Arnaldo Dante Momigliano 1908-1987
Arnaldo Dante Momigliano arrived at Oxford in 1939. In the previous fall he had been dispossessed of his professorship in Roman history at the University of Turin, hence, of his livelihood, as a result of the Racial Laws. The courtyard of the Bodleian Library was “a place of peace” like few that he had known. Its opening hours, he noted once, permitted a whole day’s work. In July he was joined by his wife Gemma, and his five-year old Anna-Laura. Throughout the war, the Momigliano family lived in three rented room in a succession of houses in North Oxford. Momigliano had never been out of Italy. In these first months he found himself in a cold and distant world. Conversation in English was a torment to him. Italian newspapers were nowhere to be found. The letters written to Italy at that time, to Carlo Dionisotti, the friend of his study days, make painful reading. At last, Dionisotti could arrange to have a newspaper sent to him every day.
Arnaldo Momigliano was born on 5 September 1908. He grew up in a well-to-do house in Piazza Cavous in Caraglio, a small Piedmontese town close to the provincial capital, Cuneo.
The Momiglianos were a Jewish family. The were said to have derived their name from Montmélian on the outbreak of the Black Death, having been held responsible, by their Christian neighbors, for the spread of the disease.
In 1890 these memories belonged to the distant past. Momigliano’s father, Riccardo Salomone, was a respected local figure, l’ caviar Riccardo, as Riccardo’s uncle and adoptive father, Amado, had been before him. A successful opponent of the clerical faction in the town council, senior assessor and, from 1917 to 1919, acting mayor of Caraglio, Riccardo chose names for his son that evoked the aspirations of the liberal Italy of a slightly older, and yet more romantic, age —Arnold of Brescia and the Great Ghibelline poet.
His uncle, Felice Momigliano, was a frequent visitor to the house. A professor of theoretical philosophy at Rome, an admirer of Renan and Mazzini, he was proud of combining a Judaism that stressed ethical and social message of the prophet of Israel and the Jewish messianic hope with modern socialism.
At the age of ten, Momigliano and his elder sister printed a newspaper in which the nationalization o the banking system was advocated. His father promptly confiscated the inflammatory document.
As an older man, Momigliano liked to linger on the peculiar nature of his background. His reminiscence were designed to leave an impression of the strength that came from a complex life lived without confusion. Differences, clearly seen and embraced with pride, mattered. Piedmont was not quite Italy: a once-Celtic land, later absorbed into the unity imposed upon the West by Rome, it had come to harbor an unusual number of vivid and tenacious minorities, Protestants as well as as well. The ambiguity of Piedmontese culture was a source of double pride. His parents spoke Piedmontese with each other, but Italian with Arnaldo and his two sisters, Tiziana and Fernanda. As he remembered it, the Momigliano children stood out in the town as the only native speakers of Italian. Fussed over in infant school by affectionate Catholic nuns, Arnaldo completed his studies with private tutors at Cuneo.
It was a home of books—editions of the philosophers, the novels and poetry of the previous century, a wide range of classical text and, in the Zemah David, the “Offshoot of David”, a great trilingual dictionary, the columns in Hebrew, Latin and Italian spoke of the ancient diversity of the culture to which the family belonged. Arnaldo approached his Bar Mitzvah already well-acquainted with Spinoza and convinced of the purely historical character of the Old Testament. Yet he would remember, as sharp echoes of a familiar and secure world, the solemnity of an observance that was orthodox, in the sense that it maintained the ancient usages that were a source of peculiar dignity for Jewish families. In times of happiness among his friends, he loved to recall the hymns of the of the even of Shabbath set to distinctive tunes and sung in the agent of the Jews of Piedmont.
His adoptive father, Amadio, was a man of uneroded, deeply particular piety, a reader of the Zohar and the recipient of a honorary rabbinate. The last of Momigliano’s many volumes of collected essays is dedicated to the memory of Amado, “who taught me to study and to love the tradition of the Fathers”. For all secular and rationalist enthusiasm which a younger generation of Jews than his own had shared with their fellow Italians of the Risorgimento, Amadio—Momigliano was careful to remember—had continued to find his delight … in the Law of the Lord”.
Amadio died in 1924. Next summer, Arnaldo went to Cuneo, to sit for the examination of the Maturità Classica. Along with his friend, Michele Pellegrino, the future Archbishop of Turin, he was urged by examiners to “continue in the ways of scholarship”. In November 1925, at the age of seventeen, he enrolled in the Faculty of Letters in the University of Turin. He had already brought with him, “from a Jewish house in a small town of Piedmont”, a precocious depth of learning, and the tension associated with complex identity.
The regulations of the University of Turin permitted wide reading in ancient literature, philosophy and history. The intellectual agenda that Momigliano came to pursue derived its momentum from a wide range of preoccupations. The entering examination, the Maturità, had fostered the study of history and philosophy. The latter was presented as an unfolding, through the course of history, of the latent capacities of the human spirit, in a manner associated with the progressive, idealist historicism of Giovanni Gentile and Benedetto Croce.
