We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Adcock, Sir Frank Ezra (1886–1968), historian of Greece and Rome, was born on 15 April 1886 at Desford, Leicestershire, the fourth of the five children of Thomas Draper Adcock, schoolmaster, head of the Desford Industrial School, and his wife, Mary Esther Coltman. He was educated at the Wyggeston grammar school, Leicester, and as a scholar of King's College, Cambridge, where he obtained first-class honours in both parts of the classical tripos (1908–9) and won the Craven scholarship (1908), a chancellor's medal (1909), and the Craven studentship (1910). As was then the custom at the beginning of a professional career in classical studies, he attended the seminars of Wilamowitz in Berlin and Eduard Meyer in Munich from 1910 to 1911. He was elected a fellow of his college and appointed to a university lectureship in classics in 1911; his early research and first publications concerned the problems of source-criticism relating to the statesman Solon. From 1913 to 1919 he was lay dean of King's.

Adcock's service in the First World War was armchair but distinguished: he went into the intelligence division of the Admiralty as an interpreter of codes and ciphers, and in 1917 was appointed OBE. The crucial determinant of his academic career was that as soon as the war was over J. B. Bury decided to launch the previously projected Cambridge Ancient History, and chose Adcock to join himself and S. A. Cook in the editorship. Volume 1 was published in 1923; from the death of Bury in 1927 Adcock was in effect chief editor of the great undertaking, of which the last volume, thanks to his energy and constancy, came out in the nick of time in 1939. In 1925 he was promoted to the chair of ancient history at Cambridge. From 1929 to 1931 he was president of the Roman Society; and already in 1929 academic honours began to accrue to him, with an honorary degree of DLitt of Durham University, followed in 1936 by fellowship of the British Academy.

In 1939 Adcock reverted to wartime duties in a branch of the Foreign Office, and stayed until 1943, when he was released to his college and his chair. From 1947 to 1948 he was president of the Classical Association. He retired from his chair in 1951, and served as vice-provost of King's from 1951 to 1955. In 1954 he was knighted, and further academic distinctions followed: the honorary degrees of LittD of Dublin and of Manchester (both in 1955) and of DLitt of Leicester (1961).

Adcock was a small round man, who lost his hair early; he had a rosy colour, twinkling, intent eyes that peered from behind strong spectacles, a Leicestershire accent, and an ‘r’-lisp. Having been brought up a Methodist, he remained sympathetic and helpful to Methodism all his life. He was a very competitive golfer and a cricket enthusiast, but he had no gift for the arts, and indeed, although very clever and learned, was not an intellectual. Nevertheless, Cambridge accepted him as one of the notable personalities of his age, celebrated for his wit in conversation and in lectures. He was perhaps the last of the studied wits: his sallies were strategically prepared, and part of the fun of his famous lectures in the flat-accented, high-pitched, maiden-auntish voice was to detect the build-up of forces, feel the imminence of the punch-line, observe the dawning of the tiny smirk on the bland face, and savour the release of tension when the bon mot came.

The writings of Adcock apart from his contributions to the Cambridge Ancient History are not extensive: eight or nine good papers mostly related to the Cambridge Ancient History chapters, and the short books and brochures which arose from his visiting lectures—The Roman Art of War under the Republic (1940, the Martin classical lectures, Oberlin); The Greek and Macedonian Art of War (1957, the Sather classical lectures, California); and Roman Political Ideas and Practice (1959, the Jerome lectures, Michigan). The Raleigh lecture to the British Academy (1953) was entitled ‘Greek and Macedonian kingship’, the Todd memorial lecture (Sydney, 1961), ‘The character of the Romans’. In addition, three independent short books were published at Cambridge: Caesar as Man of Letters (1956), Thucydides and his History (1963), and Marcus Crassus, Millionaire (1966). But essentially Adcock's monument is the Cambridge Ancient History, and in two ways—in his vigorous and determined editorship that brought it to fruition (and as part of a scholar's monument that achievement must not be underestimated), and in his own chapters. There are ten in all, and in them he made the central periods of both Greek and Roman political history his own: the archaic age and the Thucydidean age of Athens, and the late Roman republic, with Julius Caesar and, as a summing up, the achievement of Augustus. What they contain is political history entirely (with war as an extension of policy)—a conception against which the fashion of Adcock's age was turning, but which faithfully reflected his own ideal of history. It was a Thucydidean ideal, both in being political and in being magisterial: the historian tells the reader what he thinks is fit for the reader to know. It was also a tribute to Clio as a muse, for Adcock wrote with a poise and style which never lapsed into idiosyncrasy, and had the rare gift of being able to transfer the twinkle in the eye to the printed page.

Adcock was still musing and writing about the Greek and Roman political past to the end of his life. To King's, as undergraduate and bachelor don, he had been devoted (not short of partisanship) for sixty years; and he gave a paper to the King's College Classical Society only three days before his death, which came peacefully, at King's College, on 22 February 1968.

J. A. Crook, rev.

Sources  

A. H. McDonald, Journal of Roman Studies, 56 (1966) [incl. bibliography] · L. P. Wilkinson, Frank Ezra Adcock … a memoir (privately printed, Cambridge, 1969) · N. G. L. Hammond, ‘Frank Ezra Adcock, 1886–1968’, PBA, 54 (1968), 425–34 · personal knowledge (1981) · private information (1981)

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Society for Protection of Science and Learning


Likenesses  

Ramsey and Muspratt, photograph, Cambridge; repro. in Hammond, ‘Frank Ezra Adcock’, facing p. 425

Wealth at death  

£50,932: probate, 19 June 1968, CGPLA Eng. & Wales