Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.03.03: Review of Wes

Marinus A. Wes, Michael Rostovtzeff, Historian in Exile: Russian Roots in an American Context. Historia Einzelschriften Heft 65. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 1990. Pp. xxxi + 106; 13 plates. ISBN 3-515-05664-5. DM 46.

Reviewed by William M. Calder III, The University of Illinos at Urbana/Champaign.

George Grote, Theodor Mommsen, and Michael Rostovtzeff prove, if proof for the obvious is needed, the Polybian dictum that an historian to be great must share in the history of his time. People who make events differ considerably from people who read about them. When they write about history, they do so with an intensity and an instinct for the way things happen that the book-readers lack or at best have second-hand. Their political lives determine their historical preference. Grote, because of Bentham, Mill and the Reform Laws, chose Athenian democracy. The unification of Prussia determined Mommsen's portrayal of Caesar and Cicero. Wilamowitz makes clear that his history of the Empire, which will be published this year, could easily become a parody of the Hohenzollerns. Politics and prudence determine what one avoids as well as what one prefers. Rostovtzeff's Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire is a veiled history of the Russian Empire.

Ancient history has a peculiar attraction for such great men because most evidence is lost. One is rarely encumbered by documents that can prove a welcome theory wrong as the diaries of Gladstone might for a Victorian historian; or the tapes of Nixon. Theirs is an ennobled variation of the tradition derived from Biblical exegesis and surviving in ancient history through Ernst Curtius to use texts as homilies for sermons on edifying matters of import. The difficulties in seeing Rostovtzeff and therefore his work in context have been almost insuperable. He never wrote an autobiography. This is regularly the last effort of a great man. A frontal labotomy successfully thwarted its composition. His letters have never been collected. The most revealing are written in a language unintelligible to most ancient historians and until recently secured in archives not accessible to western scholars. His strident politics made favorable attention to the man impossible for communists and damnatio embarrassing because of the ease with which his theories could be called Marxistic. He never in 32 years had an American friend who could remotely comprehend his formative Russian past. At best they compiled bibliographies and wrote panegyrics comforting to the grieving widow. There was no child to write the biography, as Harnack's daughter did; or even memoirs as Mommsen's daughter did or Wilamowitz' two daughters. His only intimates in America, other Russian exiles, dared not write the truth. Friends or children were vulnerable. Stalin died in the same year that Rostovtzeff did.

If a scholar is to write anything beyond an appreciation of some book by Rostovtzeff or the influence of some book on other books, he must possess professional expertise in three difficult fields: 1) the history of Rome and the Hellenistic World, for only with that can he detect where Rostovtzeff exceeds the evidence and hence distorts it to substantiate a theory; 2) the political and intellectual history of Russia 1860-1930, that means Tsarist Russia and the October Revolution with all its consequences; 3) the Russian exile community in the US ca. 1925-1950. This includes men as different as Rostovzeff, Sergei Koussevitzky, Vladimir Nabokov, and Pitirim Sorokin. One must search through their papers and gain the trust of their descendants and of elderly people who knew them. Apart from Greek, Latin, English, German, French and Italian, such a scholar must be able to read unpublished handwritten documents in nineteenth century Russian script. This is in a world where American Bronze Age archaeologists are unable to read the unpublished diaries and letters of Heinrich Schliemann. Ed. Fraenkel once invoked in another context the sign at the Berlin Zoo: "Children without Nursemaids not Allowed Here."

Almost 40 years after his death Rostovtzeff has his biographer, professor of ancient history at Groningen,1 a man of courage and intelligence who minored in Russian, who has expertise in Wissenschaftsgeschichte, a Dutchman, who knows that what is revealing lies in American and Soviet Archives, a man who writes English of a power, wit, and eloquence that shame native speakers. E.H. Gombrich has declared that the best way to master a new epoch is to find a great, dominant and innovative man and understand the epoch from him out. One must grow familiar through long years of living with him, his letters and books, with his family, his teachers, his friends and enemies, and only lastly the political and intellectual movements that determined his Sitz im Leben. This way Ackerman grasped Frazer, Briggs Gildersleeve, Naiditch Housman, Wickert Mommsen, I Wilamowitz and now Wes Rostovtzeff. He has read what Rostovtzeff read. He can illuminate Rostovtzeff by citing Chekov, Pushkin, Tolstoi and Turgenev. Rostovtzeff's Russian friends have become his. He discusses Klassitsizm (1866-1897) as an ideology, as a symptom of a failed educational system that only attracted losers. He contrasts its sterility with Prussia. Classics were trivial and tangential and, therefore, safe. He is at home with the internal politics of the Russia of Rostovtzeff's father. He sees the enormous implications for the history of education of the abolition of serfdom by Nicholas I in 1861. There could be more from the German side. We hear nothing of German exiles in St. Petersburg, like August Nauck and Lucian Müller. Who were their Russian students? What influence did they have?

