OBITUARY : Professor Robert Browning

Anthony Bryer
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:39

John Snell of Glasgow, benefactor of Balliol, has a lot to answer for. Since 1699 Snell Exhibitioners, graduates of Glasgow, have traditionally shouldered a bag of oats and headed south, past Sweetheart Abbey in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, where lies the heart of John Balliol, to his college in Oxford, for four further years of hard labour. This is austere training.

After Kelvinside Academy, Robert Browning of Glasgow added his name to over 200 others when Professor Rennie called the roll for his Ordinary Class in the Humanity Department of Glasgow University in 1931. By 1935 Browning was therefore older than others of his year when he presented himself as Snell Exhibitioner at Balliol. Born in 1914, he faced youths born in 1916, such as Kenneth Garlick (art historian), Edward Heath (organ scholar) and Rodney Hilton (social historian, with whom from 1965 Browning was to collaborate on the then radical journal Past & Present). Browning was a natural elder, somehow always a member of a Senior rather than Junior Common Room (over which Heath presided).

Besides his Firsts in Mods and Greats, Browning collected the full house of classical prizes and scholarships (for the record: Nowlands, Ireland, Craven, Ferguson, De Paravicini, and Jenkyns; his Chancellor's Prize was for a Latin version of Hume's "Essay on Avarice").

He also started collecting languages - Albanian came early. This was a surprising hobby for one whose preferred method of communication to an individual, whether by postcard or muttered aside, was as laconic as it was distinctive - almost furtive. His languages, which never found Browning at a loss for words among scholars abroad, were tuned by listening to East European radio stations at night after Munich. But, placed on a platform, Browning was loquacious. He could deliver over 300 words a minute without altering the angle of his smile. Such style was to entrance generations of research students, who never forgot the matter.

Nineteen thirty-nine brought Browning his second degree and seven years' service, initially in the Royal Artillery. He learnt Georgian in a troop- ship round the Cape. In Cairo he worked with another Hellenist, Enoch Powell, and met his second wife, Ruth. In Italy he was on the General Staff. In Sofia he was on the Allied Control Commission, and met his first wife Galina. In Belgrade he was assistant to the British Military Attache.

In 1946 Browning returned first as a Harmsworth Senior Scholar at Merton College, Oxford, and then established himself in London University: from 1947 to 1965 in University College, and from 1965 to his retirement in 1981 as Professor of Classics and Ancient History at Birkbeck.

Such a formation made Browning a Hellenist first. From Glasgow, Snell's benefaction sent no more severe a textual critic to Balliol. But experience of the Balkans brought to this grounding medieval and modern Greek (the title of Browning's influential handbook of 1969) too. The classicist became a Byzantinist, at his most subtle with classical texts seen through Byzantine eyes. He chaired both the Societies for the Promotion of Hellenic and Byzantine Studies. He was review editor both of the Journal of Hellenic Studies and editor of the bibliography of the Byzantinische Zeitschrift magazine.

An internationalist, vice-president of the International Byzantine Association from 1981: the years between Balliol and Belgrade were also a context for Browning's politics, which were an enigma to those who sought continuity between his seductive studies Justinian and Theodora (1971), naturally Byzantium and Bulgaria (1975) and The Byzantine Empire (1980), and his contributions to the Historians' Group of the British Communist Party in the heady days before Hungary.

Some misread Browning's cryptic asides. It dawned on his students that he was most concerned for them, particularly if they were foreign, or as "mature" as a Snell Exhibitioner. Typically, it was in Canberra that Maistor, the title of his first Festschrift, was published on Australian initiative in 1984; and this year it was in Venice that Philellen, the title of his second, was published on Greek initiative.

Robert and Ruth Browning enjoyed his formal retirement from Birkbeck in 1981. He animated a further generation of students in Dumbarton Oaks, which is Harvard University's Byzantine research outpost in Washington DC. He advised the new University of Cyprus and was forthright about where the Elgin Marbles should be. John Snell's Exhibitioner could also rummage in his bag of oats to find another collection: of honours, from the keys of Athens to a Birmingham doctorate. But it is by their students and the love of their students that great didacts are known.

Robert Browning, Byzantinist: born Glasgow 15 January 1914; Lecturer, University College London 1947-55, Reader 1955-65; Professor of Classics and Ancient History, Birkbeck College, London 1965-81 (Emeritus); FBA 1978; married 1946 Galina Chichekova (two daughters), 1972 Ruth Gresh; died London 11 March 1997.

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