In memoriam John Edward Atkinson

In memoriam John Edward Atkinson (20 October 1938 – 11 April 2022)

South African Classics in particular but also scholars of Alexander the Great will be deeply saddened by the sudden death of John Atkinson after a short illness.

John was a proud “Northerner”, who enjoyed an itinerant childhood, living and being educated in various parts of England as his father, a Methodist minister, was moved from church to church. After A levels he studied at the University of Durham, from which he graduated in 1961 with a BA (Hons) in Classical and General Literature.

In those days jobs could be found in the colonies for bright sparks open to a little adventure and John applied for an assistant lecturership in the then University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland in Salisbury (Harare). There he worked under the energetic Tom Carney, of whose exploits John would talk with characteristic enthusiasm and from whom he acquired a passion for ‘content analysis’, a technique used by Allied intelligence in World War II to analyse the vast quantity of Axis communications and documents to discover their plans and deployments. Rhodesia gave John not only a bottomless supply of stories, but also a wife and family.

In 1963 he led them on a short trek to Pretoria, where he worked for 18 months as a lecturer at the University of South Africa (Unisa). Whereas Salisbury had been stimulating, Unisa was stifling: the Head of Department, Gerrit Viljoen, was far from amenable to the radical suggestions of the “Rooinek”, and the Broederbond-controlled institution was an unhappy home for one with distinctly pinkish tendencies.

John accepted another lectureship at the University of Cape Town in January 1965, initially under the wings of Maurice Pope, for whom he was to write a fond obituary in Acta Classica 2020. In the following thirty-seven years he progressed through the ranks to full professor (2000) and was the last Dean of the Faculty of Arts, before its transfiguration into the Faculty of Humanities. His enormous administrative skills were drawn upon as he formed and led the Department of Modern and Classical Languages and even brought about a temporary truce in the internecine warfare of the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies.

After a bout of ill health John retired slightly early in 2001, but he continued to teach in Classics for the next decade. In 2018, to celebrate his 80th birthday, a colloquium was held at UCT, at which his oldest and youngest students were present (see picture below).

Trained in the British system, John had a wide range of teaching expertise and was required to demonstrate it through the years – beside Greek and Roman history courses he also taught a wide range of literary authors both in the original and in translation.

All students had to cope with John’s highly developed sense of irony with which he would constantly draw parallels between the ancient world and current events; to benefit most from John’s teaching students had to have read their newspaper, appraised themselves of the latest idiocies committed by politicians (or members of the British Royal family) and to have applied their mind to whatever subject from the ancient world was under discussion.

John’s research was breath-taking in its breadth, ranging from Senecan drama to Byzantine hooliganism, from fifth-century BC Athenian politics to tenth-century AD iconoclasm. He kept thinking and writing to the end – 2021 saw the publication of a collaboration with a renowned Maxillo-facial surgeon Rushdi Hendricks to re-examine the wounds suffered by Philip of Macedon and 2022 the last conference paper John had given on the representation of Coriolanus, by whom he was fascinated.

Sub specie aeternitatis John’s greatest contribution is his work on Quintus Curtius Rufus, so much so that he remains ‘Mr Curtius Rufus’, and it will be a long time before his work is surpassed. His ambitious PhD project led to three monographs of commentary in English and a two-volume Italian adaptation of them.

Within South Africa John played an active role in the Classical Association of South Africa, serving as an official within the Western Cape and nationally, finally receiving recognition as national Chairman (2001-03). He has been a long-standing servant to both our national periodicals Acta Classica (1985-2003) and of Akroterion (1985-present). His concern for the training and up-skilling of teachers and for taking Classics outside the academic environment of the University never faltered. One of his hobby-horses was that CASA should have something akin to Omnibus (a magazine/periodical produced by the Classical Association in the UK), so that a general audience could have easy access to accessible and informed articles on the Classical World.

Outside of UCT John employed his leadership and organizational skills running the complex in which he lived in Rondebosch, until he moved into a retirement home some five years ago.

John studied Alexander the Great, and was happily married to another (greater) Alexander, Val, and was the proud father of two daughters.  His colleagues in Classics at the University of Cape Town have lost an inspirational researcher, teacher, leader, mentor, and friend. Within South Africa we have lost an absolute stalwart of our discipline.

David Wardle

John Atkinson and his students