Wes shows how the fall of the Romanov Empire, the triumph of Lenin and Trotsky, and the exodus of millions of refugees from Russia during the Civil War of 1918-20 determined his view of the Roman Empire. An historian of modern Europe would not waste a book on Rostovtzeff whose achievement he could not comprehend. American historians of Rome at best cite Rostovtzeff or correct his footnotes in the light of new inscriptions. And Wes has seen that New Haven had as much influence on Rostovtzeff's Rombild as Cambridge, Massachusetts did on Werner Jaeger's Griechenlandbild. These boring towns where nothing happened provided the leisure denied them by Hitler and Stalin to complete great books. This leisure should never be underestimated and both men were grateful. But the answer to why Rostovtzeff posed the questions he did to ancient evidence derives from his Russian past. He was 48 when he left Russia.

This book is not a biography from cradle to grave. Rather there are some fifteen chapters that concern Rostovtzeff, his Russian past, his escape, the American years. Wes emphasizes three aspects of a complex life (4);

Firstly, the network of people that helped Rostovtzeff directly and indirectly in his move from Russia to America; secondly, the manner in which Rostovtzeff and his Russian friends attempted to interest their American colleagues and relations in the cause of the Russian opponents and victims of Bolshevism. Thirdly, the impact of the Russian Revolution and the ensuring Russian Civil War on Rostovtzeff's views as an historian of the ancient world.
We are spared the expected rot: who wrote dissertations under him, what was he like in a classroom or on a dig, and why was he not ever chairman, Sather professor or, the crown of so many negligible careers, president of APA. His life was simply too interesting to waste time on this.

Wes discusses a subject long taboo among American classicists: their role in intelligence gathering. The best possible cover is to be a teacher of classics. That means one is unworldly, impractical and unsuspected. Surface archaeologists have the best opportunities. Colonel Leake while copying Greek inscriptions and providing recipes for yogurt in fact made careful notes on Turkish fortifications and military operations. The English government financed the digs of Hogarth and Woolley, not to speak of Lawrence, in order to learn about German interest in Turkey. F. G. Kenyon did more than transcribe papyri.2

Two American agents played a crucial part in securing Rostovtzeff for America. William Hepburn Buckler, (1867-1952) on the Sardis dig in 1918 was aid from 1914 to Gildersleeve's student, Walter Hines Page (1955-1918), friend of Wilson and ambassador to England (1913-18).3 Buckler was "special agent" of Colonel House in London. In January 1919 Wilson sent him to Stockholm to discuss with Litvinov recognition of the Bolshevik regime. Buckler was taken in by Litvinov and cabled Wilson at Versailles the document that allowed him to overcome the reluctance of Clemenceau to desert the White Russian cause. "Peace can be easily negotiated, for the Soviet government is prepared to compromise on all points." An American classicist furthered Lenin's aims. William L. Westermann (ob. 1954) at Versailles with David Magie and the Bryn Mawr scholar Rhys Carpenter, called "shy and scholarly" by Harold Nicolson, met Rostovtzeff on June 18th 1919 in a Paris hotel at a dinner, arranged by Buckler in Henry White's room. Rostovtzeff surpassed Westermann's expectations. His diary entry of June 29th 1919 (39-40) is decisive and clearly a decisive document for the history of American classics, here published for the first time. Wes (40) finds "striking" that "Rostovtzeff was apparently full of confidence in the eventual fall of the Bolsheviks." Surely Rostovtzeff knew that Buckler and Westermann had the ear of Wilson and so purposely reported Bolshevism as a lost cause not worth backing. On 3 January 1920, after assurance that Rostovtzeff was neither a Jew nor a communist, the call to Wisconsin reached England.

