Professor Frank Trombley

1947-2015

Frank Trombley was born in Mount Clemens, Michigan, USA on 7 January 1947. He was educated at the University of San Diego High School and took a BA in History at the University of San Diego, graduating in 1969. After periods of further study at San Diego State University and Ohio State University he took a MA at the University of California, Los Angeles in 1976, and completed his PhD at the same institution in 1981.

Postdoctoral appointments at the University of Cincinnati and Ohio State University were followed by Assistant Professor posts at Georgetown University and UCLA before Frank obtained a lectureship at King’s College, London in 1990. In 1992 he came to Cardiff as Lecturer in Religious Studies, progressing to Senior Lecturer in 1996, Reader in 2001 and to a Chair as Professor of Byzantine and Near Eastern History in 2012. From 2013 until his death he was Head of the Department of Religious and Theological Studies.

Frank’s contributions to scholarship in Roman and Byzantine history were both profound and wide-ranging. He was equally at home working on a broad range of historical sources, from literary texts and chronicles to epigraphic texts and coinage. Frank’s familiarity with the languages needed for his research was bewilderingly impressive: not only Latin and Greek, but also Arabic, Syriac, Russian and Turkish. It was on many occasions that colleagues encountered Frank in the School’s staff room unwrapping a recondite lexicon examining, for example, the morphology of Persian verbs, or a rare (and highly expensive) volume of Byzantine Greek epigraphy. His last project involved a painstaking translation of a 600+ page commentary in Russian on a Byzantine military manual, which occupied him for much of his research leave in 2011-12. He was so steeped in the history and literature of Byzantium that he could spot errors in the Russian commentator’s work! The fruits of his research were publications ranging from the imperial cult in the third century AD, to the Christianisation of Syria and Arabia in the fifth and sixth centuries, and Mediterranean sea culture between Byzantium and Islam.

On the international academic stage, Frank will be best remembered for his two volume work, Hellenic Religion and Christianization from 1993-4, which was reprinted in 1995, and again with an updated introduction in 2001. It was one of the few books that the prestigious academic publisher, E.J. Brill, produced in paperback. Now over 20 years old, it is still the standard work for anyone interested in understanding the emergence of Christianity as a world religion across the Mediterranean and West Asia, in the late antique period. Hellenic Religion is the book which best represents Frank’s own understanding of historical study: that the professional responsibility of the historian involves taking on ‘big’ questions (the origins of a phenomenon), coupled with the duty to seek out hitherto overlooked or simply unknown sources, and to handle those sources in a scientifically rigorous manner. Frank often remarked that the main source of inspiration for his approach to history was A.H.M. Jones, the famous Cambridge Ancient Historian. However, Frank was more of an innovator than Jones: Hellenic Religion engages with ‘thorny’ matters such as the historic portrayal of religious experience, in a way that Jones’s Later Roman Empire never did.

Above all, however, Frank was a careful and meticulous scholar. His commentary on the sixth century chronicle by Joshua the Stylite – co-authored with Dr. John Watt, his colleague for many years in Religious Studies at Cardiff, who translated the Syriac text – illustrates very well his ability to exhaust all aspects of the historical and philological study of texts and events. This volume appeared in 2000, in the prestigious Translated Texts for Historians series, published by Liverpool University Press. One of the editors of the series noted, in a quite partisan fashion, that this was his favourite volume in the entire TTH series.

Frank’s passion for ancient languages, and for the values of the professional historian, made him a very popular and effective teacher of successive generations of Cardiff undergraduates and postgraduates, in the departments of Religious Studies, History, and Ancient History. For many years he regularly taught Greek and Latin during the Summer vacation to mature students at the University of London Summer School in Classics.

- Dr Nic Baker-Brian and Professor Chris Williams