Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.05.05

William M. Calder III and Alexander Demandt, Eduard Meyer. Leben und Leistung eines Universalhistorikers. Leiden and New York: Brill, 1990 (Mnemosyne Supplement 112). Pp. VIII, 537. ISBN 90-04-09131-9.

Mortimer H. Chambers, Georg Busolt. His Career in His Letters. Leiden and New York: Brill, 1990 (Mnemosyne Supplement 113). Pp. xii, 242. ISBN 90-04-09225-0.

Reviewed by Meyer Reinhold, Boston University.

The history of classical scholarship in the nineteenth and twentieth century has been making dramatic progress, thanks, in part, to William Calder, the tireless impressario who helped to inspire these two felicitous volumes on two of our leading ancient historians. Arnaldo Momigliano did not tire of reminding us that we are "interpreters of interpreters", cautioning us that to comprehend out own preconceptions we must seek to understand the work of our predecessors.1 In this context, it is indeed remarkable that biographers of Eduard Meyer and Georg Busolt do not yet exist.2

The eighteen studies on Meyer (thirteen by German scholars, four in English, one in Italian), papers presented at a Tagung on Meyer at Bad Homburg November 10-14, 1987, are building blocks for a full-scale life of Meyer, whom E.K. Rand in 1909, in the citation attending the honorary degree of D.L.H. at Harvard saluted as antiquitatis scriptorum nemini viventium concedentem. These studies range over a broad variety of topics: Meyer's early publications in America; Wilamowitz contra Meyer; his study on the origins of the Mormons; the young Meyer; his treatment of Greek philosophy; his theory of history; his venture into anthropology; his treatment of the Persians, the Achaemenids, and the Jews; on the origins of Christianity; on religion; the Bücher-Meyer controversy; Meyer and politics; Meyer and the First World War; on the imperatives of German scholarship. Conspicuously absent are Meyer's studies on Egypt and the Near East.

Meyer's bibliography is awesome: 570 titles, the most famous of which is his massive Geschichte des Alterums (down to Athens' defeat in the Social War, 356 B.C.). In German universities of the nineteenth century ancient history was universal history, not yet definitely separated from the Near East and medieval history, and the methods were philological-historical embracing the languages and cultures in Altertumswissenschaft. It was Meyer who separated ancient history from classical philology so drastically that he read only the ancient historians as his sources. Werner Jaeger wrote of Meyer that he was "kein Humanist: Er war ganz historiker Realist." Busolt, on the other hand, remained a philologist-historian, a master of infinite detail and close penetrating analyses of all the sources. Meyer's vision was indeed grandiose in conception and treatment, and he disdained details (for which Wilamowitz censured him).3 As universal historian his influence extended widely, among many others to Max Weber, Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee.

Meyer's international appeal was, in part, due to his modernizing of the ancient world. In his retrojection of the modalities of modern economy and related institutional forms to antiquity, he envisioned a sort of capitalist free market economy in the best periods of the ancient world. Thus he confronted the German Historical School of economists, led by Bücher, whose Oikenwirtschaft theory represented a stage in the gradual evolution to later higher levels of society. The Bücher-Meyer controversy raged in the 1890's, pitting Bücher's primitivistic oversimplification against Meyer's caricature of modern capitalist society. On Bücher's side were, e.g., Salvioli, Caccoti, Max Weber, and the Marxists.4 Meyer's ultimate pessimism was based on his view of "decline" from "capitalism" in antiquity, and this passed on to Spengler and Toynbee, and among ancient historians notably to Michael Rostovtzeff, and, to some extent, to William Linn Westermann, who was a pupil of Meyer and whom he venerated.5 But Moses I. Finley, a student of Westermann, could say of Meyer, whom he calls "the most prestigious ancient historian in the Germanic university world in the generation after Mommsen, that "Meyer's lecture on ancient slavery is as close to nonsense as anything I can remember written by a historian of such eminence."6

In the United States during the first decade of the twentieth century Meyer was widely acclaimed. His first visit in 1904 took the form of a lecture tour to seven universities. His second visit (September 1909 -- April 1910) was a veritable triumphal parade. Appointed Visiting Professor at Harvard, he lectured widely. At Bryn Mawr, Tenney Frank was in the audience; his pupil, Westermann, then President of the American Historical Association, invited him to address the annual meeting on "The Papyri from Elephantine."

