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In Memoriam: Dr Barbara Levick

Paining of a woman with short white hair and glasses, a colourful but muted top sitting at a table in an Oxford college

Dr Barbara Levick by Catriona Jane Cursham (1935-2015) by permission of St Hilda’s College.

The College was saddened to hear of the death Dr Barbara Levick, Emeritus Fellow of St Hilda’s College, on 6 December 2023, aged 92.

Barbara Levick was a Fellow and Tutor in Ancient History at St Hilda’s College from 1959 to 1998. She was also Stipendiary Lecturer at Univ and took charge of our Ancient History teaching for eleven years after George Cawkwell’s retirement in 1987: this came her way at a time of her career when she might reasonably have expected to do less rather than more, but she took it on with enthusiasm and great good humour. Many Univ men and women will remember her with gratitude along with her gold lame jackets, her cigars, and the bright red sports car in which she would speed off to Brighton at weekends. They include Rhiannon Ash, now Fellow and Tutor in Classics at Merton College, and Rhiannon writes as follows:

I was lucky enough to be taught by Barbara for Tacitus and Tiberius in Trinity Term of my first year, followed later on by a year of tutorials for Roman History Three. That walk across the bridge from Univ to St Hilda’s with my cheerful tutorial partner Simon Taylor was always a prelude to something special and scintillating. We never knew where the next tutorial would take us, but it was always fun, always memorable.

We were enchanted and slightly in awe of the idea that our Ancient History tutor lived where she taught, in her beautiful rooms overlooking the river. That setting only added to the mystique as we imagined Barbara after-hours immersed in learned journals and Classical texts (and perhaps too with a glass of something to hand from her extraordinary cabinet of multi-coloured liquors from around the globe).

The tutorials were an amazing experience. Despite appearances to the contrary, Barbara would listen to our essays with a sharp ear and the occasional wry glance. She had a legendary ability to quote back pretty much verbatim a sentence from our essays where one or other of us had cut a corner. She would gently ask for clarification about what was meant at that point, tacitly reminding us in so doing that our arguments needed to be based on evidence – but it was always elegant and friendly guidance, and often accompanied by Barbara’s gentle and infectious gurgling laugh (always ready to surface at a moment’s notice).

One of my favourite memories of that time in St Hilda’s was a tutorial about the development of Gaul from Caesar to Nero. I had been talking about the revolt of Florus and Sacrovir and Druidic practices when Barbara jumped up in a state of great excitement (as if stung by a wasp) and said: ‘Do you know about the eques and the egg?’. She went to her shelf and pulled down a volume of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History and drew our attention to an amazing description from Book 29 of a mysterious object known as a snake’s egg, created from the saliva and the bodily substances of intertwined serpents. This strange creation could form part of Druidic rituals, and as Pliny’s anecdote went on to say, one reckless Roman knight even kept a serpent’s egg in his clothing during a lawsuit, which led Claudius to have him executed. Finding out about such things was just one of many magical moments in those tutorials which awaited us when we crossed the bridge to St Hilda’s. Quite simply, Barbara changed my life in unimaginable ways. She will be very much missed by generations of Univ students.

Dr Rhiannon Ash (1986, Classics)

A tribute to Dr Levick will appear in the 2024 issue of the University College Record. The College sends its deep condolences to Dr Levick’s family.

Published: 12 January 2024

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