As a student, Momigliano even wrote an essay on Gentile’s philosophy, which his professors urged him to publish. The year that he gained his laurea, in 1929, he was introduced to Croce, when the great philosopher-historian was staying for the summer at Meana, in Piedmont. It was the beginning of a long, and far from easy, relationship.
A young man, endowed with a formidably abstract intelligence (for all his zest for concrete erudition), Momigliano was not shy of high thinking. A firm commitment to a notion of universal history, whose idealist stamp, at that time, was undeniable, gave a sense of size and direction to the work that he pursued in the coming decade.
The concepts that were central to an understanding of the many layers of his own situation, as a liberal Italian from a Jewish family, were seen to emerge—to take on, as it were, their first, distantly recognizable faces—in the course of the long travail of the ancient world. Seen in this way, ancient history stretched, without a break, from the age of Demosthenes, through the confrontation of Judaism with Greek culture in the Hellenistic kingdoms, to the birth of Christianity and the rise of a universal, Catholic Church within the universal framework of the Roman Empire.
A history of the idea of liberty in the ancient world, that did justice to the manner in which the notion of the liberty of the autonomous city-state, expounded by Demosthenes, slowly changed through the impact of Judaism, Christianity and of the Roman Empire, into a notion of individual freedom, provided the momentum (if not the guiding thread) of his early work. Ancient history had to be understood, in order to understand the present.
As he wrote, in 1935, in the Giornale Critico della Filosofia:
No fully self-aware historian of the ancient world, that is, no person conscious of the fact of living in a civilisation of Christian origin, can get away with the refusal to recognize that ancient history makes sense only when it is seen to evolve in such a way as to end naturally in the rise of Christianity.
These were programmatic statements, couched in phrases that were, often, deliberately a little vieux style. They were calculated to provoke; and all the more so as they had been accompanied, from 1928 onwards, by a steady flow of studies in Greek, Jewish and Roman history, marked by the impeccable philological competence and concreteness that was to be expected of a pupil of Gaetano De Sanctis.
Momigliano joined the seminar of De Sanctis at Turin. He followed his master to Rome, where, in the autumn of 1929, De Sanctis took up the chair in Greek history. De Sanctis later remembered, above all, the ‘strength of character’ of his young protégé. Himself the son of an intransigent papal official, and a Catholic of tender, deeply private devotion, De Sanctis, like Momigliano, carried within himself a streak of unsurrendered difference. What he communicated to his students, however, was absolute clarity. Momigliano met in him, and instantly made his own, ‘a natural inclination and ability for subtle historical research, arrogantly confident of its own powers’.
Such confidence set Momigliano free. By 1934, when he was twenty-six, he had already published three important monographs—on the historiography of the Maccabaean revolt, on the reign of the Emperor Claudius, and on the political ideals of the Greek cities in the age of Philip of Macedon—besides one hundred and fifty articles and reviews.
These studies showed that Momigliano already possessed extraordinary competence in the interpretation of almost every sort of ancient evidence—papyrological and epigraphic as well as literary and historical texts—combined with an uncanny gift for intuiting, behind conflicts in the sources, the contours of precise cultural and political situations. He could write truly memorable portraits. A tragic sense of the limitations of human consciousness, ultimately derived from Romantic historicism, struck a chord in the young man: Demosthenes, Hannibal, Josephus, Herod the Great and Claudius all emerge as figures caught in the latent contradictions of their age, and sharply etched in terms of precisely what they had failed to see in the world about them.
A school textbook of ancient history, which he wrote in 1934, betrays a mind at once vaulting and impatiently concrete: a `nebulous collection of information, unrooted in space and time’ had no place in his vision of the ancient world. His reviews of that time show that lack of clear concepts, lack of a sense of social and economic realities, lack of respect for the precise dilemmas faced by scholars of the Greek world, from the Renaissance to the present, and, above all, vaniloquio, ‘hot air’, were defects that Momigliano judged with the merciless astringency of a young man anxious to assert his own, complicated persona among Italian scholars.
What was certain, in all this, was the art of historical truth. It was as the precociously learned and reliable student of De Sanctis, that Momigliano first became visible to scholars outside Italy. By 1934, he had contributed three articles to the Cambridge Ancient History. In the words of his future host, Hugh Last, reviewing the study of Claudius:
he shows that consistent application of a rational method, that is the hallmark of the school of De Sanctis Momigliano is one of those fortunate people who, finding no lack of regions to explore with profit … are exempt from the temptation to dawdle on the way or to seek stray trifles.
His life in Rome, indeed, had left little time for dawdling. It was austere and deeply preoccupied. In 1932, Momigliano married Gemma Segre, who had studied Greek literature in the same year as himself, writing her tesi di laurea on an anonymous Byzantine play. Their daughter was born in 1933.