Despite Meyer's world-wide reputation, and despite his 35 doctoral students (only two of whom became professors of ancient history, Ulrich Kahrstedt and Hans Erich Stier), Meyer did not found a "school". Mommsen judged his universal history basically "false" and found Meyer "dull". To the aristocratic Wilamowitz he was arrogant, and in 1923 he called him the "bestgehassten deutschen Gelehrten" of his time. Victor Ehrenberg said of Meyer that "he lacked charisma."7

An ardent monarchist and German nationalist, after the Great War Meyer became an extremely conservative political activist (he lost two sons in the war), angered by the fall of the Hohenzollern dynasty and the role of America in the war. He rejected all relations with Americans (except Breasted), and even tore up his honorary diploma from Harvard. He exhibited impassioned hostility of democracy and also endorsed war as historic necessity for the expansion of a state. In his theory of history he held relentlessly to the importance of the impact of ideas, of the creative activity of individual great men, free will, and chance in history, rejecting economic and social forces, determinism and historical laws.

It is now generally recognized that Meyer's scholarship was dominated, in its most essential aspects, by his ideological and political conceptions. Momigliano, while admiring his vast knowledge of Greek and Roman as well as Egyptian and Hebraic history and culture, concluded: "in lui e gia quindi visibile la decadenza del pensiero tedesco in confronto alla storiographfia del primo Romanticismo."8

For the important career of Georg Busolt Chambers' book is a rescue operation, to save him from almost total oblivion. Undertaken with the inspiration of Calder, who calls Chambers sospitator Busoltii, this volume is about a famed ancient historian, about whom, Chambers reports "nothing has ever been written"; "Busolt remains the absolutely unknown author of indispensable books."9 To lay the groundwork for a full-scale biography Chambers has relentlessly searched for and found 124 letters (dating from 1874-1920), 103 by Busolt (including 25 to Eduard Meyer, with whom he had friendly relations, and 10 to Wilamowitz, with whom he conducted intellectual battles), and 21 by correspondents of Busolt. To penetrate "the mind" of Busolt, besides his great mass of scholarly publications, we must fall back on epistographical evidence. Letters do not necessarily "let everything out" to satisfy the biographers' passion for details. Letters of this sort, while precious, are controlled by the writers and do not adequately reveal the subject. After all, Busolt did not, like Anne Sexton proclaim "I hold back nothing." The letters to, from and about Busolt are "private papers", but not restrained by rights of confidentiality. Yet, as far as we know, Busolt did not preserve many of the letters addressed to him. And Calder reminds us (in the Eduard Meyer volume, p. 65) that "A Biographer soon learns that letters about people often reveal more that letters to people." 10 But this is mostly what we have in Busolt's case to stir "the blood of the ghosts."

Unlike Meyer the universal historian, Busolt's vocation was the preparation of handbooks, the greatest of which are his Griechische Geschichte and Griechische Staatskunde. And, unlike Meyer, in these masterworks he is a master of precision in detail, scintillating in his brilliant, patient analyses of sources in the footnotes, with all the evidence laid out, literary, epigraphical, numismatic, and eventually also archaeological and papyrological. Chambers reminds us that his magisterial analysis of the sources of Aristotle's Constitution of Athens "is unsurpassed to this day" (p. 49). Busolt would have approved of Gertrude Himmelfarb's doctrine (New York Times Book Review, June 16, 1991) that "Scholarship resides in the detail," a crucial matter in the battle between "facticity" vs. "intention" among modern historians.11 And we must remember that both Busolt and Meyer wrote history before the rise of contemporary methodologies and interests, such as quantification, demography, women's studies.

While admittedly the letters that Chambers has collected and methodically edited with commentaries, "do not provide the material for an intimate biography or a full psychological portrait" (p. viii), they spread before us, through Chambers' superb knowledge of German university life, 13 images of the intense intellectual world (involving exchanges of manuscripts and published work), the fervor of academic politics, the jockeying for professorships involving the politics of appointments. The letters reveal the playing out of "academic musical chairs" (Busolt lost out to Niese for the Marburg post, to Wilcken for Breslau, and won out himself for Kiel in 1870, and finally for Göttingen, where he held a chair from 1897 to his death in 1920). Some of the letters are virtually little articles, e.g., Busolt's letter to Delbrueck in 1906.

