Obituary: Geoffrey Rickman

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Professor of Roman history at St Andrews University

Born: 9 October, 1932, in Cherat, India. Died: 8 February, 2010, in Dundee, aged 77.

HE WAS a man of absolute scholarship but remained resolutely modest and devoted to ancient history. Indeed, Professor Geoffrey Rickman was known throughout St Andrews University as "the father of ancient history". He was an inspiring teacher and a charismatic lecturer who, for 35 years, was respected and admired by generations of students at St Andrews. He built up, by his own sheer enthusiasm and commitment, the department of ancient history to one of international repute. His qualities of wisdom and incisiveness were widely recognised in the university community, where he held various important posts. As Master of the United College in the 1990s, for example, he oversaw the introduction of the modular system. For five years after his retirement, Rickman was an inspiring chairman of the council of the British School in Rome, an institution which, like St Andrews, was exceptionally close to his heart.

Geoffrey Edwin Rickman was educated at Peter Symond's School in Winchester and then at Brasenose College, Oxford. He did his national service at the foreign language training college at Crail in Fife. From 1959-62 Rickman held a junior research fellowship at Queen's College, Oxford, before being appointed lecturer in ancient history at St Andrews. The department expanded under his determined stewardship; in 1968 he was appointed senior lecturer and in 1981 professor of Roman history.

One of his colleagues was Professor John Richardson, now at Edinburgh University. He said: "Geoffrey was responsible for building up the department. He was a brilliant teacher and students attended single lectures: always a sign of an admired teacher.

"He was a modest man – for example, he resisted our attempts to get him a professorship, but his reputation as an eminent scholar was rightly acknowledged when he was made a Fellow of the British Academy in 1989. He was devoted to the school in Rome, and his knowledge of the classics and of contemporary Italian art made his contribution there so important."

Rickman had an ability to involve his students in the subject being discussed and impart his knowledge as well as to encourage students to think for themselves. Professor Jill Harries said in her speech on his retirement in 1997: "The secret of Geoffrey's success as a teacher lay in part in his abiding love of young people and his sympathy with the perspectives and problems of youth. He carried his profound learning lightly and was master of the right phrase in academic and social contexts."

Much of Rickman's research work was concentrated around his investigations of how the ancient world worked. His 1971 doctrinal thesis, Roman Granaries and Store Buildings, explored many facets of the workings of the Roman economy. His final project was a comprehensive survey of the management of the ports of Rome, which furthered Rickman's reputation as an authority on Roman social and economic history. In 1990 he was appointed the first head of the newly founded School of Greek and Latin.

But Rickman was no estranged academic. Many colleagues remember his laugh, his ability to involve colleagues and students and, as Professor Christopher Smith, director of the British School in Rome, told The Scotsman, "the deep love and affection with which Geoffrey was held by so many. He was a deeply good man. I will always remember him laughing, and us all laughing with him."

Rickman was a Fellow of the School from 1957-58 – two years he enjoyed greatly. Prof Smith mentioned "a picture in the school's archives of Geoffrey sitting on the ancient lavatories at Ostia amongst a group of scholars – one of them Anthony Blunt". He added: "Geoffrey came back often, and made a huge personal contribution through his humour, his wonderful capacity to reduce tables of people to fits of giggles, and his warmth and generosity."

Such was his wit and charm he could launch into the most complex lecture in a delightful, almost light-hearted manner. He once began a lecture to an all-female audience at St Andrews with: "I am terrified of women." Likewise, he began a detailed lecture at Oxford once with the disarming opening line: "I love the Mediterranean."

Rickman was a passionate lover of opera – his collection of CDs was extensive – and enjoyed swimming. One of his great pleasures was walking, in all types of weather, along the West Sands at St Andrews.

Rickman married Anna Wilson in 1961. She and their son and daughter survive him.