Professor John Crook, who died on September 7 aged 85, was Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University, an expert on Roman law and legal practice, and a quintessential old-fashioned bachelor don.
At St John's, where he held a fellowship from 1951, Crook was a linchpin of college life, serving as a teaching fellow from 1953 to 1984, tutor from 1956 to 1964, praelector from 1966 to 1971 and president from 1971 to 1975. Always hospitable and generous, he had an extraordinary memory for old members of the college, and he went to great pains to make them feel welcome whenever they returned to visit.
To his Classics students Crook dispensed an encyclopaedic knowledge of classical literature and law with a combination of judgment, scepticism and humour. As well as ancient history, he taught Greek and Latin language with precision and enjoyment.
On taking up his post as a research fellow in 1951, fearing that he might not hear the sound of knocking on the double doors to his room, he wrote a note: "If there is no reply to your knock, enter and knock on the door to your left," and pinned it to his outer door. The note, initialled JAC and dated October 1 1951, remained in place until his retirement from the chair of Ancient History in the 1980s.
Crook could be humorously provocative, sometimes teasing colleagues with the suggestion that university dons were merely part of the entertainment industry. But he was reserved about his own philosophical outlook, preferring students to feel free to consider the merits of all theoretical frameworks on offer. He spent much of his life in Socratic discourse with students and friends and, as well as his own books and articles, indirectly left his mark on numerous works on ancient history penned by others.
Though he sometimes spoke wistfully about being without a grand unified theory by which to interpret everything, Crook was passionate in his belief that general historians of the classical period tended to make insufficient use of Roman law in their treatment of social and economic issues. After all, what sort of society was it that could develop techniques of procedural law as refined as the Romans had?
He explored these interconnections in a major work, Law and Life of Rome (1967), a lively and accessible account of how the highly technical rubrics of the law related to Roman society and social relations. As an historian, Crook was well aware of the difficulties of using the law as a source, once citing the example of undergraduates cycling en masse the wrong way down Trinity Street while the police stood by, powerless to stop them - a scene he had no doubt witnessed from his college windows. The law, in other words, prescribes what should happen, not what does happen.
Yet, as he pointed out in Law and Life, a standard part of the curriculum for an educated Roman was forensic rhetoric. The talkers of law were also the readers and writers of literature; legal terminology was used for literary metaphor and as the basis for stage jokes, and it furnished analogy for philosophical discussions. So if Roman law and legal practice does not necessarily tell us what people were doing, it is invaluable for getting a feel for the ideology of the period.
It was vital to understanding economic relations too. In Law and Life, for example, Crook discussed the economic significance of the peculium (a fund of property owned by a slave's owner or head of a family but entrusted to his slave or child), and explained how its existence "enabled the law to develop a series of rules making the slave an agent pledging his master's credit in dealings with third parties". Thus, whether or not the owner knew or consented to the transaction, he could be sued only up to the limit of the peculium - a form of limited liability.
In 1996 Crook issued a challenge to a younger generation of scholars to explore what the Roman characteristic of "thinking like a lawyer" really meant, in order to elucidate the importance of Roman law within wider Roman culture. The outcome of this challenge was the festschrift Thinking Like a Lawyer, edited by Paul McKechnie and published to mark Crook's 80th birthday in 2001.
John Anthony Crook was born at Balham, south London, on November 5 1921 into a family of modest means. He was educated on a scholarship at Dulwich College and as an undergraduate at St John's College, Cambridge, where he was John Stewart of Rannoch Scholar.
His studies were interrupted by the outbreak of war in which, from 1941, he served as a private and then as a corporal in the 9th Royal Fusiliers. Captured in Italy in 1943, he spent two years as a PoW in Stalag VIIIB at Lamsdorf, Silesia, where he occupied the time teaching his fellow captives languages, becoming proficient on the clarinet and taking part in theatrical productions.
After the camp was liberated by the Russians in 1945 he survived the "death march" from Silesia to Berlin in which many of his fellows perished from cold and hunger, finishing his wartime service as a sergeant in the Royal Army Educational Corps.
In 1947 Crook completed his degree, then spent a year at Balliol College, Oxford, as a research student, and three at the University of Reading as an assistant lecturer (from 1948) and lecturer (from 1949), before returning to his old college at Cambridge. He remained there for the rest of his life, becoming a university lecturer in Classics in 1953, lecturer in Roman History and Law in 1955 and reader in 1971. In 1979 he succeeded Moses Finley as Professor of Ancient History.
