OBITUARY: Professor Jacques Heurgon

Click to follow
The distinguished Sorbonne professor of Latin language and literature Jacques Heurgon was the author of numerous highly readable and imaginative scholarly works, among which two have long been popular best-sellers, Rome et la Mediterranee jusqu'aux guerres puniques ("Rome and the Mediterranean up to the Punic Wars", 1969), and the immensely enjoyable La Vie quotidienne chez les Etrusques ("Daily Life of the Etruscans"), re-edited many times since its first appearance in French in 1961.

Not long before he died, Heurgon had finished a preface for the new edition of Flammarion's "Histoire romaine" series. A specialist in Livy, he also revered Virgil and edited a fine study of Varro's Rerum Rusticarum. This last work brings to a fitting close the life of dedicated scholarship of one of our century's most self-effacing academics.

Heurgon showed brilliant academic promise as a pupil at the Lycee Condorcet and attended the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris before going on to the Ecole Francaise de Rome. He was appointed in 1931 to the Faculty of Letters at the University of Algiers, where he taught Latin language and literature, the first of many posts in North and East Africa after the Second World War. He served during the war with the 3rd Division of the Algerian Infantry, and distinguished himself in action at Monte Cassino and later in France. In 1953 he was given the Chair of Latin at the Sorbonne, and held it until 1971, when he became Professor Emeritus.

His list of distinctions is long and varied, for besides being a great linguist and classical scholar he was a noted archaeologist. He was made an Officier de la Legion d'Honneur, Officier des Arts et des Lettres and received the ultimate national consecration of Membre de l'Institut.

One of the first French books I translated, commissioned for Weidenfeld in the mid-Sixties, was Heurgon's La Vie quotidienne chez les Etrusques. I knew little about the Etruscans, nor did I know much of the learned jargon of academic ethnologists. In the course of my translation, done at top speed, I made a few blunders that escaped even the eagle eye of the Weidenfeld editor Barley Alison. One of them, I remember, was "hunters and collectors" instead of the hallowed "hunters and gatherers". When the translation appeared, Alison forwarded a letter from the author, in which he kindly pointed out the correct term, then won my non-academic heart by adding: "But anyhow, why should we not say 'hunters and collectors' - it's just as good as 'hunters and gatherers' and in some ways even better, considering the things that they gathered."

James Kirkup

Jacques Heurgon, Latin scholar: born Paris 25 January 1903; Professor of Latin, Sorbonne 1953-71 (Emeritus); died Paris 27 October 1995.