Obituary: Professor David Lewis
Friday 15 July 1994
DAVID LEWIS was not only the outstanding ancient Greek historian in the English-speaking world, but an authority on ancient Jewish and Persian evidence of whom full-time specialists were in awe. He was not only a generalising historian of rare sweep and acuteness, but the world expert on the minute interpretation and restoration of Greek inscriptions on stone. Finally, and most important to his family friends and pupils, he was not only the cleverest ancient historian of his time, he was surely the kindest.
A London and Oxford education (amusingly evoked, alongside names like Isaiah Berlin and William Waldegrave, in Lewis's recent contribution to Corpuscles, the book of reminiscences of Corpus Christi College, Oxford) was followed by national service. There is an unexpected reference to his army days in his marvellous book Sparta and Persia (1977). Contemplating the curious blend of competitiveness and conformism which was ancient Sparta, Lewis recalled of this military phase of his life: 'There were sharp differences of theory and practice as to whether it was best to remain as inconspicuous as possible, with the danger of being accused of lack of leadership qualities, or to risk doing things which might bring one attention, which could be unfavourable.'
Lewis spent most of his professional life in Oxford, with visits to Athens and the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, both places where first-hand epigraphic work could be done. The scholarly world always recognised Lewis's technical epigraphic gifts, which were displayed in a remarkable series of studies beginning in the mid 195Os and pouring out prolifically thereafter. His contributions were not confined to work appearing under his own name. He was generous about helping colleagues by providing unpublished material, ideas, and comments. Twenty years ago, when I started graduate work, I was asked by Keith Thomas (now head of Lewis's undergraduate college Corpus), who my supervisor was. When I told him, he commented, 'Ah yes, Lewis, the man who writes other people's books for them.' Lewis was head and shoulders above other graduate supervisors in the sub-faculty, long before that area of Oxford life had been professionalised.
For students and non-specialist colleagues, Lewis's most famous contribution in the epigraphic area was to be the 'L' in ' 'ML' - that is, in Russell Meiggs's and David Lewis's Selection of Archaic and Fifth-Century Greek Historical Inscriptions (1969). The worst academic loss we have suffered is that before his illness Lewis planned a companion volume to cover the fourth century BC - the age of and leading up to Alexander the Great. But what we have missed is nothing to what we have gained: the culmination of Lewis's epigraphic work was his edition of all the inscriptions of fifth-century Athens, a mighty project completed last year. The culmination of another side of his life and work was The Jews of Oxford (1992), a brilliant social cultural and religious history, dedicated to his wife Barbara, 'who always asks the right questions'.
The scholarly community was slower to realise that here was not 'just' a technician but a world- class historian. It was great luck that in the late 1970s work on the new Cambridge Ancient History was approaching the Greek period, and that Lewis reluctantly agreed to become an editor ('my perfect editor' according to his Cambridge in-house editor) of volumes 4-6, covering archaic times to Alexander. He was also a large-scale contributor, in which capacity he found a new metier, saying interesting, new and important things in an accessible way. He wrote so well, and so wittily. After 15 years' work, he missed seeing an advance copy of volume 6 by a fortnight.
In summer 1993 a conference was organised in Oxford in his honour and he was in his mild way astonished to find out what we all thought of him. It was good that he did, because a month later he was struck down with cancer. Down but not out, as his heroic final year was to show. Four days before his death he handled and read part of the proofs of his festschrift (the conference proceedings) and was just able to express himself pleased.
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