Professor Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones: Classics scholar whose colourful style made him one of the leading Hellenists of his time

Hugh Lloyd-Jones, Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford from 1960 to 1989, was one of the leading Hellenists of the second half of the 20th century. His education began at the French Lycée in London, where he acquired a fine command of the language, and from there he went to Westminster, where his contemporaries included his future Oxford colleague, the distinguished philosopher David Pears, and to Christ Church, Oxford.

After completing the first part of the classics course he was called up (see note at foot of obituary) and served in India in a unit entrusted with the task of translating decoded Japanese military communications. These duties did not always keep him at a safe distance from the battle front, and at one point he was involved in an action where the two sides lobbed grenades at each other across an area the size of a tennis court. Another enduring memory was of an advance during the night after a successful engagement; in the torrid conditions of the jungle the corpses of the Japanese casualties had been reduced to skeletons that glistened in the moonlight.

After the war, though his linguistic ability would have guaranteed him a fine career as an orientalist, he was not tempted to abandon his chosen career. On completing the classics course he was appointed to a fellowship at Jesus College, Cambridge, where his pupils included John Gould, who later held the chair of Greek at Bristol with distinction. After six years he moved back to Oxford to become the first holder of the E.P. Warren Praelectorship in Classics at Corpus Christi, where he arrived at the start of 1955, having been delayed by tuberculosis.

His new post had been endowed by an eccentric American benefactor who did not wish the holder to teach women; Hugh lessened the effect of this highly unwelcome restriction by giving joint classes with his Wadham colleague Tom Stinton, in whose name the classes were advertised.

For Corpus undergraduates tutorials with the Praelector were conducted in a small study in his house just by the college in Magpie Lane; they were often graced by a semi-Persian cat who might jump on to the table and sit on the pupil's work. This was the signal for a switch to more general conversation, in the course of which the pupil heard many unflattering but thoroughly deserved comments about eminent political figures of the recent past. In the puritanical atmosphere of today's universities such digressions would be frowned on; but any pupil worthy of a place at Oxford recognised at once that the tutor was a person of phenomenal learning and brilliance who provided a wonderful stimulus.

The same qualities were shown to even greater advantage in the seminars he conducted regularly after his election to the Regius chair in 1960, continuing the tradition imported from Germany by Eduard Fraenkel, the Corpus professor of Latin. The art of textual criticism was displayed with magisterial skill. Often 20 or more students attended, most of them graduates, but undergraduates sometimes came if recommended by their tutors or if the theme was linked to a paper in finals. The reputation of the seminars drew many students from other universities, including some from Germany, Italy and further afield.

Conscientious performance of duties and the demands of family life did not impede the flow of publications. His first major work, The Justice of Zeus (1971) was the product of an invitation to give the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in 1969. It was an important re-examination of the religious beliefs of the Greeks in the pre-classical and classical periods. One sentence from the preface deserves to be quoted: "I... chose a topic about which I felt eager to address the general reader, as well as my academic colleagues, and I have done my best to present the lectures in a way which he will understand". This was a guiding principle which he never lost sight of, and a good deal of what he wrote was addressed to a wider public.

His more specialised scholarship appeared in articles, most of which were collected in three volumes of Academic Papers and in two works of collaboration. 1983 saw the publication of Supplementum Hellenisticum, a major contribution to the study of Hellenistic poetry, his co-editor being Peter Parsons, his eventual successor in the Regius chair. In 1990 appeared a new Oxford Classical Text of Sophocles, which I co-edited; we issued at the same time Sophoclea, in which we explained the reasoning behind many of the more difficult editorial decisions.

Hugh excelled as a supervisor of graduates. More than one of my acquaintances, summoned for an initial meeting to discuss plans, confessed to great anxiety at the prospect of an encounter with a scholar noted for strongly expressed views. In fact the fear was groundless, and a pleasant and productive dialogue took place. It is true that his trenchant comments on the shortcomings of others, sometimes exaggerated in the heat of the moment, might be phrased in a way that led to offence being taken; but to anyone who displayed intellectual honesty and a willingness to learn he was the soul of courtesy and the most loyal of friends.

His first marriage, to Frances Hedley, was dissolved in 1981, and in the following year he married Mary Lefkowitz, Mellon Professor in the Humanities at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, and he was normally resident there after retiring. He continued academic work for some time, enjoying the company of his cats (mainly Siamese), but less well placed to indulge in his other favourite pastime of watching cricket. A succession of illnesses marred his last years, and at the end a routine and successfully completed operation proved too much for his weakened constitution.

Recognition came in many forms. He was elected to the British Academy in 1966 and knighted in 1989. A number of American universities invited him as a visiting professor and he was respected by leading European scholars. He was a member of several foreign academies and received honorary degrees from Chicago, Goettingen, Tel Aviv and Thessalonica.

Nigel Wilson

Peter Hugh Jefferd Lloyd-Jones, classical scholar: born 21 September 1922; Regius Professor of Greek in the University of Oxford and Student of Christ Church, 1960–89, then Emeritus; married 1953 Frances Hedley (divorced 1981, two sons, one daughter), 1982 Mary Lefkowitz; Kt 1989; died 5 October 2009.

Your obituary of my late father Professor Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones contained one serious error, writes Ralph Lloyd-Jones. My father was not “called up” to serve in the Second World War, but volunteered.

Born in 1922, he was 18 in 1940 and only just old enough to do so. Having quickly learnt Japanese, he declined the offer of a place at Bletchley Park, preferring to serve much nearer the front with the Intellegence Corps in India and Burma. He quickly attained the rank of Captain and held an independent command, inflicting material, and indeed lethal, damage to Imperial Japanese aspirations in Asia.

He never boasted about this, or even collected the medals to which he was entitled. It seems that he thought of this very “good war” as an interruption in his more important life's mission of understanding the Ancient Greeks.

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