Simon Price, who has died aged 56, was among our era’s most innovative and versatile historians of the Greco-Roman world.
Price was a central contributor to the remarkable recent revival of academic interest in ancient Roman religion, but his interests were much broader. He wrote the best short book on Greek religion, Religions of the Ancient Greeks (1999), as well as articles on such diverse topics as ancient and modern theories of dream-interpretation (From Freud to Artemidorus); the role of terracing in Greek agriculture; and early Christian apologetic literature.
He also threw himself with enthusiasm into the comprehensive archaeological survey of the Sphakia region of south-west Crete: in a forthcoming two-volume publication, he treats the history of the region in not only the Greco-Roman but also the Venetian and Turkish periods.
Price’s breadth of vision, and his talent for addressing a wider audience, are shown in The Birth of Classical Europe. A History from Troy to Augustine. This work is remarkable not just for its chronological scope (1700BC to 425AD) but also for its insistence on setting the Greeks and Romans within a geographical frame including, for instance, Denmark and China.
When it became clear, in 2007, that the rare form of cancer (GIST) with which he had been diagnosed was recurrent, he recruited a co-author (his pupil Peter Thonemann) for this long-cherished project; it was published to great acclaim in 2010.
He was born in London on September 27 1954, and grew up in Manchester, where his father, later Bishop of Ripon, was attached to the cathedral. The preface to his first book begins: “Growing up in an Anglican cathedral house, I naturally acquired an interest in the significance of established religion.”
After Manchester Grammar School, Simon went on to read Classics at Queen’s College, Oxford, graduating with a First in 1976; at Queen’s he was among the last undergraduate pupils of a great Roman historian, Fergus Millar.
Going on to graduate work, Price was fortunate too in his supervisor, John North, who was already engaged in radical rethinking of early Roman religious history. A spell at Cambridge as a research Fellow at Christ’s brought him into contact with David Cannadine (with whom he co-edited a volume on Rituals of Royalty), with his future collaborator, Mary Beard, and with his future wife, the archaeologist Lucia Nixon.
In 1981 he became Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, a post in which he remained until taking early retirement on health grounds in 2008.
The book of his thesis, Rituals and Power. The Roman Imperial cult in Asia Minor, was published in 1984 and caused a sensation. It was on the one hand a meticulous scholarly study of the extremely abundant evidence for the “who, when, where?” of the cults of Roman emperors in Asia Minor; but it also sought, with considerable success, to overturn previous understanding of this centrally important aspect of Roman rule.
Emperor worship had generally been understood as a form of flattery, more politely expressed as a “loyalty cult”, of no religious significance. Price argued, however, that it gave something in religious terms to those who practised it: treating the emperors as quasi-gods was a way of coming to terms with the godlike power that these individuals wielded from a distance over their subjects. It helped them to make sense of their world.
To the objection that nobody could really have believed the emperor, a mortal, to be a god, Price replied that ancient religion was not about belief but about ritual; to insist on belief was to treat pagan religion as though it were Christian. He remained a vigilant scourge of what he called “Christianising assumptions” throughout his career.
In 1990 he co-edited, with Oswyn Murray, a highly influential collection on The Greek City; his own paper in it (co-authored with Lucia Nixon) was considered a brilliant and innovative approach to the economic history of the Athenian empire.
His next major work, written with Mary Beard and John North, was the two-volume Religions of Rome (1998) . The plural “Religions” of the title was designed not only to stress the diversity of pagan cults but also to include Judaism and early Christianity.
“Beard-North-Price” immediately established itself on syllabuses everywhere as the essential work on the subject. Volume One, A History, posed real historians’ questions about the social role of these religions. Volume Two, A Sourcebook, contained a rich selection of visual images and translated texts accompanied by a concise but learned linking commentary. An Oxford Reader in Roman Religion, also co-edited with John North, appeared two weeks before Price’s death.
Open, adaptable and uncompetitive, Price was a natural collaborator; few scholars in the humanities have worked with others so willingly and so often. He was also a model colleague in faculty and college, patient and far-thinking. He was committed to education at all levels: characteristically, he served long spells as editor not only of the prestigious Journal of Roman Studies but also of Omnibus, the classics magazine for sixth formers.
An undergraduate who nervously questioned one of his views in an essay received the marginal comment “No offence is possible. Independence of judgment is all.” With graduates, he was superb; his maieutic skills in classes were matchless, and a string of distinguished monographs by supervisees pay tribute to his care and kindness. In Oxford he secured the admission of Religions of the Greek and Roman World to the undergraduate syllabus .
Simon Price and his family were intensely, without being brashly, sociable; their house was a place of relaxed and frequent hospitality to innumerable guests. He died on June 14 and is survived by his wife and two daughters.