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Harold Mattingly

Emeritus Professor Harold B Mattingly

Colleagues will be sorry to learn of the death, on 23 August 2015, of Harold Mattingly, former Professor of Ancient History (1970-1987) at the age of 92. Professor Mattingly had the status and title of Emeritus Professor conferred upon his retirement.  The following obituary has been written by his children, Joanna, David and Liz.

Harold was born in Finchley in 1923 and educated at Saffron Walden and the Leys School. After wartime service in the Friends Ambulance Unit and a period of convalescence in Cornwall, he was awarded a double first in the Classics Tripos at Gonville and Caius (1946-1948). He subsequently went on to hold a Craven Scholarship (1948-1950), writing a thesis on the Roman Imperial Senate. From 1950-1969 he was Lecturer (then Reader) in Ancient History at the University of Nottingham, before becoming Professor at Leeds University in 1970 in succession to Ernst Badian. His research throughout his career focused on Classical Greece and the Roman Republic and on numismatic and epigraphic problems. His favourite canvas was the academic article, with more than 160 of them produced in multiple typewritten drafts - he never took to word processors or computers. There are three published volumes of collected essays. His father, also named Harold, was another famous ancient historian and numismatist and, though initially in his shadow, the younger Harold soon established his own international reputation. Nonetheless, the two Harolds did occasionally overlap in period of interest, leading to some hilarious correspondence when their separate contributions (perhaps 50 years apart) on a specific issue were assumed to be the work of the same person.

Harold’s major scholarly contributions centred on long-running controversies, in which the recurrent pattern was that he adopted a minority view against the prevailing orthodoxy, maintaining his position across decades and in the face of sustained and sometimes harshly expressed and dismissive judgements from senior academics. Unfortunately for his opponents, he had an annoying habit of eventually being proved right. The most important of these debates centred on the dating of a key series of inscriptions relating to Athenian imperialism. The chronology of the shift in Athenian policy towards her allies, becoming increasingly harsh and imperialistic, depended on the dating of a change in letter form from the three- to four-barred sigma used in public inscriptions in the mid to late 5th century BC. Harold's contention was that the shift in Athenian imperialism fitted best with a date after 425 BC, when Athens was embroiled in the Peloponnesian War, rather than the pre-445 BC period (where orthodoxy placed them). The debate turned on whether a dated text with the more archaic form of three-barred sigma could be found after 445 BC, and Harold’s claim from the 1960s onwards that an inscription recording an alliance between Athens and Egesta should be dated to 418 BC was eventually shown to be correct by the use of photo enhancement and laser imaging in the late 1980s. Another major contribution related to the highly complex, but very fragmentary, texts of two important Roman laws of the late 2nd century BC, written on opposing faces of a series of bronze tablets. In collaborating on a major re-edition of the texts as part of an international team, he found himself at loggerheads with his colleagues, who favoured lengthy textual restorations to fill the gaps they believed existed between the surviving fragments. Harold’s preferred solution was that the gaps were in fact much smaller. His instincts were eventually proved correct, when detailed re-examination of two fragments revealed traces of the join between them that he had predicted, at a stroke invalidating all the lengthier interpolations.

Despite his academic battles, Harold was an extraordinary mild mannered man, a generous colleague, a wonderful teacher and encourager of students. Several letters to the family have independently described him as the nicest man the correspondent ever encountered in academia. One of his former students commented that Harold, while very learned and direct, lacked any hint of pomposity. Crucially he recalls how Harold took him seriously at a time when he felt he did not deserve to be taken seriously (though he is himself now a Professor of Ancient History, so Harold’s judgement appears to have been correct).

Harold’s later career at Leeds was affected by periods of depression, in part brought on by the lack of resolution to the controversial debates he had fought for so long. His eventual vindication in these arguments after he had retired to Cambridge was widely celebrated by his friends and scholarly supporters. Conferences took place in his honour in Cambridge in 2003 and Athens in 2010 and he held visiting fellowships in New York, South Africa and Australia.

Harold enjoyed a very happy 55-year marriage to the artist and potter Erica.  During his time in Leeds Erica made their large flat in Headingley an open house for students, friends and numerous visiting academics. Outside work he found time and energy for a diverse range of interests:  walking – often on Otley Chevin or in the Dales – (though never extending to camping), travel, theatre, poetry, art, politics, Quakerism, human rights charities, cricket and football. As teenagers we remember occasional invites to lunch with him in the SCR, where he always indulged in a substantial pudding as the necessary prelude to thrashing us at table tennis. As well as his children and their spouses, he loved the company of his five grandchildren, Rebecca, Susanna, Louisa, Douglas and Isabelle. One of his dogs, Emma (Emmeline Pankhurst), found abandoned and tied to the railings of the Parkinson Building, had the distinction of being carried home on the front seat of the Vice-Chancellor's car.

Even after Erica’s death in 2008, which affected him greatly, he managed to maintain his independence and his research, being a fixture in the Classics Faculty library in Cambridge up to his 90th birthday and receiving a copy of his final published work just a week before he died. He also served as President of the Royal Numismatic Society from 1999-2004 and was still making adventurous forays to its meetings in London in 2013, sometimes with modest logistic support from his grandchildren. Despite increasing infirmity, he continued to be an indomitable foreign traveller with trips in his last years to Greece, Rome, St Petersburg and Burgundy. A short book of his memories of travels in Greece was produced with illustrations by his daughter Joanna, who had accompanied him on his last two trips.

A family funeral was held in Cornwall in September, but a memorial event is being arranged for Saturday 31st October in Cambridge. Enquiries to: