Mary Smallwood

Born: December 6, 1919;

Died: September 4, 2023

Edith Mary Smallwood, who has died aged 103, was an outstanding scholar of the history and language of ancient Rome and Greece spreading her erudition through teaching and writing. Her work on the history of Jews under the rule of the Romans was groundbreaking.

She was educated at the Mary Datchelor School, an endowment grammar school for girls in Camberwell in Greater London. A scholarship secured her place at the all-female Girton College in Cambridge University. By 1942 she had achieved a double first Honours Degree in Classics (Latin and Greek) and in the process became the second woman ever to achieve a Distinction in Greek Poetry.

She turned her mind towards supporting herself outside of academia by taking a Cambridge teacher diploma in 1943. The Mary Datchelor School had encouraged its pupils to train for teaching but after four terms at the Alice Ottley School in Worcester, Mary decided that working with teenagers was not her forte and, happy to return to academia, was from 1945-46 assistant lecturer in the Latin department of Liverpool University.

From 1946 to 1947 she held the University of Cambridge’s Craven Studentship and then until 1951 she was the university’s Jex Blake Research Fellow, successfully working towards her PHD. Her thesis explored the political relations between the Jews and the Romans from Pompey to Constantine from 63BC to AD312 – work that laid the foundations for future influential publications.

In 1951 she began a 32-year career in the classics department at Queen’s University in Belfast, first as lecturer, then senior lecturer in Latin (‘63), then Reader in Latin (‘67). In 1978 she was awarded a personal professorship in Romano-Jewish History.

From 1971 to 72 she was also a member of the School of Historical Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey and subsequently was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1972.

Author of a number of publications under the name of E Mary Smallwood, her seminal text was The Jews under Roman Rule ¬- A Study in Political Relations, which was published by the leading academic publisher Brill and which firmly established Mary’s reputation as an expert in her field.

Another important publication was Josephus, The Jewish War which is a vivid account of the conflict, its heroism as well as its horrors. Josephus was a Greek author whose work was translated into English by Geoffrey Arthur Williamson and which was first published by Penguin in 1959. With consummate attention to detail and a desire to communicate to as wide an audience as possible, Mary contributed a new introduction, notes and appendixes for another edition by Penguin published in 1981.

Mary began an association with the Open University in the 1970s at a point when it was developing its courses in classics and was leading the field in widening access to university education. She was an external consultant and an examiner reviewing standards and assessment procedures. She was also a contributor to course materials such as Rome: The Augustan Age Units 15 and 16 published in 1982.

On her retirement from Queen’s in 1983, Mary decided to settle not in Northern Ireland, nor England where she came from but in Edinburgh which allowed her access to the culture she enjoyed and, as a bonus, beautiful land and seascapes. Her school education had given her a grounding in music and whilst in Belfast she had taken piano lessons. In Edinburgh in 1983 she embarked on undergraduate study in music followed by the study of Hebrew at New College, the University of Edinburgh’s School of Divinity.

During her time in Belfast she undertook a number of exchange posts; for example, a lectureship at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in 1963-64, then at Cape Town University for a term in 1967.

In her retirement she travelled extensively visiting more than 65 countries including the Faroe Islands, the Azores and the Baltic States.

She became a member of the Anglican Church whilst she was an undergraduate at Girton College and in Ireland attended the Church of Ireland. Settling in Scotland, she joined the Scottish Episcopalian Church and began a long-standing association with Christ Church Morningside. She rewrote and updated a pre-existing history resulting in the publication 1876-2001 A Brief History to Commemorate 125 Years.

Always fully aware of the world outside of universities, Mary contributed to society where she could, playing a role in Northern Ireland during the Troubles by supporting the non-sectarian Alliance Party. During the Second World War, she was a counsellor to displaced children, many of whom were Jewish, when they were brought together for summer holiday camps in England.

In Edinburgh she was a regular attender of meetings of Edinburgh branch of the Classics Association networking and participating in post-lecture discussions.

The oldest of four children, her siblings Dorothy, John and Andrew are now deceased, as is her mother and her father, who was a school master.