History in school is often written off by young people as ‘boring’ and the love of history in later life leads to people to regret not ‘getting into it earlier’ – Peter Connolly was a solution to this. When he arrived in your school, in the local library or indeed in Spalding’s bookshop Bookmark he took it back in time.
His beard, bright eyes, tall demeanour and the passion in his voice gave him an amazing presence. Put into that mix the shields, the helmets, the swords and the chain mail and it was a childhood wonder.
And all of this in the unlikely setting of South Lincolnshire – I first met Peter when I was very young – 5 or 6 years old I guess and his library, workshop and garden became frequent places to visit. He was incredibly patient with my childhood enquiries and questions but he loved developing the answers – ensuring you learnt something on every visit. When he came to Gosberton Clough Primary School the day was a special one, when you knew he was going to be in Spalding Library on a Saturday morning you made a special trip – and the newest book was always worth purchasing.
Whilst Russell Crowe made Roman history fashionable through Gladiator, Peter achieved it through good old fashioned research, study and graphic and accurate illustrations. He was an author, historian, illustrator and experimental archaeologist and most of all he was an inspiration for many people not otherwise motivated by history.
Born in 1935, he studied at Brighton College of Arts and Crafts and his illustrator craft came together to bring out The Roman Army in 1975. This partnership with Macdonald Educational Press led to further successes on The Greeks (1977) and then Hannibal and the Enemies of Rome (1978). The three titles were later brought together into a single volume: Greece and Rome at War (1981 and again in 1998) – perhaps his best work. I remember clearly his passion as he asked if I had read the Bible as it contained great clues to historic realities – that I realise now was as he was bringing out ‘Living in the Time of Jesus of Nazareth’ (1983 - by then he was working with Oxford University Press).
Peter loved the inquisitive – not content with the sources, he walked the Alps to check Hannibal’s route and proved that certain towns could not be seen from previously cited locations, he proved endless facts on how swords and saddles were made and used – his method was to re-enact as near to reality as possible. His reconstruction of the Roman saddle was ground breaking and he demonstrated that horse-riding and warfare was possible without stirrups.
Peter introduced me to Herodotus and Ammianus Marcellinus – each writing centuries apart - but pointing out their similarities and I recall well – “why read novels when you can read Suetonius?”. As a child it worked for me and my own love of Ancient Rome was sealed.
The academic world was slow to recognise his gift, but he was awarded an honorary research fellow at University College London in 1985. He moved from Spridgen’s Corner, Quadring Fen to Spalding in 1988 and continued his prodigious output: The Roman Fort (1991), Greek Legends (1993), Ancient Greece (2001), Ancient Rome (2001) and Colosseum (2003). It’s an amazing string of titles and so many of them (and so many others) all illustrated by him. Those who knew Peter and his family could often find their faces in the books in a military formation or a shop in Pompeii or the like. He brought the history of ancient times past alive and that is his incredible legacy.
Anyone wanting to see the brilliance of Peter’s work should look to The Legend of Odysseus (1986) for which he won the Times Education Supplement Senior Information Book Award – myth and history brought to life with facts, illumination and a real sense of pace and excitement. Much like Peter himself.
Peter William Connolly – author, historian, illustrator and experimental archaeologist. Born 8th May 1935; died 2nd May 2012
• Ed Fordham read Ancient History at the University of Nottingham and lives in north London. He works for RLM Finsbury and Local Partnerships