences 1981-85; FBA 1984; Professor of Ancient History, Cambridge University 1985-2001 (Emeritus); married 1963 Juliet Phelps Brown (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1989), 1991 Jennifer Simmons (two daughters); died Cambridge 8 March 2004.



Imagination is the key to good history; that and a recognition that history-writing itself deserves the same care and meticulous effort as the very best of novels. Keith Hopkins would have been an enthusiastic advocate of both propositions. Marooned in an Essex boarding school in 1940, the six-year-old Hopkins wrote home with a list of requests. His demands were uncompromising; his aim clear, even if expressed in uncertain childish capitals. He was to become a historian of the Roman Empire and to that end enclosed a long list of books which he asked his mother to supply.

The selection is revelatory. It included not only the predictable Gibbon and Macaulay, but also the complete works of Austen, Eliot and Dickens. Regrettably, history (always an imperfect business) does not record whether the substantial number of volumes was ever delivered, nor how his housemaster reacted to the construction of a private library which was intended - at least in Hopkins's imagination - to rival the school's own.

A sense that the conventional is rarely satisfactory, that historians ought to immerse themselves in the past, and that such a process demands a rigorous intellectual discipline were the hallmarks of Hopkins's approach to the Roman Empire. In his view, the issue was a simple one. Ancient historians needed not only to construct the past from the surviving evidence, they also needed to be equally attentive to the evidence which had perished. Only then could the pattern of the past be persuasively reconstructed.

The solution - or at least so it seemed in the early 1960s - lay in an engagement with sociology. After a distinguished undergraduate career reading Classics at King's College, Cambridge (where he was known as much for his academic prowess as his extravagant parties), Hopkins, leaving behind the beginnings of a doctoral dissertation, took up a junior lectureship in sociology at Leicester. Here under Norbert Elias he learnt sociology on the job and continued to teach it at the LSE and as professor of sociology in Hong Kong (1967-69) and at Brunel (1972-85).

Hopkins's approach to the ancient world was crystallised in two important books: Conquerors and Slaves (1978) and Death and Renewal (1983). Both used parametric propositions, models and comparative data to argue for radically new interpretations of the Roman élite in the late Republic and of the role and function of slavery in Roman society. In setting out his arguments, Hopkins regarded a facility with statistics as fundamental to his craft. Only by setting the surviving data into patterns which expressed the reasonable probabilities (for example) of economic or demographic growth could the ancient historian successfully understand the surviving fragments of a long lost world.

For Hopkins, good history was about making intelligent guesses. Explanations were to be understood as "attempts to limit the arena within which elusive and competing truths may probably be found".

That sense of history as a series of competing explanatory narratives was key to his work following his election in 1984 to the British Academy and in the next year to the chair of Ancient History at Cambridge. It marked his tussle, both personal and intellectual, with Christianity. A World Full of Gods: pagans, Jews and Christians in the Roman Empire (1999) was written in a series of deliberately different narrative styles, some learned years before from his reading at school, others (such as film and television scripts) provocatively modern.

As always, the style was fundamental to the argument. In approaching religion in antiquity, Hopkins insisted, it was necessary to embrace a world of competing myths and testaments. Christianity could only be understood against and alongside its rivals. Its stories were propositions aimed to help both believers and sceptics approach the divine. It was the growth of a fixed, institutionalised Christian orthodoxy with a single canonical narrative that Hopkins so disliked. If he had been a Christian, then he would probably have been a heretic.

Indeed certainty was for Hopkins a kind of arrogance, both in priests and in historians. His famously acerbic and boisterously combative interventions at seminars in Cambridge always searched for competing or alternative plausibilities. The conversation once started would continue late into the night. The speaker expecting a long evening of intellectual trench warfare would instead be treated to an elegant dinner with all the warmth and style of a justly celebrated host. It would also become clear that Hopkins was possessed not only of an acute mind, but of an equally fine private cellar.

More than anything else, that remarkable mixture of congeniality and intellectual rigour characterised Hopkins's approach to his work, to his college, to his wine and latterly to his magnificent garden. A visit to his rooms in King's would disclose a litter of papers: drafts of scholarly articles, minutes of college committees, a well-thumbed copy of Parker on the wines of Bordeaux, and a set of glossy plant catalogues. Good gardening, Hopkins would patiently explain to his graduate students, requires research, planning and hard work. There will be fallow periods. But the results are always worthwhile, even if often unpredictable, and sometimes unsuccessful. That is unless you just want to grow vegetables.

For Hopkins, history-writing - like good gardening - was at once both satisfying and frustrating. It attempted to bring some kind of order into a fragmentary, chaotic and disorderly world. But an order not imposed by the all-seeing historian, but one worked out in negotiation with the past.

History is a conversation with the dead. We have several advantages over our informants. We think we know what happened subsequently; we can take a longer view; we can do all the talking; and with all our prejudices, we are alive. We should not throw away these advantages by pretending to be just collators or interpreters of our sources. We can do more than that. Although, almost inevitably, whatever our ambitions, we finish up by foisting simplifying fictions on the complexities of the past which is largely lost.

And, when it comes to history- writing, as Hopkins would have been the first to point out, and the first to be amused, there can be few better examples of that process in action than an obituary.

Christopher Kelly

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