In Rome, the family finally moved to Monteverde Vecchio, near the park of the Villa Sciarra, where Gemma walked Anna Laura in the pram, with her best friend, the wife of Alberto Pincherle, the modernist historian of the thought of Saint Augustine.
Rome, with its foreign institutes, its superb libraries and frequent conferences, was a world-wide gathering place for ancient historians. Momigliano remembered seeing Michael Rostovtzeff in the reading room of the German Archaeological Institute, devouring a row of books stacked across his desk, with grunts and snorts of alternate satisfaction and disapproval—`short, tough, with strange forbidding, and yet sad, blue eyes’. Yet, the young scholar observed, somewhat priggishly, this amazing man could be no Ranke.
Led by his zest for the vividly documented achievements of the Greco-Roman bourgeoisie, Rostovtzeff had overlooked the deeper contradictions of the Roman Empire, which Hegel had understood so well: the alienation which pitted the individual against a universal Empire too wide to be loved would lead to the mass religious movement of the Christian Church. Rostovtzeff, Momigliano noted acutely, had no eye for such depths, and, for that reason, could not explain the final revolution associated with the triumph of Christianity in the later Empire.
In 1931, De Sanctis resigned his post rather than take an oath to the Fascist regime; and in the same year, his glaucoma developed into near total blindness. He was able to arrange for Momigliano to take over his courses, as an acting professor, from 1932 to 1936. When De Sanctis became editor for ancient history at the newly-founded Enciclopedia Italiana, Momigliano joined the staff as an assistant and a major contributor. We glimpse Momigliano, at around that time, in a postcard written by a friend from the Roman bridge of Capua:
Here Hannibal passed over—so Livy wrote. But our Momigliano has rectified the quote; And proved with reasons that compel assent, That not across, but underneath, he went.
But it was a world of little relaxation. Momigliano later spoke of a growing ‘lack of oxygen’ under the Fascist regime. After 1935, for instance, he could no longer write on Jewish themes. Hard inner boundaries had to be maintained in order to avoid confusion. Even the Enciclopedia was an ambivalent venture. The best in Italian scholarship had to share its pages with contributions that tacitly accepted the annual liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro; and a clerical co-editor, nominated by the Vatican, fussed over the impropriety of ascribing ’emotions’, the unique property of immortal souls, to the sea-lion.
Within a harassed group, self-definition was difficult. Momigliano had not been prepared to acclaim Demosthenes tout court as the ‘fountain head’ of liberty: the confrontation of Judaism with Hellenism, and of Christianity with the Roman Empire had to be played out before anything resembling modern liberty could emerge. So stark a denial of any resemblance between themselves and the heroes of ancient Athens seemed ungenerous to persecuted liberals. Only by reaching back to Hegel and Droysen, in order to justify his position, in long essays that first betray his sovereign mastery of the historiography of the ancient world in modern Europe, could Momigliano find room for himself to manoeuvre in a cramped environment.
In the same spirit, he embraced the opportunity to write the article on the Roman Empire for the Enciclopedia. Many had simply abandoned Roman history, and had pointedly chosen to study the free cities of Greece: ‘the name of Rome was corrupting.’ Momigliano, by contrast, produced for the Enciclopedia a compelling synthesis, in which he stressed the inner erosion of the universal Empire and its replacement, in late antiquity, by the universal Christian Church. A further, lengthy article on the historiography of the Empire, from the Reformation to the present, allowed him to identify the problems with which he had wrestled in arriving at this interpretation. The double manoeuvre became characteristic of him: he relived centuries of European experience in studying the history of the ancient world; and yet this landslide of erudition was firmly directed towards the resolution of specific, contemporary problems in Greek and Roman history. By going back to the past of his own subject, Momigliano reminded modern scholars of what had been done, and, hence, of what could now be done.
In 1936, Momigliano gained the Chair of Roman History at the University of Turin. He delivered his inaugural lecture on `The Concept of Peace in the Greco-Roman World’. Within a year, he had lost his post. He taught for a few months at the Liceo Ebraico. On 29 March 1939, he left Turin station for Paris, and thence to England. Croce wrote to introduce him to his new protectors:
He is one of the best students and writers on historical matters now to be found in Italy. There co-exist in him, in rare union, the expertise of the philologian and a philosopher’s force of mind.
Uncertain of their safety in Caraglio, as a former Jewish mayor of the town, Momigliano’s father left Piedmont with his mother, in 1941, to set up a boarding-house in Nice, where they risked betrayal among strangers. His sisters, more fortunate, survived as au pair girls, protected by families in the anonymity of a great city, Milan.
The last letter that Momigliano received from his father reached him in 1942, through the Red Cross in Switzerland. It urged him to take comfort in the prophets, and in Spinoza. It was not until July 1946, on his first visit to Italy after the war, that the nature and circumstances of the deaths of Riccardo and Ilda were confirmed to him: they had been arrested in late 1943, deported to Germany and killed in an extermination camp. He later told a friend that, at the news, he could not even bring himself to cry; he had lost, for the rest of his life, the ability to weep.
