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Professor Peter Walcot (1931–2009)

Emeritus Professor in the Cardiff School of History and Archaeology

The University regrets to announce the death of Professor Peter Walcot, Emeritus Professor in the Cardiff School of History and Archaeology who died peacefully on Saturday 18th April 2009 in Velindre Hospital, after a typically courageous struggle with stomach cancer.

Peter attended Wilsons Grammar School, (teaching himself ancient Greek while there) and went on to University College London, where he gained a first in Classics.  After taking an MA in Yale University, and a PhD back in UCL (studying with Professor T.B.L. Webster), he joined what was then the University College of South Wales and Monmouthshire in 1957 as assistant lecturer in the Department of Classics.  He remained in post in Cardiff from 1957 to his retirement in 1996, and his international reputation as a leading Greek scholar and a key figure in the development of Classical Studies at Cardiff and in the UK was recognised by his appointment to a Chair in Classics in 1974. 

His research focused initially on early Greek literature, especially Hesiod, and its complex relationship with the literature of the Near East.  Between 1957 and 1970 this research produced seventeen original papers and an important book on Hesiod and the Near East (1966).  His interests were broadening, and the primary focus for the remaining 30 or so years of active research was the study of the value systems and social institutions of the ancient Greeks, as revealed primarily by surviving literary texts. This research was stimulated and deepened by his pioneering use of comparative social anthropology, and especially studies of communities in modern Greece and the wider Mediterranean.  This produced two brief but incisive books, Greek Peasants, Ancient and Modern (1970) and Envy and the Greeks: a Study of Human Behaviour (1978), and a great many articles on a wide range of subjects, including Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, cattle raiding, widows, women’s conversations and love.  Two other areas of interests also displayed his constant concern to find connections and contrasts between the ancient and modern worlds: these were Greek art and iconography and Greek drama, on which he published, among much else, a book (Greek Drama in its theatrical and social context, 1976), and a notable paper on ‘Joe Orton and the Greeks’.  Finally, he turned his attention to demonstrating Plutarch’s repressed attitudes to women and sexuality.

Peter was a superb teacher and educator, and applied his restless enthusiasm and love of innovation to enhance the effectiveness of the teaching of Classics and Ancient History in Cardiff and beyond, and to bring the ancient world to an ever-widening public. In Cardiff in the 1960s, faced with the sharp decline in the teaching of Latin and Greek in the schools, he initiated, with Professors Bryn Rees and John Percival, the first non-linguistic degree scheme in Classical Studies in the UK, a move which was rapidly followed throughout the sector. His students long remembered the verve and enthusiasm of his lectures with their constant engagement with contemporary concerns. Also in the long-standing tradition of classical Professors at Cardiff (such as Richardson, Moritz, Rees and Percival), Peter contributed powerfully to the spread of knowledge of the ancient world across universities, schools and the wider world through national bodies such as the Classical Association.  This involved above all the longest ever stint as editor of the journal Greece and Rome (1970-2001), which under his leadership became, as he intended, and in his words, ‘an international academic publication concentrating on what is of central interest rather than on the esoteric or excessively technical’.  Particular innovations under his editorship were the expansion of the reviews sections, and the introduction of a series of Studies jointly edited with his fellow editor Ian McAuslan, comprising the best articles in the journal on central topics such as Virgil, Homer, Greek Tragedy and Women in Antiquity.  Beyond the University, Peter retained well into retirement his commitment to sharing his learning and enthusiasm on innumerable classical cruises across the Mediterranean; and he and his wife Jean (herself a gifted artist) contributed very greatly to the enjoyment and understanding of art of all ages through their work for the Contemporary Art Society for Wales.

Peter possessed a sharp and decisive mind, a very strong moral sense, and a powerful and fearless personality: forthright in expressing his views, quick to reach decisions and to act on them, and intolerant of inefficiency or delay. At home, he was totally devoted to Jean, their three children and eight grandchildren, who provided enormous pleasure in his last years.  Our condolences go to them. 

Nick Fisher, Professor of Ancient History, Cardiff School of History and Archaeology