At Göttingen Busolt was not an academic leader, and did not attract many doctoral students (not one of his students became a university professor). He was a German patriot, with the political conceptions of the petty bourgeoisie of East Prussia. He objected strenuously to women studying in German universities, and was critical of graduate degrees in Technische Hochschulen as "diluting the quality of German higher education." Like Meyer, Busolt was deeply affected by the Great War, to such an extent that he published nothing from 1910-1920, when Vol. I of Griechische Staatskunde appeared, as a sort of Greek Staatsrecht.14

How different Busolt was from both Wilamowitz and Meyer! Chambers averts to his modesty and "intellectual plainness." Victor Ehrenberg, in Göttingen in 1912, speaks of Busolt's vanity and "tedious lectures," "filled with polemics against Ed. Meyer and Beloch."

It is surprising that there has been no translation of Busolt's magnum opus, Griechische Geschichte.15 Yet the glamor of Eduard Meyer has faded, while Busolt's handbooks abide in their usefulness and massive grandeur. Chambers reminds us that "Even today there is nothing like them." And Calder (p. 70) agrees: "Their abiding value cannot be denied. Outside of Germany certainly the history of Busolt has outlived that of Meyer."

Our warmest thanks to Chambers as salvator of Busolt; we look forward to a full-scale biography. This splendid volume is equipped with a complete bibliography of Busolt's works, 18 illustrations, and a thorough index. We welcome back Busolt among the masters of ancient history, even if he would not meet Isaiah Berlin's standards as a "great historian" as not possessing "the depth of imaginative insight that characterizes gifted novelists."


1. See my review in New England Classical Newsletter & Journal 18.2 (1990): 43-45, of Classical Scholarship: A Biographical Encyclopedia. Edited by Ward W. Briggs and William M. Calder III (New York: Garland, 1990).

2. In recent years considerable attention has been paid to such ancient historians as Theodor Mommsen, Julius Beloch, Fustel de Coulanges, Ronald Syme, M.I. Rostovtzeff, Fritz Heichelheim, Friedrich Muenzer, Arnaldo Momigliano, M.I. Finley, Edwin Togo Salmon.

3. Though Meyer and Wilamowitz were colleagues for almost thirty years, they were not close friends.

4. On the Bücher-Meyer controversy see, e.g., Moses I. Finlsey, ed., The Bücher-Meyer Controversy (Reprinted New York: Arno, 1979).

5. This reviewer, a pupil of Westermann, does not recall in Westermann either modernizing or disdain for detail à la Meyer.

6. M.I. Finley, Ancient Slavery and Modern Ideology (New York: Viking, 1981) 44, 48.

7. A valuable addition to the sources for a biography of Meyer is now Eduard Meyer-Viktor Ehrenberg: Ein Briefwechsel (1914-1932) (Berlin, 1990).

8. Enciclopedia Italiana vol. 23 (1934), 140. For a brief overview of Meyer's career see also Christhard Hoffmann, "Eduard Meyer," in Classical Scholarship 264-76. Also indispensable is the brief autobiographical sketch Meyer wrote in 1923. It is to be regretted that this fascinating volume on Eduard Meyer under review here has no index.

9. But see Giuseppe Corradi, "Eduard Meyer," Enciclopedia Italiana vol. 8 (1930) 160; Jochen Bleicken, "Die Herausbildung der Alten Geschichte in Göttingen von Heyne bis Busolt," in Die Klassische Altertumswissenschaft an der Georg-August-Universität Göttingen (Göttingen, 1989) 122-27.

10. Calder's passion for the evidence of letters is seen in his urging Marinus Wes to edit a volume of Rostovtzeff's letters as preparation for a full-scale biography of "the greatest ancient historian between Eduard Meyer and Sir Ronald Syme and the only one with a permanent American post." (BMCR 2.3 [1991] 162)

11. M.I. Finley alludes to the crisis in contemporary historiography between old-fashioned "details" history and narrative history for a more general public in "Progress in Historiography," Daedalus 106.3 (Summer 1977), 104.

12. Corradi characterizes him as "ricercatore meticoloso un pò pedestre et poco geniale ma preciso."

13. Chambers notes (p. 134, Note 19) that in the 19th century German professors did not enjoy sabbatical leaves. For example, August Boeckh from 1807-67 taught 120 consecutive semesters.

14. Vol. II (1926) appeared posthumously, edited for Muellers Handbuch by Swoboda.

15. It was reprinted in 1967. In 1890 there was a Russian translation of his Griechische Staatsaltertümer, published in Charkov (revised and enlarged by Busolt).

16. Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas (New York: Knopf, 1991) 65.