His first major work, published in 1955, was Consilium Principis: Imperial Council and Councillors from Augustus to Diocletian, which became the standard text on how the Roman Empire was governed in practice from day to day. Notable for its brilliant mastery of detail, the book showed Crook's familiarity with the available evidence ranging from the familiar to the obscure.
Thus in 1959, when workmen building the first section of the Autostrada del Sud south of Naples came across a building 600 metres south of Pompeii's Stabian Gate containing a basket of papyrus documents relating to the business of what had probably been a finance house, Crook was quick to recognise their value as a source of evidence on how Roman law actually worked in practice, setting out his views in a paper entitled Working notes on some Pompeii tablets, published in 1978.
One of Crook's closest academic friends was the Danish classicist MH Hansen, who chronicled, in an essay published in Crook's festschrift, how, in 1990, Crook had devoted 100 days to translating his (Hansen's) Danish account of Athenian fourth-century democracy into English. As well as being typical of Crook's generosity, it illustrated another facet of his intellectual accomplishment - his knowledge of Danish, one of three Scandinavian languages with which he was familiar.
Official retirement in 1984 did nothing to diminish Crook's scholarly energies and he went on to publish numerous reviews and articles, to contribute several erudite chapters to the Cambridge Ancient History and to write his third magnum opus: Legal Advocacy in the Roman World (1995), a thorough overview of Roman law and procedure from around 90 BC to 212 AD. In this, he demonstrated his usual command of primary and secondary material and delivered fair-minded judgments with the wit and wisdom familiar to his pupils and colleagues.
John Crook was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 1970, but resigned in 1980 over the academy's failure to expel the art historian and traitor, Anthony Blunt.
Professor John Crook
Professor of Ancient History at Cambridge University who was an authority on the law and life of Rome
Published: 15 September 2007
John Anthony Crook, ancient historian: born London 5 November 1921; Assistant Lecturer in Classics, Reading University 1948-49, Lecturer 1949-51; Fellow, St John's College, Cambridge 1951-2007, Tutor 1956-64, President 1971-75; Assistant Lecturer in Classics, Cambridge University 1953-55, Lecturer 1955-71, Reader in Roman History and Law 1971-79, Brereton Reader 1974-79, Professor of Ancient History 1979-84 (Emeritus); FBA 1970-80; died Cambridge 7 September 2007.
Though he would certainly have dismissed the idea, because he was invincibly counter-suggestible, as well as enjoying an international scholarly reputation and occupying the chair of Ancient History at Cambridge, 1979-84, John Crook occupied a unique place in the affection of colleagues, pupils and staff at St John's College, where for 55 years he occupied the same set of rooms, kept his oak permanently unsported, and, in the offices he successively held, came to symbolise the place for generations of old members whom he would welcome back as to their home. Every year, the weeks before Christmas were given over to the writing of letters to scores of former pupils.
A Balham boy and the only child of parents of limited means, Crook's early career provided a wonderful vindication of the old LCC scholarship system, which took him to Dulwich College, where his linguistic and musical gifts were nurtured, and in 1939 to St John's.
Having taken a First in Part I of the Classical Tripos, in February 1942, he was drafted into the 9th Royal Fusiliers, with whom he served in the Middle East and North Africa before being captured on landing in Italy and sent to Stalag Luft VIIIB in Silesia, where he acquired fluent German, taught languages to other prisoners, perfected his remarkable skill on the clarinet (the instrument his father, a military bandsman, played), and developed as a Shakespearean actor, a side of him later deployed at the lecturing dais and, memorably, when as President of St John's he descended Malvolio-like to disperse a group of roistering junior fellows at their cups.
After completion of the Tripos with another First, a year in Oxford and a spell at Reading, in 1951 he returned to Cambridge as a research Fellow of St John's. His Consilium Principis (1955) established him as a front-rank historian of antiquity, but with ancient history treated as an ancillary subject within Classics and as one which, he strongly believed, should be taught straight from the source material, one of the reasons why he was such a great admirer of A.H.M. Jones, his predecessor-but-one as professor. He was an expert on rhetoric and was a superb lecturer, using movement and facial contortion, as well as voice, gown and an impeccable sense of timing, to capture and hold an audience. He would invariably have a full house at 9am.
