Professor Peter Brunt - Obituaries - News - The Independent

Professor Peter Brunt

Classical scholar who made lasting contributions to the study of ancient Greece and Rome

Peter Astbury Brunt, historian of Greece and Rome: born Coulsdon, Surrey 23 June 1917; Temporary Assistant Principal and Temporary Principal, Ministry of Shipping (later War Transport) 1940-45; Senior Demy, Magdalen College, Oxford 1946-47; Lecturer in Ancient History, St Andrews University 1947-51; Fellow and Tutor of Oriel College, Oxford 1951-67, Dean 1959-64, Honorary Fellow 1973; FBA 1969; Fellow and Senior Bursar, Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge 1968-70; Camden Professor of Ancient History, Oxford University 1970-82 (Emeritus); Fellow of Brasenose College, Oxford 1970-82; President, Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies 1980-83; died Oxford 5 November 2005.

One of a series of outstanding scholars to hold the Camden Chair of Ancient History at Oxford, a position long associated with Roman History in particular, Peter Brunt made lasting contributions to the study both of ancient Greece and of Rome. He brought to the task not only an enviably clear mind, an elegant Gibbonian style, and an immunity to fashion and prejudice, but two striking attitudes that were features of the man as much as of his work. The one was a critical bent that rendered him counter-suggestible and at times, at least in conversation, almost perverse. The other was an exceptionally broad conception of what was historically interesting.

Not content with treating political, economic and (before it was fashionable) social history, and with illuminating the works of the Greek and Roman historians, he led the way in taking seriously the Hellenistic schools of philosophy, notably Stoicism, and in demonstrating the subtlety with which the history of ideas can and should be related to the political and social circumstances from which they arise and which they may affect. "Expertise on these circumstances and on the interpretation of philosophic theories is not always combined," he wrote. His own work showed what could be achieved when it was.

He was born in Coulsdon, Surrey in 1917, the only child of the Rev Samuel Brunt, a Methodist minister, and Eileen (née Blewett). His father died when he was quite young, and Peter Brunt, who never married, remained very close to his mother, who lived into his retirement. After Ipswich School, he won a scholarship to Oriel College, Oxford, in History: he did not trust his ability to compose in ancient Greek at a standard high enough to win one in Classics, the subject he went on to read. The fact is already a true indication of his primary interest in the ancient world, though the training offered by the Greats course in historiography and philosophy was also to prove of great importance for his work.

With a double First and the award of the Craven Fellowship in 1939, he looked set for an academic career. But the Second World War intervened, and since his poor health ruled out military service, Brunt found himself serving as Temporary Assistant Principal, and later Temporary Principal, in the Ministry of Shipping, re-named War Transport.

He returned to Oxford in 1946 as a Senior Demy (graduate scholar) of Magdalen College, doing doctoral research on the influence of Stoicism at Rome, under the direction of the then Camden Professor, Hugh Last, for whom he retained a lasting veneration. But in the next year, after spending time at the British School at Rome, he was appointed to a lecturership in Ancient History at St Andrews University, where he remained for four happy years, until he returned to his undergraduate college as a Tutorial Fellow.

There he more than fulfilled the Provost's wish to acquire "a good knockabout college tutor". He threw himself into the life of the college and the university, serving as Dean of Oriel for five years, as editor of the Oxford Magazine, as a member of the General Board, and as chairman of the committee which initiated important changes in the organisation of the Ashmolean Museum. A small, round man, he lectured with great energy, his head just showing above the rostrum as he projected his rich voice in eloquent periods and forceful antitheses.

Brunt's most congenial genre of writing was the long article, and some of his most important contributions in this vein - on the Equites, Amicitia, and the Roman Mob - date from this period. But he also produced, with J.M. Moore, Res Gestae Divi Augusti (1967), an important edition of the great inscription containing the recital of the achievements of the Emperor Augustus; and he was working on Italian Manpower, a massive study replete with statistics, of the way in which that instrument of Roman greatness, the army, was recruited and organised. By the time that book and the more accessible but pioneering Social Conflicts in the Roman Republic appeared in 1971, Brunt had served two years (1968-70) as Senior Bursar of Gonville and Caius College in Cambridge and had returned to Oxford as Camden Professor, a position he was to hold with distinction from 1970 until his retirement in 1982.

