Obituary: A. N. Sherwin-White

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The Independent Online
Adrian Nicholas Sherwin-White, Roman historian: born 10 August 1911; Fellow and Tutor, St John's College, Oxford 1936-79 (Fellow Emeritus); Reader in Ancient History, Oxford University 1966-79; FBA 1956; President, Society for Promotion of Roman Studies 1974-77; married Marie Downes (one son, one daughter); died Fyfield, Oxfordshire 1 November 1993.

A. N. SHERWIN-WHITE (few outside his family ever referred to him as 'Nicholas') was, from one point of view, an 'old-fashioned' college tutor, who except for the war years spent the whole of his life, from undergraduate days until retirement, in St John's College, Oxford. But what was distinctive about him was that he combined this wholly traditional framework with being a major Roman historian, various of whose books became standard works.

The son of a solicitor who worked for the then London County Council, Sherwin-White was educated at Merchant Taylor's, and duly came to St John's in 1930 to read Literae Humaniores. The Ancient History Tutor was the already formidable figure of HM Last, who exercised an immense influence which it is now difficult to reconstruct from his published work.

After taking Finals in 1934, Sherwin-White took the then unusual step of writing, under Last's supervision, a doctoral thesis which was later published as The Roman Citizenship (1939). The conventional and the unconventional meet here, as they do throughout his career. The book embraced the whole of Roman history, and became a standard work, revised in 1973. In scale and conception it is unimaginable as a doctoral thesis of today; but since the gentlemanly norms of the 1930s did not readily accommodate the title 'Dr', Sherwin-White never took the actual degree, and remained 'Mr' to the end. In any case, long before the thesis was finished, he had become a Fellow of St John's in 1936, when Last became Camden Professor.

In the Second World War Sherwin-White was in the Navy and then did important work in Naval Intelligence, concerned with the production of the Admiralty's Geographical Handbooks. After it he returned to St John's, living just behind the college in Museum Road with his wife Marie Downes, whom he married in 1936, and their two children. The pattern of this sociable and college-orientated life changed in 1963 when they moved to a cottage near the pleasant village of Fyfield, where they lived for 30 years. In this period his private and family life was kept rather separate from his extremely active professional life. It is common for dons to be keen gardeners, less for them to be avid devotees of racing. Country pursuits, and regular attendance at the beautiful church in Fyfield, provided the framework for his last three decades.

In the post-war period, he was a successful and highly stimulating tutor, and for some years 'Keeper of the Groves', that is, in charge of the college's wonderfully beautiful garden. He was very much a 'college man', though his very lucid lectures, delivered in his distinctive high, and slightly flat voice were much valued by undergraduates from elsewhere. But he did not in the post-war period exercise the great infuence over younger scholars at the postgraduate stage which Last had had. This period did however see the production of a number of very important books, as well as a successful school textbook, Ancient Rome (1959). The most stimulating and original is surely Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (1963); by comparison Racial Prejudice in Ancient Rome (1967) did not make any great impact. In many ways one of his most striking, original and perceptive works was his 'Review-Discussion' of the two- volume Tacitus of the then Camden Professor, Sir Ronald Syme, published in the Journal of Roman Studies, 1959. But his major work was to be his The Letters of Pliny: a historical and social commentary (1966), which combined immense erudition, percipience and sharpness of vision with a curious slapdashness about small details.

In 1966 Sherwin-White became Reader in Ancient History, and must have thought it likely that when the Camden chair became vacant in 1970 he would take the place which his formidable teacher, Hugh Last, had held. It was not to be, however, and the chair went to another major Roman historian, PA Brunt, who was a few years younger. True to convention, Sherwin-White was never known to hint at the disappointment which he certainly felt. Other honours did come, a Fellowship of the British Academy already in 1956, and the Presidency of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies in 1974-77.

He continued also to contribute major articles to the Journal of Roman Studies and in 1983, four years after retirement, produced a vigorous, original and penetrating book, Roman Foreign Policy in the East. But increasing deafness, combined with his deep attachment to the country and its pursuits, had the effect of separating him more and more from the social and intellectual life of his colleagues. What mattered most now was his firmly private life, and a happy marriage of more than half a century.

(Photograph omitted)