Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.02.42

T. Corey Brennan, T. Alan Broughton, Ryan C. Fowler, Andrew G. Scott, Kathleen J. Shea (ed.), Autobiography: 'A Scholar's Life' by T. R. S. Broughton (1900-1993). American Journal of Ancient History, n.s. vol. 5 2006 [2008].   Piscataway, N.J.:  Gorgias Press, 2008.  Pp. xvii, 310.  ISBN 9781593338374.  $50.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by James E. G. Zetzel, Columbia University (
Word count: 2409 words

The last time I saw T. R. S. Broughton was in the public library of Keene Valley, NY in 1989 or 1990. He spoke of his last scholarly project (not mentioned in the present volume, which was completed a few years earlier), Candidates Defeated in Roman Elections: Some Ancient Roman "Also-rans", published in 1991 when Broughton was 91. It struck him as both useful and funny: to collect the losers after a lifetime of compiling lists of the winners has its ironic side. I also took out of the library a book about the Flexner family (closely associated with Bryn Mawr, where Broughton spent most of his academic career) which he had just returned--and in which, in a neat hand, he had corrected typographical errors in the few Greek quotations.

The attention to detail and the somewhat distanced and modest (while at the same time deeply serious) attitude towards his own scholarly accomplishments seem to me typical of Broughton; one also always had a strong sense of his physical presence. When I saw him in Keene Valley, he generally was dressed for the mountains, in a checked wool shirt. His massive head, his broad shoulders, and his barrel chest made him seem, even as he neared the age of 90, a mountain man as much as a scholar. The other immediate impression one had--which was certainly true when I first met him, when I was an undergraduate and he was a member of the outside Visiting Committee to the Harvard Classics Department, and was even more true when I saw him in the audience at the APA the first time I ever gave a talk in public--was of a kindness and decency as solid as the man himself. Before I first met him, my advisor told me that Broughton was the nicest and most honorable person in the profession. He was right. Broughton was a very good man and a very great scholar, and the two attributes seemed inseparable.

The same sense of solid worth (dignitas, in Roman terms) that Broughton projected in person is immediately evident in the work for which he will always be known, Magistrates of the Roman Republic, first published in 1951-52 and corrected and revised until the Supplement published in 1986. I bought my own copy when I was a sophomore, and although it is more than 20 years since I last taught Roman history, the two thick green volumes of the original publication are never far from my desk and (as now) usually on it. While it is not a book I can claim to have read through from cover to cover, by now there are not that many pages I haven't opened at some point. MRR (to give it its universal abbreviation) is probably the most useable (as well as one of the most useful) works of reference ever created to aid the study of antiquity: lucid, patient, extraordinarily thorough and impeccably learned. Above all, the book is designed to be helpful, in organization as in typography, and it is designed also to teach. One can start anywhere--with an office, a person, a date--and follow the threads that Broughton wove into the work to find out more and more about the political and administrative structures of the Roman republic. And when one realizes that Broughton accomplished this phenomenal task with only one assistant who worked on only one small portion of the book (not including, of course, the many scholars, colleagues and students who offered suggestions and corrections) over more than forty years in the pre-computer and pre-database era, one feels--or at least I feel--a certain embarrassment at the limits of one's own diligence, learning, or Sitzfleisch. 'Enduring' is the word that comes to mind, describing in several senses both the man and his work.

What is presented in the volume under review is not another set of addenda to MRR, but Broughton's own res gestae, a set of autobiographical chapters that Broughton's family induced him to write when he was in his late 80s (he died at 93 in 1993). Like many such family-induced memoirs (and several of my own relatives have tried it), it is selective, has some bees in its bonnet, and is rarely introspective. Broughton emphasizes much more where he went than what he did there, and while he recounts his scholarly activities and accomplishments, he has very little to say about his scholarly choices or methods. Unlike most similar memoirs, however, it displays Broughton's uncanny and almost perfect memory: he can remember how he got from one small town in Turkey to another in the 1930s, even if he is not very detailed about the Roman remains that he saw when he got there. Parts of the book are fascinating, particularly (to me) the account of Broughton's boyhood on an Ontario farm and his descriptions of his work with Tenney Frank at Johns Hopkins (a wonderful description of their competitive farming stories--Frank won by telling of the rattlesnake he forked into a hay wagon in his native Kansas) and of his first travels in Europe. The account of his boyhood explains a great deal about him, as well as being a singularly evocative description of the hard life of rural Ontario in the early twentieth century; in many ways it reminded me of the opening chapters of Robertson Davies' Fifth Business, a much more negative account of the same world. The extraordinary demands and sheer physical effort of farming without modern equipment; the constant poverty; the close awareness of terrain and topography all helped transform the Ontario farm boy into the scholar of Roman administration. Broughton was proud of his agricultural background, deeply attached to the family farm, and made a point of returning to Ontario for the harvest for many years. Both his physical stamina and his eye for terrain came from his childhood.

Those qualities, moreover, are apparent in the longest narrative sections of his autobiography, the accounts of his travels in Europe, Africa, and Turkey. His first great expedition, from June 1927 to January 1928 was to give him the background and to collect evidence for his dissertation on the Romanization of the province of Africa. Landing in Scotland and discovering the cost of travel (he had almost no money), he bought a second-hand bicycle in Edinburgh and pedaled his way, flat tires, accidents, and all, as far as Rome. He luckily did not decide to bicycle to Sicily and North Africa, using slightly more conventional means of transport; but one can well imagine him attempting to pedal over Aetna or through the desert and not complaining about the impossibility of the task. So too his later trips, to Turkey in the 1930s and to Spain in the 1950s: Broughton accomplished vast distances and incredible feats of endurance, inspecting sites and gathering evidence, but his writing rarely gives one the sense either of the excitement or of the discoveries that he clearly was making almost every day. What he gives, more often than not, is his itinerary through small towns and remote places, with some notice of what ruins he saw or what the countryside was like. What he does not give is any clear sense of why he went where he did, what he learned, and how it fit into some larger pattern of discovery or scholarly development. All too often--and again, it is not uncharacteristic of the genre--we get lists without much analysis of things done and places seen (and in later sections, of children brought up, students trained, offices held, and honors received). It is not as laconic as the entries in the "Index of Careers" in MRR, but the author of this autobiography is not very different from the author of MRR.

The Autobiography is simply too laconic. Some of that clearly arises from the circumstances in which it was composed, some of it is a matter of Broughton's own lapidary reticence. But hints emerge of a much more complicated man lurking within the author of MRR. Over and over, despite his hair-raising physical adventures, the scholar Broughton seems to progress by chance and caution rather than a deliberate sense of direction. He rejects a dissertation topic on ancient criticisms of Virgil because it seems too difficult for a beginner.1 He seems to fall into a fellowship at Johns Hopkins (interrupted by a grueling year trying to maintain the farm after his father's death) and under the influence of Tenney Frank. The outside world impinges, but Broughton seems barely to register the great events of his time: he is aware of the rise of Fascism and Nazism, but seems faintly puzzled at the hostile silence that greets him on an Italian train when he makes a joke about going to Rome to see Mussolini, and while he is well aware of the dictatorship of Franco, it does not stop him from making extensive travels in Spain. The upheavals of Europe appear largely as obstacles to his (and others') planned researches on the Romanization of the provinces of the Empire. And, although his older colleague Lily Ross Taylor took a leave from Bryn Mawr to work for the OSS, Broughton, unlike almost everyone I have known of his generation, stayed at his job, edited TAPA and worked on MRR.2 In reading this account, I find it hard not to compare the authors of the two most important works on Roman republican history in the twentieth century, Broughton and Syme. Broughton's goal in MRR is pure scholarship, objective and disengaged. Roman Revolution is its opposite; and while I consult MRR frequently, there are chapters of RR I reread for the sheer power of Syme's argument and prose.

Broughton's apparent lack of engagement with the public world is a part of what made MRR possible; but the Autobiography suggests a professional context as well. Broughton's career as a Roman historian was very much under the influence of Tenney Frank: his dissertation on the Romanization of North Africa and his contribution on Asia to Frank's Economic Survey of the Roman Empire were part of a line of research that has, in the past century, been extraordinarily fruitful. Frank, although his work seems dated now, was a pioneer in this, as in his book on Roman Imperialism, and it remained an interest of Broughton's throughout his life. In part, as he says, it was the upheavals of Europe, making first-hand research impossible, that changed his approach; but it is also very clear that Broughton's bitter disappointment at not being appointed by Johns Hopkins to succeed Frank had a large effect. Broughton was rejected for the Hopkins chair in 1939; in the same year his student and collaborator Marcia Patterson began to work with him on what was to become MRR. A certain resentment at being passed over--perhaps because Broughton, certainly in hindsight, was a far greater scholar than Henry Rowell, who was appointed Frank's successor--pervades much of Broughton's writing about his career. He lists offices and honors; fair enough. But he also records jobs that he was not offered and seems constantly to have yearned to teach in a large university (he did move in 1964 to Chapel Hill as Paddison Professor), somehow not seeming to realize that it was the extraordinary grouping of scholars in Roman history and literature at Bryn Mawr, notably Lily Ross Taylor and Agnes Michels, that in fact provides the background to the composition of MRR. It is not something he would have been likely to do anywhere else in the United States in the 1940s.

The Autobiography at times seems to portray a smaller man than Broughton really was, and that is unfortunate. The present volume, however, contains some correctives. One is the fine and moving introduction and poem by Broughton's son Alan (a poet and emeritus professor of English at the University of Vermont); he reads his father through the book that he (and I) wish Broughton had written--the expansive, generous, ironic scholar whom many, many people knew and admired. It is also made up for by Broughton himself in what is printed here as an appendix, a talk about Lily Ross Taylor and the study of Roman history in the United States that Broughton gave in 1970, not long after her death. It is there one gets a sense of Broughton's scope and of his acute awareness of the contexts in which he wrote; it is only there that one sees the more positive and scholarly reasons that led him to MRR, the desire to test the limits and value of the other new direction in Roman history, prosopography. That kind of history--through personalities, families, and factions--was inimical to the social and economic history championed by Tenney Frank, but Broughton was open enough to see its value, and while questioning its more extreme manifestations (as, for instance, in Scullard's work on early Roman politics) he ultimately provided the single most valuable tool for its proponents.

There is much in Broughton's Autobiography, as the description on the cover says, for students of many areas: not just the development of Roman history in the twentieth century, but Canadian social history and the history of the institutions with which Broughton was connected. And in that sense, one is glad that it was published. Corey Brennan and his students have put in much effort in identifying names (I suspect there is much in the index for students of Ontario prosopography) and correcting trivial mis-rememberings of names or facts. But even in what they have attempted, their work leaves something to be desired. Aside from minor errors in modern prosopography (the wrong first name is given for Calvin Plimpton, president of Amherst College from 1960 to 1971) and idiocies (does one really need an entry for "Ivy League" or the Isle of Innisfree?) in the index, there is one huge gap that Broughton himself would never have forgiven: there is not a single map. Broughton himself always insisted on having maps available in his seminars; without the aid of Google Maps, I could not have made any sense of the descriptions of Broughton's early life in Ontario, and there is nary a reader, certainly not this one, who can follow his peregrinations in Turkey and North Africa without cartographic assistance. In terms of clarity of presentation and plain good sense, Professor Broughton still has a lot to teach his editors; frustrating as they at times are, Broughton's memoirs and his memory deserved better.3


1.   I note in passing that Broughton's instincts for Latin philology seem to have been excellent: he is the only scholar I know who expresses great admiration for A. J. Bell, his teacher in Latin and comparative philology at Toronto. Bell's The Latin Dual and Poetic Diction (Oxford 1923) is hardly ever cited in modern scholarship and is admittedly eccentric, but is still very much worth reading.
2.   Broughton was over 40 when the United States entered the war, but Taylor was 55. One assumes that a sense of obligation to his institution, his students, and his family are part of the explanation, but I still find it striking. The only clearly political comment I can find in the book is Broughton's statement that he would have been hard put to sign California's anti-communist loyalty oath in 1949 (130)--but he turned the job down in 1948 for different reasons.
3.   I am grateful to Philip Stadter for his comments on a draft of this review.

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