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Michael Grant (1914 - 2004):
Classical scholar; numismatist; university administrator

Michael Grant was a classical scholar of international repute thanks inter alia to his groundbreaking research on the coinage of ancient Rome and his readable as well as erudite histories of that world. He was also Vice-Chancellor and President of Queen's University, Belfast, for seven years.

Grant was born in London, son of Colonel Maurice Grant, who had served in the Boer War, later wrote part of its official history, and was a highly regarded expert on English landscape painting. Grant was educated at Harrow, one of the most distinguished English "public" schools, where he was captain of his house cricket team, and Trinity College, Cambridge. During World War II, Grant served for a year as an intelligence officer before acting in Turkey (another of his talents was his fluent Turkish) as a representative of the British Council. His first publication appeared in 1946, From Imperium to Auctoritas, a study of Roman coinage and coin legends, which he posited as a vivid social record of the Roman Empire. He published a number of further studies of coins in the 1950s, while Professor of Humanity at the University of Edinburgh (during which time he was for two years Vice-Chancellor of the University of Khartoum).

In 1959 he was appointed Vice-Chancellor and President, The Queen's University of Belfast, in succession to Eric Ashby (later Lord Ashby), who had presided over and directed a broad expansion and significant transformation of the university. Grant was a very different kind of Vice-Chancellor, who was no less or more a scholar than Ashby, but divided his time in favour of the distinguished scholarship he certainly commanded, rather than the administrator at whose rôle he seemed inclined to demur. Certainly, he continued to produce excellent academic work, especially regarding theancient Mediterranean world (not least its coinage) but by no means limited to this field. He was also a most approachable and personally popular man who with his equally personable wife was keen to develop collegiate conviviality in the best sense, opening the Vice-Chancellor's residence in a socialising (though certainly not socialite) way his predecessors had not really been inclined to do to the Grant's' extent.

Grant, no doubt partly because of his scholarly leanings and unquestioned distinction, was more inclined to authorship than to administration and he and the University Senate did not see entirely eye-to-eye about the precise responsibilities and rôle of his office. An attempt to create a new post devolving some of his brief was not successful, and he seemed to lose some enthusiasm for the prosaic administrative element in University life. He remained though both liked and respected, and a number of years after his retirement was invited by a successor at the University to deliver an eponymous lecture.

A highly distinguished academic, his extensive list of honours included an honorary doctorate in Laws from Queen's University and an honorary DLitt from Dublin University, as well as a string of academic and professional medals, for example from the Royal Numismatic Society of which he was also for a period President and was also an Honorary Fellow; he was also awarded the Huntingdon Medal of the American Numismatic Society. He also won the prestigious Premio Internazionale Le Muse of the University of Florence, in 1989. Of his unsurpassed and extensive publications list regarding the ancient, particularly Roman, world, several appeared while he was based in Ulster, at Queen's University: The World of Rome, 1960; Myths of the Greeks and Romans, 1962; Birth of Western Civilisation, 1964 (of which he was editor); The Civilisations of Europe, 1965. Other books included as subjects, Jesus, Herod the Great and Cleopatra.

His appraisal of the ancient Romans was admiring but certainly not uncritical. A film made by director Ridley Scott about Roman gladiators "Gladiator", 2000, prompted a reissue of Grant's book on the subject (Gladiators, 1967), to which he contributed a foreword, stating that the gladiatorial spectacles represented "one of the extremely few epochs of human history to have achieved cruelty on a scale as numerically lavish as ancient Rome." He retired to Italy, to whose ancient history he contributed throughout his career so much distinguished scholarship. His portrait by Derek Hill is on display in the Great Hall, Queen's University, Belfast.

Born: 21 November 1914
Died: 4 October 2004
Richard Froggatt

Wesley McCann


BM Walker & A McCreary: Degrees of Excellence, Belfast, Institute of Irish Studies, 1994; The New York Times, 25.10.2004; Who's Who 1990; private information