Momigliano’s life in Oxford took place in cramped circumstances, in a strangely empty city, from which scholars of his own age were absent on wartime service. From 1939 to 1947, he lived off a research stipend provided by the Rockefeller Foundation through the Academic Assistance Council. He set to work as a prolific contributor to the Oxford Classical Dictionary. This exacting routine laid the foundations for the striking concision and lucidity of his later English style, besides providing an opportunity to work through all the historians of the Later Roman Empire.
He was a familiar figure in the narrow, book-lined reading room of the Ashmolean Library, sitting at his table with a large green eyeshade. He lived in a world held together, somewhat tenuously in these first years, by books and by learned friendships. Not surprisingly, exile weighed most cruelly on his family. Gemma was isolated and disconsolate. Anna Laura was frequently ill. Inventing bedtime stories for Anna Laura–of a remarkably Gothic turn of fantasy–provided Momigliano with an island of intimate affection. The rest was not easy. Though fostered and genuinely esteemed by a scholar as authoritative, on the English scene, as Hugh Last, Momigliano was younger and less well established than were the refugees from Hitler’s Germany. Many of these had inspired his earlier work. A weekly meeting around Jacoby, to talk about Greek historiography, was a welcome moment—although the differing levels of competence within the group, he noted, led to much vaniloquio, to hot air. Others were more distant, and could be met, most often, only in the formidable environment of High Table, where English was de rigueur—a fact made only too clear to him, by Eduard Fraenkel, when Momigliano had first addressed him in Italian.
When, in February 1940, he braced himself to give a course of lectures in English at Cambridge, on The Idea of Peace in the Ancient World (based on the lecture he had delivered at Turin, to a packed hall, only two years before), a barely-repressed air of the ridiculous marked the occasion. The modern historians had omitted to mobilize their classical colleagues. No students came. Introduced by Ernest Barker, who evidently knew nothing of his work, Momigliano faced a thin row of refugee professors. Yet the discussion was worthwhile, enlivened by ‘a youngish-looking lady, who could have been a star girl student’—none other than Jocelyn Toynbee, the distinguished archaeologist. College dinners revealed other such young scholars, deemed, warmly, to be `intelligent’.
It was precisely this gift for instant and serious engagement, with men and women of all ages, and on every conceivable topic, that Momigliano brought to the new world in which he found himself. Friendship was his way to the heart of a society that had, as yet, no clear place for a man of his unusual learning and intelligence. He was happy to sit for hours after lunch, in a college dining-hall, discussing ancient history with a bright undergraduate. His effect on fellow historians could be delightful and enduring. Frank Walbank remembers a weekend in Oxford, after a conference in 1942:
The weekend sticks in my memory for it was my first introduction to the rich flow of anecdotes about Italian scholars which sometimes rose to the level of farce. Mixed up with this was serious conversation … I remember a remark, which struck me very deeply at the time, something to the effect that one may not choose . . . that in looking at Plato … one must take the good and the bad if one is to be a real historian.
Utter certainty, combined with an acute sense of the absurd and a zest for ideas, enabled Momigliano to pick kindred spirits in those younger scholars—many of them women—who were conversant with a basically conservative Oxford and, at the same time, esprits forts, each in their own distinctive manner: the ancient historian, Isabel Henderson; the medievalist, Beryl Smalley; the sociologist, Jean Floud; and the philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch. With Jean Floud, for instance, he would regularly attend the Tuesday meetings of the Pink Lunch Club, in which a group, presided over by Beryl Smalley, discussed the eventual reconstruction of a more liberal post-war Europe. Vaniloquio, one suspects, was not entirely absent at such a gathering. But nor was fun. Momigliano needed mentors, and loved to be one.
Edgy, intolerant of affectation, with a reputation for devastating honesty to those he considered incompetent, he was, at the same time, touchingly anxious for intimacy and for a fatherly relationship with persons as intelligent as himself. Deep friendships gave him protection—at that time, the freedom to expose his battle with a difficult new language and, at all times, one suspects, a freedom to be outrageous—and an unproblematic base from which he could give freely of his fearsome erudition. Some friends would receive lengthy book lists, to guide them through hitherto unknown tracts of European culture. Others would be dragged past the wooden model of the Parthenon that stood at the entrance to the archaeological section of the Ashmolean Museum with a firm rebuke for lingering on such banalities—to be shown what really mattered in its galleries. Many found themselves provoked to remonstrate when some distinguished denizen of the Parnassus of English classical studies was characterized as ‘That absurd man . . All met a mind characterized by a dispassionate curiosity and by an overwhelming, yet deeply-meditated, learning, that was as breathtaking as the first sight of Mount Everest.
It was through such friendships, accompanied by systematic reading in poetry and literature, that English became Momigliano’s true scholarly vernacular. His Italian had been—and remained—unpretentious to the point of negligence. His English, by contrast, was deployed with care, and invariably submitted to searching judges before its final publication. In it, lapidary clarity was combined with a quite uncanny alertness to twists of humour, and to the exact, current social nuances of the use of words.