The two years in Cambridge allowed his organising and indeed financial talents to show; his inaugural lecture at Oxford, delivered in May 1971, on "Stoicism and the Principate", revealed the fruits of his unfinished doctorate. It also showed the direction his future work on Roman history would take. There followed a series of classic studies on Dio Chrysostom, Marcus Aurelius and Arrian, the Boswell of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus; but he was also busy with an edition for the Loeb Classical Library of Arrian's Anabasis, a history (in two volumes, 1976 and 1983) of the campaigns of Alexander the Great. There he firmly stated, "I can detect no Stoic colouring in the Anabasis", declaring his opposition to an approach he would openly censure some years later: "A superficial perusal of a few texts has led some political and social historians to over-estimate the practical influence of Stoic doctrines whose true import they do not understand."

He was always generous with his time and knowledge, and a scholar who wished to know what objections could possibly be raised against his arguments in the foreseeable and unforeseeable future was well advised to send his paper to Brunt, who would respond with closely typed pages supplying contrary evidence and suggested improvements.

Taking up the Camden Chair meant leaving his elegant rooms in Oriel and moving to Brasenose College. At this time he bought a house, which he shared with his mother, whose amiable disposition, goodness of heart, and wide reading made their hospitality a particular treat for his many friends. Gardening and cooking now relieved the rigours of historical research, which included revising his key published articles and assembling them, along with important new essays, in three magisterial collections of papers: The Fall of the Roman Republic and Related Essays (1988); Roman Imperial Themes (1990); and Studies in Ancient Greek History and Thought.

Many of Brunt's most important insights arose out of the demolition of established views that had no real basis in the ancient evidence, of which his own command was unrivalled. Thus he was able to show that the Roman equites were not a "middle class" or a "business class" with economic and political interests distinct from those of the senators; that family and marital relationships, along with vertical relationships of clientship, did not dictate the political alignments of Republican Rome, but that social problems and political ideas played an important role; that the friendships which upper-class Romans formed were often true friendships and not mere political alliances.

But his broad reading in history of many periods also enabled him to illuminate Roman imperialism by comparisons with Alexander, with the British empire, and with Louis XIV. As regards the history of ideas, he was working on the Stoic philosopher Panaetius, seeking to demonstrate the continuity, throughout the history of the Stoic School, of the seminal ethical concept of "appropriate action". This remains unfinished, but some of the chapters on Roman Stoicism will, it is to be hoped, be published in another substantial collection of papers.

Miriam Griffin

John Travolta is a qualified airline captain and employed the pilot with his company, Alto
people'That was the lowest I’d ever felt'
Life and Style
healthIt isn’t greasy. It doesn’t smell. And moreover, it costs nothing
peopleThe report and photo dedicated to the actress’s decolletage has, unsurprisingly, provoked anger
Home body: Badger stays safe indoors
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
The programme sees four specialists creating what they believe are three perfect couples, based on scientific matchmaking. The couples will not meet until they walk down the aisle together
tvUK wedding show jilted
Arts and Entertainment
US pop diva Jennifer Lopez sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, president of Turkmenistan
musicCorporate gigs become key source of musicians' income
Arts and Entertainment
You've been framed: Henri Matisse's colourful cut-outs at Tate Modern
artWhat makes a smash-hit art show
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'
filmsDaniel Craig believed to be donning skis as 007 for first time
Mikel Arteta pictured during Borussia Dortmund vs Arsenal
champions league
Yes supporters gather outside the Usher Hall, which is hosting a Night for Scotland in Edinburgh
voicesBen Judah: Is there a third option for England and Scotland that keeps everyone happy?
Arts and Entertainment
Pulp-fiction lover: Jarvis Cocker
booksJarvis Cocker on Richard Brautigan
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke and Pharell Williams in the video of the song, which has been accused of justifying rape
music...and he had 'almost no part' in writing it
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior QA Engineer - Agile, SCRUM

£35000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior QA Engineer (Agil...

Marketing Executive - West Midlands - £28,000

£26000 - £28000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Digital Marketing Executive (SEO, PP...

Retail Business Analyst

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our retail client ...

Senior C++ Developer

£400 - £450 Per Annum possibly more for the right candidate: Clearwater People...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week