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Michael Grant, former Vice-Chancellor of Queen's (died 4 October 2004)

The former Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s, Michael Grant died on 4 October 2004. The following obituary has been taken (and amended as appropriate) from the Daily Telegraph. Other details are extracted from Degrees of Excellence – The Story of Queen’s Belfast 1845-1995, by Brian Walker and Alf McCreary.

Professor Michael Grant, who died on Monday 4 October aged 89, was a don at Cambridge, Professor of Humanity (Latin) at Edinburgh, and vice-chancellor at the Universities of Khartoum and Queen's, Belfast, but was best known as a prolific populariser of ancient history who published nearly 50 books on the Greeks, Romans and early Christianity. 


From 1959 until 1966, Grant served as vice-chancellor of Queen's University, Belfast, where his dealings with Stormont and with the divisions between Catholic and Protestant students gradually led him to the view that Britain should withdraw from Northern Ireland (though it was not a sentiment he voiced until long after his retirement).

A contemporary of Grant’s noted at the time: Grant was a distinguished international scholar in his own right. At Queen’s he was keen to conduct his research, and this caused resentment from some Professors who had done little research and were being shown the way by the Vice-Chancellor!’

He was described by the Belfast telegraph as ‘a classicist with a modern outlook’ and was a charming and sensitive man, well-liked at Queen’s, though not generally regarded as a tough leader and administrator. His years at Queen’s were essentially a period of transition.

Classic writer

Grant was always a lucid and erudite writer, who took the view that a study of the classical world was both "infinitely worth studying in its own right, without any consideration of modern analogies" and also that "without Latin, people are handicapped because they do not understand their past, and cannot therefore effectively plan their futures".

This attitude did nothing to impede his range, nor his appeal to the ordinary reader as well as the academic professional. As well as scholarly publications on the coinage of Rome (he was a distinguished numismatist), he produced biographies of Julius Caesar, Nero, Herod, Cleopatra, Jesus, St Peter and St Paul; accounts of the literature, history, art, mythology and social life of Greece and Rome; and found time to examine the Middle Ages and ancient Israel.

Books such as The Twelve Caesars (1975) and Gladiators (which was reissued recently after Ridley Scott's film) sold well in Penguin editions and enabled him to boast of a position as "one of the very few freelances in the field of ancient history" and, for the last 30 years or so, to work from his home in Italy.

The first of his general surveys, Ancient History (1952), and its companion Roman Literature (1954) immediately made clear his gifts of clarity and scholarship. Myths of the Greeks and Romans appeared in 1962, was twice updated, and was followed by Roman Myths . The Climax of Rome (1968) dealt with the neglected period of Rome after the second century AD; The Ancient Historians (1970) summarised the development - the invention, almost - of history; The Army of the Caesars (1974), The Twelve Caesars and The Roman Emperors (1985) covered the rule and supremacy of Rome.

But there was scarcely an aspect of ancient life which did not receive Grant's attention: The History of Rome (1978); The Jews in the Roman World (1973); Art in the Roman Empire (1995); The Classical Greeks (1989); The Hellenistic Greeks (1990) and many more were ground out by his pen.

Life and times

Michael Grant was born in London on November 21 1914, the only son of Colonel Maurice Grant, who had served in the Boer War and later wrote part of its official history, before covering the Balkan Wars for the Daily Mail and rising to become an obituarist - though he was sacked for failing to get up in the night to update Kitchener's obituary in 1916. His mother Muriel was of Danish stock, and descended from Jorgen Jorgensen, who staged an unsuccessful coup in Iceland in 1809.

After day school in Queen's Gate, young Michael went on to prep school at The Grange, Surrey, where he found conditions Spartan, before going to Harrow, where he captained his house at cricket and spent three years in the Classical Sixth form, being taught by the headmaster, Dr (later Sir Cyril) Norwood, and E V C Plumptre.

The latter was a precise figure. When discussing the novel Quo Vadis - which took its title from the reputed words of the resurrected Christ to St Peter - he commented: "A classical Roman would have said Quo Is. What a pity that our Lord spoke such late and inferior Latin." Grant also made visits to Rome's ancient sights, which made an immense impact on him.