It was in English, also, that Momigliano could be most gracious. The gentle wit of his reviews for the Journal of Roman Studies and other periodicals introduced a note of rare nobility and tolerance in an otherwise acrimonious genre:
History of history is almost a superhuman task. It requires good philology, good history and good philosophy joined together. Non ignarus mali, I can sympathise with Mr. Pearson; yet I would that his next book contained more mistakes—and more truth.
Slowly, Momigliano’s manner of conceiving the relation between the study of the ancient world and the study of modern thought and scholarship on ancient history underwent a profound change. One senses a release from the grip of a vast, but cramping, ambition. Momigliano’s agenda lost nothing of its sweep of vision. But the component parts of the agenda became more clearly differentiated one from the other: the history of historiography emerged as a preoccupation in its own right. The essay replaced the book as the vehicle of communication best adapted to his new concerns. Momigliano learned to use the review-article and the public lecture with a miniaturist’s gift, condensing vast perspectives in a few, deceptively simple, phrases.
The change of style reflected a profound, and silent, change in Momigliano’s thought. In the English Historical Review of 1939, Hugh Last warned English readers of what they must expect:
Some, indeed, may think that Momigliano is not at his best in his most Hegelian moments.
`Hegelian moments’ still provided the frame on which Momigliano hoped to stretch his vast canvas. A careful review of Ronald Syme’s Roman Revolution, published in the Journal of Roman Studies of 1940, made this plain. As with Rostovtzeff, so now with Syme, Momigliano met a historian endowed with ‘the vigorous power of working out from a trite subject an image full of life’. Syme, also, had failed to intuit the intellectual and spiritual forces that had begun to transform Italy and would soon transform the Roman Empire. Late Republican Italy was more than ‘people with strange terminations to their surnames’. Syme had overlooked the latent spiritual turmoil of the age. Although he now wrote more Anglico, with resolute concreteness, Momigliano still favoured Hegel over Syme. Any ‘complete study of the Roman revolution’ must consider the stages in the evolution of the idea of liberty which would, in the course of time, produce, ‘The libertas which educated modern Europe’.
He had come to England, committed to writing an ambitious study, entitled Liberty and Peace in the Ancient World. The project gave him a sense of continuity at a time of cruel disruption. Yet the book was never written. What evaporated, in Momigliano’s first years in England, was the sense of an easy coherence of past and present, of ancient history and historiography. Matters were too complicated; essential differences had to be respected. The principal ancient sources—the philosophers and the historians—told him less than they claimed about such central notions as liberty, peace and war as they actually affected ancient societies. So much was a study of what Thucydides and Plato had decided not to say; it could not be treated as the study of a clearly identifiable ‘leading idea’, slowly unfolding in the long history of the ancient world. One had, instead, to understand the nature of Greek historiography in order to see beyond its strange silences on topics in which modern persons had a lively interest.
The tradition of Renaissance and modern. historiography imposed itself, ever more insistently, as a massif in its own right. In order to identify what was authentically ancient in the ancient world, it was necessary to decide what was irreducibly modern in post-Renaissance Europe: hence the importance, to Momigliano, of his discoveries on the manner in which Tacitus had been received and read in the courts of late Renaissance Europe—no Roman would have read him in that way. As for the central notion of liberty itself: the more Momigliano absorbed the concerns of an English society preoccupied with economic freedom, even with the freedom to love (with all that this implied for the history of the ancient family), the more the theme of political liberty lost its central place—and, with it, the enterprise itself slipped out of focus, and the book was abandoned.
Instead, Momigliano settled down with gusto to study two clearly distinguishable worlds—the ancient and the modern. It remained essential to do both. He began his work at Oxford with a systematic reading of the Greek philosophers. He wrestled, in reviews and lectures, with what was truly specific to the notion of liberty in the Greek city. He conveyed, with memorable pathos, the nature of the gran rifiuto implied in the Roman philosopher’s notion of freedom from the State. We meet Seneca, as a member One of those resilient, stubborn and slightly comical provincial families which are dear to the heart of my friend, Ronald Syme;
but we also meet him, face to face with a void, unable to express in clear words why he cared for political life, … he had no constructive thought about it. His best, most profound words were about private virtues and intimate feelings.
At the same time as he studied the ancient philosophers, his purchases of volumes in the Everyman’s Library reveal a determination to master the English language, through absorbing the classics of liberal political theory. When summoned to the Oxford Police Station, to be interned, as an Italian citizen, for a short time on the Isle of Man (in November 1941), it was always said that he produced, on being asked to empty his pockets, a copy of John Stuart Mill On Liberty. A little later he was profoundly moved by Beatrice Webb’s Autobiography.
