Eulogy to Peter Connolly

Peter Connolly’s Eulogy by Chris Haines MBE

Peter Connolly author, artist, illustrator, historian and experimental archaeologist was born in 1935 in Surbiton, Surrey one of six children. He couldn’t be called a quiet person which his sister Trisha attributes to making his presence known among one brother and four sisters. His father was an artist and his mother a talented needle woman. In his early years the family moved to Brighton from where he followed his older brother to Mount St Mary’s Boarding School in Sheffield where his father had gone before. He did not like it there but did become a mean bowler and made the first 11. Peter was also, in his teens, a very accomplished ice dancer which made him very popular with the girls. He was very keen on film musicals and even in later life could give all the details of plots and cast lists.

On leaving school Peter joined the RAF to do his National Service which he found rather boring. To relieve the boredom he began to read many books on the ancient world. However he did find himself much in demand painting portraits of senior officers and their wives.

Not knowing what to do, when his two years were up, Peter signed on for a third year. On leaving the RAF Peter enlisted at the Brighton College of Arts and Crafts to train as an illustrator. Upon graduation a studio was shared with Ron Wootton in Regent Street, London doing storybook illustrations for adverts and also contributing artwork of animals for children’s books. It was about this time he came into contact with H. Russell Robinson keeper of armouries at the Tower of London who had made reconstructions of the Segmented Roman Armour found at Corbridge in 1964 which were presented to the Limes conference in Cardiff in 1969. In the early 70’s Peter accompanied Russell when he was asked to speak at Brian Dobson’s Roman Army School at Durham University and became a regular participant from then on. In 1975 Russell’s seminal book ‘The Armour of Imperial Rome’ was published, to became a bible to students of Roman military equipment, and in which all the line drawings were done by Peter together with superb colour pictures on the front cover. The exploded drawings of the Corbridge Armour were flawless and so easy to understand.

Also published that year was Peter’s first book “The Roman Army”. I remember when I first got a copy it was if someone had turned the light on, such was the research and attention to detail. His painting of a complete Legion was a masterpiece. This was the first of over 20 wonderful books ending with the publication of the “Coliseum, Rome’s Arena of Death”. With all Peter’s books you knew that every rivet, every small detail had been thoroughly researched before pen or brush had been put to paper. Every battlefield, location and monument had been visited, walked over, examined and photographed from all angles. In this pursuit of authenticity Barbara can remember Peter, having sent his mother and sister on by car, insisting she join him in clambering on foot over a pass from France into Italy to find Hannibal’s route. Thus they entered Italy illegally. Val Maxfield can also remember Peter measuring the steps on the temple mount in Jerusalem for his book on Jesus of Nazareth only for him to be hauled off by the Israeli police. Peter’s last book, on the Coliseum, debunked the myths that had grown up about this important monument and showed, as never before, the workings of this great building. His two great heroes were Hannibal and Caesar and it is a great shame that illness prevented the completion of his work on Caesar.

As Peter’s reputation grew he became much in demand as a speaker and a talking head on TV. He also became an adviser on many programmes but was often frustrated by Television’s ability to depart from the evidence. I remember him saying how on the set of The Last Days of Pompeii it became that he didn’t want to be there and they really didn’t want him there.

Peter became a great experimental Archaeologist, hammering out reconstructions in his workshop at home to show how things functioned and were produced. His lectures were enlivened with dramatic demonstration of the use of sword or spear.

The crowning glory was his work with the Roman saddle. It had long been thought that Celtic and
Roman Cavalry could not be very effective as they did not use stirrups. Peter’s work, after studying a saddle cover with Carol van Driel, showed that a man using a saddle with horns on each corner was as effective as a man using stirrups. He used to enjoy demonstrating this, including to the Princess
Royal, by vaulting into the saddle that had been mounted on a wooden horse.

In 1984 Peter became member of the Society of Antiquaries and a year later was awarded a fellowship at the Institute of Archaeology of the University College London.

In 2002 The Ermine Street Guard was honoured when Peter agreed to become our President, attending our AGMs and appearances at English Heritage’s Festival of History before ill health intervened. He particularly liked talking to the horse riders we use, two of whom are here today, and watchingthem demonstrate, at great speed, the use of the Roman Saddle. Barbara says he felt comfortable amongst us as we didn’t keep badgering him with questions about his work.

Following Peter’s death there have been many comments on the internet and elsewhere talking about the legacy of his books, his paintings in many museums throughout the world, his experimentation , the tremendous contribution he made to our study of the Ancient World and how he has been an inspiration to so many people. Mike Bishop, for instance, recalls and treasures his on-site recreation of the siege of Alesia.

I can’t think of anyone else to whom the phase “putting flesh on the dead bones of history” more
readily applies.

He will long be remembered and those who knew him will recall his modesty, sense of humour and how much we enjoyed his company. Our lives have been made the much richer by knowing him.

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