Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.07.16

Arnaldo Marcone (ed.), Rostovtzeff e l'Italia. Proceedings of: Incontri perugini di storia della storiografia antica e sul mondo antico, IX, Gubbio, 25-27 May 1995 .   Napoli:  Edizioni Scientifiche Italiane, 1999.  Pp. 468.  ISBN 88-8114-873-0.  L. 52.000.  



Reviewed by Christina Huemer, American Academy in Rome
Word count: 847 words

Why does a Russian classicist who did his most influential work in the 1920s and 1930s and who died in 1952 still have such an appeal today? Part of the reason lies in the mastery of languages and cultures that characterizes the life of the exile: at the age of 48, propelled by the Russian Revolution, Michael Rostovtzeff left his homeland for Sweden, England and, two years later, the United States, first to the University of Wisconsin and then to Yale University, where he spent the rest of his career. His studies ranged from Greece and Rome to the furthest reaches of their empires, from Russia and the Black Sea to the Middle East, Iran and China. He wrote over 500 articles in Russian, German, and English, but his fame rests chiefly on two monumental surveys: The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926) and The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (1941). Most important to contemporary and later scholars was Rostovtzeff's pioneering integration of archaeological evidence into social and economic history in an era when most historians of ancient Greece and Rome relied primarily on literary evidence.

There is also the allure of East and West in all their historical permutations, from the Hellenistic conquests to the upheavals of the 20th century. Rostovtzeff, born a citizen of the Third Rome, was uniquely qualified to describe the transformations of the First Rome up to the establishment of the Second (Constantinople) while participating in the excavation of Dura-Europos and laying the groundwork for his history of the Hellenistic Empire.

Finally, there is the larger-than-life force of his personality, attested by students and colleagues, and the tragedy of his final descent into depression. This decline seems only to have heightened, by contrast, the brilliance of his earlier work. Thus, while Rostovtzeff's ideas inspired their share of criticism as well as admiration, his place in 19th- and 20th-century scholarship remains unchallenged.

This useful and often stimulating collection of essays offers more than the title suggests. Rostovtzeff's connections with Italy are explored from several points of view, but there is also an essay (by Heinz Heinen, in French) on Rostovtzeff's contributions to the history of Southern Russia (including the "lost" chapters rediscovered in the archives of St. Petersburg and published for the first time in 1989-1990) and an interesting analysis by Heinrich von Staden of Rostovtzeff's years at Yale. Heinen provides a synoptic chronology of Rostovtzeff's writings and of the main events of his life, but for basic biographical information, readers are referred to Marinus A. Wes's Michael Rostovtzeff, Historian in Exile: Russian Roots in an American Context (Historia-Einzelschriften 65, 1990), its review by Brent D. Shaw ("Under Russian eyes", JRS 82, 1992: 216-228), and to shorter biographies and obituaries, of which there is a useful list in a note at the beginning of von Staden's contribution (p.65).

Most of the volume is devoted to the critical fortunes of Rostovtzeff and his influence on historians and scholars in Fascist (and anti-Fascist) Italy. Leandro Polverini describes his lifelong friendship with Gaetano De Sanctis. Andrea Giardina analyses his influence on Santo Mazzarino and sheds light on the theoretical differences between Rostovtzeff and Arnoldo Momigliano. Gino Bandelli revives the ideological debate inspired by the Italian edition of The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. Mariella Cagnetta sheds light on the publishing history of Rostovtzeff's Italian editions. Pier Giuseppe Michelotto analyses the translation of sensitive political and economic words and concepts in the light of Marxist and anti-Marxist criticism.

A recurrent theme in the revaluation of Rostovtzeff's work, alluded to by several of the authors in this volume, has been the extent to which the Russian historian's anti-Bolshevist political views influenced his economic model of the decline of the Roman Empire. A corollary theme involves the extent of Rostovtzeff's self-correction in the decade between the reception of The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire and the publication of The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World. Mario Mazza looks further back, to the economic debate of German historians of the late 19th century (the so-called "Bücher-Meyer controversy") and analyzes Rostovtzeff's special place in the Meyer camp, which identified the development of a form of capitalism in the Hellenistic economy.

Ugo Fantasia explores Rostovtzeff's role in the shifting definitions of "Hellenism" and Hellenistic civilization. Giovanni Salmeri interprets chapters 6-7 (on the Flavians and the Antonines) of The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire. Luigi Loreto examines Rostovtzeff's contribution to the study of international relations and international law in Antiquity.

Mario Capasso demonstrates how Rostovtzeff benefited from the emerging discipline of papyrology over the course of its (and his) development. Marco Buonocore cites examples of Rostovtzeff's felicitous uses of epigraphy to illuminate social and economic history. Giusto Traina analyses Rostovtzeff's contributions to the Greek and Latin epigraphy of ancient Armenia.

A selection of documents, placed rather arbitrarily near the beginning of the volume, contains transcriptions of letters written to or from Rostovtzeff, many on behalf of Jewish scholars seeking to leave Italy before World War II.

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