He went up to Trinity, Cambridge, in 1933, where he wasted his first year, but buckled down after failing to be shortlisted for a scholarship. Having won a slew of awards and graduated, he compiled a thesis as a research student (later published as From Imperium to Auctoritas ), and travelled widely - aware that the impending war would soon make that impossible. In 1938, Grant was duly elected a Fellow of Trinity.

But then, as Grant noted in his autobiography My First Eighty Years (1994): "There was a singularly unpleasant war on in 1939-45 and . . . the Army seemed the right place to be in." Within a fortnight of the outbreak of war, he was in uniform, having met a brigadier from Military Intelligence. Grant spent his last evening at Cambridge with a friend "whose elder brother was soon afterwards shot dead at Catterick, when he returned to camp after dinner and forgot the password".

He trained with Anthony Blunt, who went into MI 5 ("a most unsuitable job, as it turned out, to give to him") and then worked beside David Niven as a duty officer at the War Office, where he was once compelled to rouse the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshal Lord Ironside, to tell him of the invasion of Norway and Denmark. He opened his call with the day's codeword, "Viking", to be greeted with the answer: "What the hell are you talking about?"

Grant was transferred to France, where he had the embarrassing task of organising "nocturnal amusements" for his commanding officer and, exhausted, the next day, lunched with the Duke of Windsor, who - to the commanding officer's horror - wore suede shoes.

He was then transferred to the British Council in Turkey, where he got to know "Cicero", the German spy who was valet to the British ambassador, Sir Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen. Grant attributed Cicero's success to his rudeness, which meant no one suspected him. Grant himself succeeded (by eating a packet of butter before going out to meet ministers) in keeping up with demanding Turkish drinking habits, though not in persuading the country to join the allies. He also got his friend the historian Steven Runciman his first job, at Ankara University.

Grant the academic

After the war, Grant and his Swedish wife Anne-Sophie, whom he had met and married in Turkey, returned to England, and after a period continuing his work for the British Council, returned briefly to Cambridge, where he supervised students on Athenian history while Bertrand Russell, who shared the room, relaxed before dinner. But he almost immediately accepted a post at Edinburgh University, where he remained until 1959. Grant relished his time there, though he found that the citizens, despite his name, would not accept him as Scottish because of his patrician demeanour and English background.

He also became a figure of suspicion after taking some students to Rome, where he bought them a drink and took them to the church of San Pietro in Vincoli - thus, in their view, attempting to seduce them with both alcohol and Papist idolatory. He received some teasing for once wearing an overcoat beneath his gown to guard against the cold.

Between 1956 and 1958, Grant took a sabbatical to become first vice-chancellor of the University of Khartoum, which he enjoyed, though arguments over "Sudanisation" and the Suez crisis did much to make his life there tiresome. He later regretted the restrictions imposed on the university by fundamentalist Islam, and the failures of Sudan's government.


In 1966, after his resignation from Queen’s, and encouraged by the experience of the journalist and MP Vernon Bartlett, Grant and his wife moved to Italy, where he bought a 16th-century house from Paolo Rossi, the Minister for Education. It was situated near Lucca, where Pompey, Crassus and Caesar met in 56 BC to hammer out differences which had grown up during the First Triumvirate; it was also convenient for Etruscan remains and for the amphitheatre (dating from 79-95 AD) nearby. From his book-lined study there, Grant continued to turn out numerous works, and also to travel widely, until ill health compelled him to return to England in his last months.

He received many academic awards and prizes from numismatic societies. His Who's Who in Classical Mythology (with John Hazel, 1973) won the Prima Latina. His most recent book was Sick Caesars (2000). He was president of the Virgil Society (1963-66) and of the Classical Association (1978-9). His club was the Athenaeum. He received the OBE in 1946 and was advanced to CBE in 1958.

Michael Grant married, in 1944, Anne-Sophie Beskow, whose father raised the first Swedish volunteers to aid the Finns in the Winter War against the Soviet Union. She, and their two sons, survive him.



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