In the Ashmolean, he displayed, as usual, the formidable competence in all aspects of ancient history that British scholars expected in a pupil of De Sanctis. He throve in the company of fellow-students of Hugh Last–Peter Fraser and Isabel Henderson. In a flat already piled with books, he gave the occasional tutorial in ancient history. He viewed Last, throughout, with sincere gratitude, even if he knew that his loyalty alienated others less well-affected towards the Camden Professor. Yet he could not help noting, in this studiously self-composed, tall figure, tensions that he had come to relish in an Englishman:
the typical non-conformist, Tory in politics, liberal in philosophy; all in all, an oddity.
In the Bodleian, in the Reading Room of the British Museum and in the library of the Warburg Institute, Momigliano found the vantage-point from which to scan the mountain range of European learning since the Renaissance.
Long, war-time readings suddenly blossomed: between 1946 and 1954, he contributed seminal articles on Friedrich Creuzer and the new study of Greek history in the early nineteenth century; on the role of the conflict between philosophers and antiquarians in determining the status and character of historical studies in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; on Edward Gibbon; and on George Grote and the liberal historiography of early Victorian London.
He lingered, now, over whole new folds in the landscape of historiography. He discovered, with transparent delight, the contribution of Scotland to the history of Greece, the dreamy country parsonages of Cambridgeshire, where liberal Anglicans meditated on a providential history of the ancient and medieval worlds, and he warmed to the bustling, Utilitarian circles around George Grote. After the tense, deliberately abstracted portraits of figures of ancient history, that had marked his younger work, we now meet men endearingly like ourselves, recognizable ancestors of our own intense, and mildly absurd, profession: Gottfried Hermann, ‘who was fond of horses and Kantian philosophy’; Hardouin, who ‘carried the contemporary . . . suspicion of literary evidence well beyond the verge of madness’; and Auguste Comte, who consented to peruse Grote’s History of Greece, ‘though in obedience to mental hygiene he was no longer reading books’.
Momigliano had become less interested in a universal history of the ancient world, in which a few leading concepts, such as liberty, unfolded according to processes intuited by Hegel or Croce. What was more exciting was the vision of a learned Europe as it grappled, over the centuries, with the irreducible peculiarity of the ancients, and with fundamental problems of the nature of historical truth and the relative value of various forms of historical evidence.
It is one of the grotesque faults of our specialised culture that .one is disgraced if one ignores the latest German dissertation, but can easily get away without knowledge of St. Augustine or Machiavelli.
As early as November 1944, Momigliano resumed his relations with Italy, in a studiously gracious note to Croce:
If, in a foreign land, I felt myself less disoriented than the majority of my fellow-exiles—learned men of specifically German culture—I know that I owed this to you rather than to anyone else … There is an absence, here, of great thinkers and of great historians.
Only in July 1946 did Momigliano himself return, to rejoin his sisters in Milan, travelling, from thence, to Turin, Rome and Naples. It was a decisive visit. The confirmation of the chilling details of the arrest and deaths of his father and mother left him numb. Alighting from the train at Milan, he was relieved by a pickpocket of his passport and all his money. The travellers’ cheques later turned up in Dublin—cashed by a Catholic charitable foundation. The new passport photograph showed a haggard man. He arrived at Rome obsessed by the danger of infection, dabbing the slightest scratch on his skin with liberal washes of TCP. When he went to greet De Sanctis, he saw, as he entered the room, that his old master had become too blind to recognize him.
He received, however, an invitation from Croce to head the new Historical Institute that had been founded, in his own palace, at Naples. To Croce, Momigliano represented a link with the outside world, a scholar uncompromised by the ferocious political divisions of post-war Italy, and the one figure who could join Naples to the ancient learning of Oxford. Momigliano was touched by the courtesy shown to him at that time; but, later, he could not resist reporting with some amusement on his welcome to Naples, as he was led past excited throngs of the senator’s `impossible fellow-countrymen’. Only in Rome did Momigliano feel that he would be able to re-enter Italian university life as the head of a true school of ancient history. But the remaining students of De Sanctis already held chairs at Rome.
His chair at the University of Turin was returned to him as a supernumerary chair—that is, he was free to take it with him to any university in Italy and he was placed in the flattering position of having his appointment depend, not on the Minister of Education, but on the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He held his chair at Turin, without occupying it, until 1964, when he moved to the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa, where he conducted annual seminars up to the end of his life.
He had, as yet, no career in England. But he had grown to know his Oxford. Italian scholars about to take up posts in England received meticulous advice: the Langenscheidt German–English Dictionary was the best for phonetics; the damp climate necessitated long woollen underwear; a dinner-jacket was obligatory, but, fortunately, not a morning-coat: ‘Altogether, the worse dressed one is in Oxford, the more greatly one is esteemed.’
In 1947, Momigliano was made Lecturer and, subsequently, Reader in Ancient History at Bristol. He commuted for part of each week from Oxford. Henry Gifford, his colleague in English, remembers him sitting at meetings of the Arts Board, against the wall, rapidly running through booksellers’ catalogues, and only now and then lifting his head to make a good-natured but caustic comment on the proceedings.
A student without a topic to write upon would be swept through a lightning visit to the library card catalogue, from which Momigliano knew how to extract, at extraordinary speed, a complete bibliography on any subject. A collection of Spanish documents that came to Gifford and himself delighted him, not least a document by Philip II, signed, with majestic egotism, To el Rey. From then on he would write to his colleague in flowery Castilian—the by-product of hard reading, at that time, on the fortune of Tacitus in the Spanish Empire. He even wrote to the Bristol City Council on ‘Who was Father Neptune?’—an agreeably civic polemic, upon a public monument.
In 1951, Momigliano succeeded A. H. M. Jones as professor of ancient history at University College London, a post which he held until 1975. The family moved, first to a top-floor apartment on Nevern Square, at Earls Court, and, after 1964, to Latymer Court, on the Hammersmith Road. Those who pushed past the narrow hallway, hemmed in with book-shelves, and negotiated piles of new publications, balanced on every table, found themselves in a quiet room, made intimate by encircling walls of books. Behind the desk, the shelves were lined with small reproductions of portraits by Rembrandt, along with Ribera’s Philosopher, from the Palazzo Rosso of Genoa. It was at University College London, in the propitious atmosphere of this institution born in liberty for liberty, that Momigliano, now aged forty-three and still proud to possess (as he wrote of the historian, Timaeus of Tauromenium, a gifted misfit in Hellenistic Athens), ‘the sharp eye of the only half-assimilated foreigner’, finally came to rest in England. From a truly cosmopolitan city, he would contribute to Europe’s return to sanity after the paroxysm of Nazi and Fascist rule. He would act both as the diviner of new ways to the ancient world and as an upholder of ‘The discipline of doubt’.
Momigliano remained an Italian citizen. After 1946, regular visits to Italy were an essential aspect of his scholarly life. His journeys brought him to Turin, even, for a moment, in 1949, to the Jewish cemetery at Cuneo, now rendered doubly tragic by the absence of the bodies of his own parents, and by tombs with German and Polish names, the graves of refugees rounded up and shot in the last days of the Fascist Republic. He returned to Caraglio only once, in 1975, and, even then, he went incognito.
At the Institute for Ancient History at Pavia, with Plinio Fraccaro and, later, with Emilio Gabba, he remained in contact with the serious study of the ancient world, and especially of Roman Italy. There he would meet many foreign visitors, most notably, Elias Bickerman, the historian of the Maccabees. Good coffee, and not Ersatz, was always available for him no small token of esteem in those post-war years. With Walter Maturi and Franco Venturi, he joined the editorial committee of the Rivista Storica Italiana. In the coming decades, this work involved him in a magnificently unparochial venture in historical scholarship, that embraced all periods and all regions of Europe.
In Venturi—for whom he had once acted as a private tutor when a young student in Turin—Momigliano found again a close friend and ‘a bottomless well of information’ on the culture of modern Europe, East and West alike. Sensitive to the interests of his friends (not altogether innocent, indeed, of a certain competitiveness with his peers) Momigliano set about learning Russian. The Vestnik Drevnei Istorii became regular reading for him. For over a decade, he showed serious awareness of the work of Soviet historians. Later, in the slow reading of the classics of Russian literature, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoievsky, Momigliano was able to create for himself one of those pools of deep quiet, associated with the orderly absorption of a difficult text, that were, one suspects, a sine qua non of his exuberant, even, apparently febrile, public life as a scholar.
His address to the Tenth International Congress of Historical Studies at Rome, in November 1955, gave the full measure of a new zest at the prospect of a history of the ancient world written in a modern manner. He lingered with evident excitement on those works which crossed the borderline between prehistory and history, breaking down the historiographical barriers which usually separated the study of ancient civilizations from the shadowy barbarian world on whose fringe they lay.
A breathtaking sense of size—from the second millennium BC to the sixth century AD, and from Celtic Britain to the Caspian—and a readiness to accept methodologies evolved by historians of the middle ages and the modern world, were the first impression that such programmatic statements made on their readers. It was an impression continually confirmed, for English audiences, by the vigour with which Momigliano entered into the achievement of the great antiquarians and erudits of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—men who had turned to archaeology and ethnographic studies in order to guarantee the truth, and to recapture the texture, of the ancient past. In these years, also, he spelled out the singular intellectual daring of Herodotus: the `bold attempt to open up the gates of the past and of foreign countries to historical research’. The opening of gates was very much what Momigliano liked to do, in the post-war Europe of the 1950s.
Yet, his mood remained one of caution. Speaking of Creuzer, as early as 1946, he had made plain one side of his agenda:
Ancient history has now become a parochial branch of history. It can regain its lost prestige only if it proves again capable of offering results affecting the whole of our historical outlook.
