Obituary: Professor Edward Thompson

Edward Arthur Thompson, classicist and historian: born Waterford, Ireland 22 May 1914; Lecturer in Classics, Trinity College Dublin 1939-41, University College Swansea 1941-45, King's College London 1945-48; Professor of Classics, Nottingham University 1948-79 (Emeritus); books include A History of Attila and the Huns 1948, The Early Germans 1965, The Goths in Spain 1969, Romans and Barbarians 1982, Who was Saint Patrick? 1985; married 1945 Thelma Phelps (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1958), 1964 Hazel Casken (one daughter); died Nottingham 1 January 1994.

EDWARD THOMPSON, a pioneer of the study of Late Antiquity in the English-speaking world, was a scholar of extraordinarily wide interests and a much-loved teacher of many generations of students of Classics at Nottingham University. A man of deep humanity and warm friendships, he carried his learning lightly. If he enjoyed anything more than deflating pretentiousness in others it was turning his wry, ironic wit against himself. When asked why he had got rid of the geese he had been keeping, he characteristically replied 'I found that geese have a very limited sense of humour.'

Thompson received most of his education in Dublin. At school he became a classicist; in consequence, as he later alleged, of the arbitrary choice of the headmaster. He took First Class Honours in Classics at Trinity College in 1936, and proceeded to graduate work there.

A visit to Berlin in 1937-38 as an Exchange Student was to have a powerful influence on Thompson's future. Viewing German militarism with distaste, he then witnessed an incident of Nazi brutality which he never afterwards forgot.

He was on the point of enlisting in the Army at the end of 1941 when an invitation from Professor Ben Farrington took him to Swansea, to teach Greek. Thompson and Farrington became close friends; it was Farrington's influence that converted Thompson to Marxism. His way had been prepared by his experience in Nazi Germany and by the inspiration of his friend the poet Roger Roughton. His reading of Marx, and, especially, of Lenin's The Origins of the Family, left a permanent imprint on his historical work.

Long after his parting with the Communist Party in 1956, when he had come to sit more lightly to Marxist ideology, his interest in the class structure of societies, and in their material basis, continued to give direction to his studies.

Over the 20 years between A History of Attila and the Huns (1948) and his most substantial book, The Goths in Spain (1969), Thompson's interests focused on the barbarian tribes on the borders of the Roman Empire, Huns and Germans, who were to invade and settle in its Western provinces in the fifth and sixth centuries. Everywhere his work shows his fascination with the ways in which a society is affected by change, by the impact on it of its neighbours and its contacts with them.

Thompson's interest in Late Antiquity had been aroused by a chance reading, while still in Dublin, of a passage of the late fourth- century historian Ammianus Marcellinus, on whom he was to write his first book, The Historical Work of Ammianus Marcellinus (1947). In 1945 Thompson moved to King's College London, where Norman Baynes was then a colleague. Despite their very different religious and political views they became good friends. Baynes was a Byzantinist, and one of the tiny handful of British scholars whose interest in the ancient world embraced Late Antiquity. In the huge revival of interest in this period since the Second World War, Thompson's many studies played an important part. When he moved to the Chair of Classics at Nottingham in 1948, his department became one of the principal centres for the study of this field. Two visiting professorships in the United States widened the circle of scholars who felt his influence. His standing was acknowledged by election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1964.

Thompson stayed at Nottingham until his retirement in 1979. His work came increasingly to concentrate on the last period and the end of Roman rule in the Western provinces, especially in Britain. The last of his books to emerge from these studies, Who was Saint Patrick? (1985), was perhaps his most iconoclastic. Writing terse, lucid and forceful prose, Thompson never flinched from controversy; indeed, he rather enjoyed arousing it. Although inclined to study periods, areas and problems where literary evidence is very tenuous, he always remained slightly aloof from archaeological investigation, and preferred to recall archaeologists to the evidence furnished by literary materials. He was adept at extracting the last ounce of information from the scrappy texts, and from the gaps between their lines, by meticulously precise reading and relentless pursuit of their implications.

Though a scintillating lecturer and a stimulating teacher, at Nottingham Thompson was seen above all as a scholar dedicated to his research. He ran his department through friendship rather than by anything that could be called 'administration', which, indeed, he was apt to treat with mild contempt. Happily settled in retirement Thompson continued to indulge his love of the Yorkshire countryside, of the classics of English literature, and, with his wife Hazel, of entertaining their friends.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Compensation and Benefits Manager - Brentwood - Circa £60,000

£60000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Compensation and Benefits Manager - Compensat...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £35000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

HR Advisor - North London / North West London

£30000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Advisor - North London...

Finance Manager - Recruitment Business (Media & Entertainment)

£28000 - £32000 per annum + negotiable: Sauce Recruitment: We have an exciting...

Day In a Page

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker