BMCR 2008.09.03

Mongolus Syrio Salutem Optimam Dat. La correspondance entre Mikhaïl Rostovtzeff et Franz Cumont. Mémoires de l’Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 36

, , , , Mongolus Syrio Salutem Optimam Dat. La correspondance entre Mikhaïl Rostovtzeff et Franz Cumont. Mémoires de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, 36. Paris: De Boccard, 2007. xvi, 364; pls. 22. €70.00 (pb).

This volume provides an exemplary first edition of neglected documents with extensive introduction, accurate texts, extensive and relevant commentary, relevant appendices and four accurate, comprehensive indices (ancient and modern place names, modern people, ancient names and terms, institutions and academies), a “Doura Dossier,” and a chronological synopsis of the letters. All this means that much detailed information is easily accessible for a scholar consulting the texts for reasons deriving from personal research. There are 21 plates, black and white, in color, with several valuable plans of important sites. They include fine portraits of the main actors.

The center of the volume is 164 letters (1897-1941) between the great Yale scholar, Mikhail Rostovtzeff (1870-1952), and the Belgian classicist, known primarily for his lasting work on Mithras, ancient astrology and oriental religions in Roman paganism, Franz Cumont (1868-1947). There are 97 of Rostovtzeff and only 67 of Cumont. The originals are scattered about Rome, Russia, Yale and Duke. Simply for first gathering the letters we must be grateful to the editors. The pair’s interests converged on the dig at Dura-Europos, the Hellenistic city in eastern Syria. Cumont began excavations there for the French Academy in 1922. They were continued for a decade (1928-37) by Yale University, first under Rostovtzeff, who cleverly in difficult times convinced the Yale president to finance the dig, followed by the field directors, Maurice Pillet, Clark Hopkins, and Frank Brown, all of whom repeatedly appear in these letters, along with Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, John D. Rockefeller, F. D. R. and others. If one can judge from the four letters (9, 32, 55, 164) of which photographs of the originals are published, transcriptions are accurate. I regret only that when there is a misspelling in a letter by its author, a sic is not inserted into the text. In Rostovtzeff’s English letters we find (319) “his stuff works with skill” and (321) “an overworked stuff”. Obviously staff is correct. Were the errors Rostovtzeff’s or the French editors’? We cannot know. At p. 324 “Even the best Syrians are professional liers.” Rather liars; whose error?

A welcome appendix (279-341), “the Doura Dossier” contains 22 documents in French and English, included because they elucidate obscure passages in selected letters but which often are of considerable interest on their own. I especially admire Rostovtzeff’s letters to the Yale president, J. R. Angell, often in the midst of the great depression, successfully soliciting some $15,000 per annum to finance the dig. An European does this more authoritatively than a humble American could; and one feels that Angell would be embarrassed to explain a refusal to a distinguished foreign scholar. Rostovtzeff’s last letter of October 8, 1946 (340-41) to the youthful Brad Welles, who is editing the inscriptions, is moving indeed. Age and infirmity have made work a burden but Rostovtzeff will not give up.

Although concern with Doura-Europos certainly prompted the correspondence and remains its unifying theme, the letters are by no means confined to archaeological detail but will appeal to readers with more varied interests. One learns much about two great and influential scholars of the last century. They soon became trusting friends. By the fifth letter cher Monsieur has been replaced by mon cher ami. By July 1920 Rostovtzeff confides to Cumont his preference for Yale over Harvard. It provides released time for research. One experiences the excitement of discovery, the frescoes, the early Christian church, an unexpected synagogue, Cumont’s dream, the Mithraeum. The decision to place footnotes where they belong, at the foot of the page, is to be applauded and much eases reading. I note the following for notes on American matters: 113 n. 209: the standard life and complete bibliography for Elias Bickerman is at Elias J. Bickerman, “Religions and Politics in the Hellenistic and Roman Periods,” Edited by Emilio Gabba and Morton Smith Bibliotheca di Athenaeum 5 (Como 1985) ix-xxxvii; 168 n. 566: there is no University of Madison, read the University of Wisconsin at Madison; 256 n. 1040: add my kife of A. D. Nock at ANB 19 (Oxford/New York 1999) 873-874. 52 letters (1926-39) of Nock to Cumont survive and deserve attention. One can only be inspired by this thoroughly admirable book. I hope the Kollektiv will give us further volumes.