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.

ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
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 People

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Talent Manager / HR Manager - central London - £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Talent / Learning & Development Mana...

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