Colin Michael Wells

The following obituary first appeared in The Times on 28 April 2010.

Professor Colin Wells: classical historian and archaeologist

Colin Wells was a distinguished classicist, archaeologist and historian. Over a career of 45 years he wrote or edited four books and more than 120 articles and reviews on the Roman frontier and army, the social and economic history of the empire, Ancient Carthage and the African provinces.

The work for which Wells will be most remembered is The German Policy of Augustus: an Examination of the Archaeological Evidence (1972). A review in the Journal of Roman Studies (LXIV 1974: 256) captured its fundamental and lasting importance in the opening sentence. “This book is an authoritative study of Augustan military activity in Germany and the archaeological evidence for it, by a scholar who must certainly know more about his subject than any save those actually engaged on the recovery of the primary archaeological material in the Rhineland, Switzerland and Bavaria.”

Wells was widely acknowledged as the leading English-language scholar on the Roman Army and frontier in Germany. His second book, The Roman Empire (Fontana/Collins 1984 and Harvard 1995) was an elegant introductory survey of the Roman Empire from 44BC to AD235, and was described by a reviewer as “a very good book, written with freshness, deftness, and enviable familiarity with the evidence and with current scholarship. It deserves to succeed as an introduction to a protean subject.” It reached a wide audience and was ground-breaking in its combining of literary and archaeological evidence.

Colin Michael Wells was born in West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire, in 1933. He attended Oriel College, Oxford, from 1952 to 1954, but after the unexpected death of his mother he took leave of absence from the university for military service. He achieved the rank of 2nd lieutenant, and was commissioned into the Royal Artillery, serving in Egypt and Germany before returning to Oxford where he received his BA in 1958 and MA in 1959. He subsequently served as a lieutenant in the South Notts Hussars Yeomanry, Royal Horse Artillery.

In 1960 he was married to Kate Hughes, daughter of the novelist Richard Hughes who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica. They had two sons.

Wells earned his DPhil in 1965 at Oxford under the supervision of Sir Ian Richmond, Professor of the Archaeology of the Roman Empire. His thesis, “The frontiers of the Empire under Augustus”, originated in an undergraduate essay he had written for his tutor, P. A. Brunt. Although Brunt remained a powerful influence on Wells, it was Richmond who, in his words, sealed his lifelong interest in the Roman Army.

Wells began his academic career teaching Latin in 1960 at the University of Ottawa. He rose to professor and was deeply attached to the university. In addition to a very active research and teaching agenda, he served as chairman of the Département des Études anciennes, overseeing a period of growth, Vice-Dean, and editor of Echos du monde classique. Wells’s tenure at Ottawa coincided with a period of political tension over Quebec, and he was especially proud of his efforts to bridge the divide between English and French-speaking colleagues in the Canadian academic community, and was aided in this regard by his remarkable command of French and affection for Francophone culture.

In 1988 Wells resigned his position at Ottawa to take up the first T. Frank Murchison Distinguished Professorship of Classical Studies at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, where he taught and served as departmental chair until his retirement in 2005. Wells was well supported at Trinity by its President, Ronald Calgaard, who saw in Wells an opportunity to build a distinguished national programme in Classics. Wells found the new cultural experience of Texas fascinating and took devilish pride in saying “us Texans”. He was especially at home in his office which had space enough for his great collection of books on all aspects of the classical world.

From 1976 to 1986 Wells was director, initially with the late Edith Wightman, of the Second Canadian Team excavations at Carthage in modern Tunisia. Fieldwork focused chiefly on the excavation of the Theodosian Wall and later the Odeon Hill. Although the final report on the excavations was unfinished at the time of his death, Wells published more than two dozen articles and papers on the important work of the project. This was followed from 1990 to 1992 by new excavations at the site of the Odeon funded by Trinity University.

Wells was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, Corresponding Fellow of the the Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Visiting Lecturer and Fellow at Oxford and Brasenose College (1973-74), and held visiting professorships at Berkeley (1978) and Strasbourg (1990).

Wells’s extraordinary service to the discipline is reflected in his leadership and service in, among other professional organisations, the Association of Ancient Historians, the Archaeological Institute of America, the American Philological Association, the Classical Association of Canada, Rei Cretariae Romanae Fautores (of which he was president for six years), the Limes Congresses and the Society for Libyan Studies

On retirement Wells returned briefly to Oxford before moving permanently to Domjean in Normandy where he continued to write, the latest publications being a series of articles on Caesar’s campaigns in Normandy in 56BC. He also began to work with energy and enthusiasm on a short history of the Roman Army in the West for the Association of Ancient Historians, and was planning a book on the Hellenistic world. The last important publication to appear before his death was, appropriately, a review of recent archaeological works on Roman Germany in the Journal of Roman Archaeology.

Wells was a man of myriad interests and wide-ranging tastes. His fondness for cricket was well known, and during his undergraduate years at Oriel his talent briefly earned him the reputation in the Oriel Record as “the great C. M. Wells”. He converted to Roman Catholicism as a young man and remained devout throughout his life. He loved poetry, particularly the works of A. E. Housman and Rudyard Kipling, and was fond of interior design, which he put to good effect in the brilliant redesign of his homes in Wales, Texas and France. He and his wife Kate enjoyed entertaining friends, colleagues and students in their homes in Oxford, Ottawa, San Antonio and Domjean.

Wells was a warm, learned, intellectually curious and humorous man with a passion for life. He had many friends, including former students.

The last week of his life was spent, fittingly, at his beloved Oxford where he attended lectures, enjoying dinners at Brasenose and All Souls, and visiting friends and family. He is survived by his wife Kate and two sons.

Professor Colin Wells, classical historian and archaeologist, was born on November 15, 1933. He died after a short illness on March 11, 2010, aged 76