Apart from the respectful bowing of the head, it was the Crookian nose that was the principal prop: marvellously mobile, it maintained a Pat-and-Mike act with its sympathetic chin as he pretended to have forgotten the end of one of his endless fund of stories. Narrowing his eyes, his expression – calculating but also self-deprecatory – might as easily resolve itself into a jeremiad bewailing the latest manifestation of Crook's Law ("Everything is getting worse") as into the generous laugh, which was never exactly a laugh but was sometimes a murmur, sometimes almost a cackle, delivered with head thrust forward, gnathic gestures, and arms set back like rudders.
He was particularly in his element at college meetings ("Master, I have a difficulty"; "Master, the council has got this wrong") but was not one to rock the college boat unless he was certain it was rowing dead steady, which Crook's Law stated it rarely was. At gatherings of the College Classical Society, which for 50 years met in his rooms, he would reminisce and chat about anything under the sun. His particular passion was to get the society singing in Latin, the favourite being "Waltzing Matilda", with its chorus starting "ambiclitella! ambiclitella!" (Latin for swag).
Roman law was his main interest. His work was a model for Roman historians who shared this interest, and he stimulated others to work in the field. His Law and Life of Rome (1967) was his most important and influential work. At the same time he had an ambiguous relationship with "professional" Roman lawyers, as a tribe, as opposed to individuals who got to know him and appreciated his scholarship. This was partly his own doing. Law and Life has, instead of the usual dedication, a "warning" to the experts to stay away: "iuris consultus abesto". Perhaps this was tongue-in-cheek; perhaps he was laying down a challenge. For he was not always easy to fathom.
In his Legal Advocacy in the Roman World (1995) he vigorously championed the status and the calling of advocates (and rhetoric) as opposed to jurists (and jurisprudence), taking up a position not unlike that of Cicero, the great advocate himself, but with the additional goal of rehabilitating rhetoric in the eyes of modern scholars. To an unusual degree, the authentic voice, colloquial yet elegant, was audible in the printed word.
Crook was a demanding but sympathetic teacher of undergraduates. He took enormous trouble and time over graduate students and junior colleagues. He was especially good at working through difficult texts with them, and read their work readily and carefully. Although the arena of his own research was traditional, revolving around Roman political and constitutional history, and Roman law, he typically took a critical line, and encouraged the young to do the same. If they seemed to be edging towards a novel, even risky, interpretation, he would egg them on and urge them to state their case strongly.
He was a princely host – and a princely guest – a man of infinite courtesy, carefully indicating the architectural features of the college courts to passing strangers who had only stopped him to ask if there was a loo. His generosity was legendary, and secret. He could be generous because he was careful. "Two Coxes from the stall with the man with the funny leg," he would specify when I went to do his shopping. The blotting paper on his desk said a lot about him. It had a 1951-ish look about it, and its blottingness appeared marginal, but because some little areas of white remained, there it stayed. Only relatively recently did he capitulate to use of a fountain pen.
Sometimes grumpy ("I'm grumpy today"), he adhered to old-fashioned standards, being one of the small number of fellows of the British Academy to resign in protest at the failure of that body to expel Anthony Blunt. "Expert in law, expert in justice both", in the words of the translation of Guy Lee's dedication in Thinking Like a Lawyer, the "Crookschrift", as he called it, which he was delighted to receive on his 80th birthday. The most filial of sons, he had eschewed matrimony on account of his eccentricities, he said, but bitterly regretted bachelorhood. He was never happier than when crawling on the floor with small children; and as they grew up and showed an aptitude for languages in presenting them with dictionaries. Sharing with that other old Alleynian P. G. Wodehouse a strong liking for school stories, he rejoiced at the eventual triumph of Harry Potter. For him, the greatest change in the college in his lifetime had been the lowering of the age of majority, not the admission of women (which he had strongly championed).
While still capable of doing his own shopping, with plastic mac flying he was, as one of the local shopkeepers observed, "part of the furniture of Trinity Street". During an earlier stay in Addenbrooke's, where he died, the ex-POW had reasserted himself as self-appointed ward-orderly. While reading the Iliad in the original with a gentleman of the road (happily called Hector) whom he discovered to have had the beginnings of a classical education, he was kept busy restraining an elderly clergyman from pulling his medical moorings off the wall. "He doesn't know whether he's got his trousers on or not," he confided, "but he's still perfectly sound on the doctrine of the Trinity."