The only unconvincing chapter is "Post-Revolutionary Mood: Rostovtzeff and Religion" (59-74). Wes can provide no convincing evidence that a return from rationalism to state religion "may have taken place with Rostovtzeff" (63). This does not mean that he did not notice it in others and that, therefore, it influenced his Augustus of 1922, an article unknown to Syme in 1939, and the first chapter of Mystic Italy (1927). Rather I was struck by the lack of religion in his life. In this way he is like Mommsen and unlike Wilamowitz or Eduard Meyer. He seemed untouched by orthodoxy. This was a reason surely for what Momigliano thought the ultimate superficiality of his view of the ancient world. He never saw how it progressed inexorably to Christianity: see Peter Brown, PBA 74 (1988) 410. On the other hand his rationalism made Marxism palatable. Only reluctantly did he accept Nock's invitation to deliver the Ingersoll Lecture at Harvard on 26 April 1938. One wants to know when he first read Marx and why.

His readiness to help fellow victims, Nabokov, Bickerman, Grégoire, is documented (84-87). Wes does not know his recommendation of Nabokov for an English post, possibly Leeds (Library of Congress Nabokov Archive 14 March 1939): see Brian Boyd, Vladimir Nabokov The Russian Years (Princeton 1990) 506, 580. For the first time (86) one learns that Rostovtzeff interceded with Westermann, who on 3 April 1939 made Bickerman's American career possible ("He stands well above Ehrenberg, Franz Schehl and Momigliano"). His intervention on 1 April 1941 with Westermann for Grégoire came to nothing. Wes never reveals that Rostovtzeff also helped Westermann. He convinced Kroll to invite Westermann to write the article Sklaverei in RE Supp. 6 (1935), published in an expanded English version dedicated to Rostovtzeff's memory in 1955. This was Westermann's most influential publication. The edition of Rostovtzeff's letter of 16 April 1918 to Montellius (93-94) makes a crucial biographical document available. It is his decision to leave Russia.

This book is replete with new facts, carefully documented and eminently readable. It deserves to be known to all concerned with the history of their subject and the history of modern Russia and of ancient Rome. I urge Wes to write a full scale biography and edit a volume of selected letters with commentary. Rostovtzeff certainly was the greatest ancient historian between Eduard Meyer and Sir Ronald Syme and the only one with a permanent American post. No one is more competent than Wes for the task. An edition of selected Kleine Schriften, both scholarly and political papers, with a reprint of the Welles-Gilliam bibliography has long been needed and could be done by someone less gifted.


  • [1] For his credentials in ancient history see M.A. Wes, Das Ende des Kaisertums im Westen des roemischen Reiches (Amsterdam 1967) with the reviews of Robert Browning, CR NS 18 (1968) 336-338; Alexander Demandt, ByzZ 62 (1969) 96-101 and J.F. Matthew, JRS 59 (1969) 274-275. One of the three or four most informative articles available on Rostovtzeff is M.A. Wes. "The Russian Background of the Young Michael Rostovtzeff," Historia 37 (1988) 207-221 and see "Classical Studies and the Europeanisation of Russia," History of European Ideas 11 (1989) 661-666. He has also published on Sorokin.
  • [2] See H.V.F. Winstone, Woolley of Ur: The Life of Sir Leonard Woolley (London 1990). For the later period see Robin W. Winks, Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961 (New York 1987) who discusses Moses Hadas, Gilbert Highet, B.M.W. Knox, Jerome Sperling, Gorham P. Stevens, and not least Rostovtzeff's successor, Bradford Welles. The American School in Athens has long provided agents. Editions of the memoirs of Buckler or the diaries of Westermann would do much to illuminate classicists' part in earlier intelligence gathering. Welles, an historian, systematically destroyed all relevant documents (Winks, 136) so that his story can never be told. It is typical that two volumes of American School history say nothing of the institution's success in that field. Rather the name of every summer school student.
  • [3] Add at Wes, 30 reference to John Milton Cooper, Walter Hines Page. The Southerner as American, 1855-1918 (Chapel Hill 1977) and B. J. Henrick , The Life and Letters of Walter H. Page 3 vols. (Garden City 1922-1925). And at 30 n. 114 Wes omits the most important published source for Buckler, one based on his unpublished memoirs: see William M. Calder, "William Hapburn Buckler 1967-1952" PBA 40 (1954) 275-286.