Faced, in the 1950s, with the rapid, and largely unexpected, rise in the prestige of new approaches to the study of the past—mainly associated with the Annales school in France and with vigorous Marxist scholars in England—Momigliano was less certain that annexation by the moderns was the best remedy for the state of ancient history. A student who suggested to him that the best way to study the age of Justinian might be to write a history of the sixth-century Mediterranean, using the three-level model of Ferdinand Braudel, was reminded that the Threefold History of Cassiodorus still lacked a decent modern edition it was better to begin there! There was more than prudence in this attitude.
Momigliano’s deepest wish remained that ancient historians, qua ancient historians (and not simply as the borrowers of methodologies from other periods), should make original contributions to the writing of history, that would influence their medievalist and modern colleagues, as had once been the case in the age of Creuzer and Niebuhr.
But what, in fact, could they contribute? The dizzying expansion of knowledge and of historical methods, in post-war scholarship, posed with even greater, urgency than before the need to `distinguish between the certain and the probable, the possible and the unlikely . . . to find some harmony between novelty and truth, between daring and good sense’. The distinctive feature of classical Greek historiography, compared with any other historiographical tradition (and, by 1960, Momigliano had added to his knowledge of ancient civilizations, some reading, also, in the classical historians of China and Islam) had been its insistence that the historian was under an obligation to distinguish, for his reader, between the true and the uncertain, between myth and history. The effect of classical historiography on post-Renaissance Europe had been to stir up the issue of historical truth, in ever more extreme and sophisticated ways.
A critical habit of mind, and a passionate sense of the supreme value and vulnerability of truth, was not only a personal trait that Momigliano possessed in rare measure: the art of historical truth was what he, as an ancient historian, felt that he could offer to the methodologies elaborated by his colleagues in all other periods.
The life that he created for himself at University College London—frequently imposing his personality on a patient if unwieldy university with utter self-confidence and occasional acerbity—seemed to fit the characteristic style and ambitions of Momigliano’s scholarship. It did more: it echoed his most poignant hopes for a civilized, that is, for a tolerant and rational, community. The fifth volume of his collected essays was dedicated to London University, ‘with Gratitude and Pride’, along with a citation from Spinoza:
For in that truly flourishing commonweal, persons of every nation and religion live together with the utmost concord.
The ‘fit’ with his ideals happened on many levels. In the chair of ancient history, Momigliano was free to follow his inclination to view the ancient world in a single sweep, from the ancient Near East to Byzantium. He had managed, he wrote to Dionisotti, in 1951, to reduce his teaching of continuous Roman history by one year: invoking the authority of Varro on the date of the foundation of Rome, he could begin in 753 B C, and not in 754! But he was as active in the early Byzantine period as ever Baynes and Jones had been. Memorable essays on Cassiodorus and the Latin historiography of the Later Roman Empire gave hope and inspiration to those who embarked, at this time, on the study of the Later Empire. To a suggestion that the library might cancel its subscription to the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, on the grounds that it was unlikely to be frequently consulted, he replied that he himself consulted it regularly and that, in any case, if this should ever be so, the problem would not be what to do with the Byzantinische Zeitschrift, but what to do with a professor of ancient history who remained ignorant of such a periodical.
His chair included responsibility, also, for the history of the ancient Near East: ‘certainly a wise provision’, he told the audience of his inaugural lecture, ‘even if it is not necessarily compatible with the mortal nature of a mere historian’. Momigliano’s constant, close links with the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, enabled the ‘mere historian’ to keep well abreast, throughout this period, of the history of the ancient Near East, most particularly in Old Testament studies and in the history of the Persian Empire. His later resumption of work on the theme of Judaism in the ancient world looks back to over a decade of quiet osmosis with his London colleagues. A lecture on the notion of time in ancient Hebrew and Greek historiography, delivered in May 1963, contains an ominous opening footnote:
I quote in the following notes only a fraction of what I have read on this fashionable subject.
Characteristically, Momigliano’s genius for friendship proved his main source of intellectual nourishment. Any scholar, in the vivid and diverse intellectual community of London and its University, was fair game for his insatiable curiosity. Chimen Abramsky, for instance, a newly-elected lecturer in the history of the Jews in modern Central and Eastern Europe, received a knock on the door of his room. A conversation of two and a half hours ensued, entirely on matters of scholarship. Not a moment was wasted on academic gossip. From then onwards, Momigliano was a regular visitor, on his way out, in the late afternoon. Up to the last weeks of his life, Momigliano drew on his friend and colleague’s deep knowledge of Judaism in modern Europe, to inform and to check his own, frequently uncanny intuitions against little-known documents. It was in the very last months of his illness, for instance, that he made sure, with the help of Abramsky, of the contents of a Hebrew family biography of the ancestors of Moses Finley, written in Russia in the nineteenth century.
By long talks in their rooms, by strolls in the little enclosed garden in the middle of Gordon Square, or sitting on the garden bench, above all, huddled in a corner, oblivious to the clatter and movement of the University College London lunch-room, Momigliano annexed, through friendship, vast territories of the ancient and modern world. The opening moves of such conversations could be disquieting. Momigliano’s preferred way of asking colleagues about their own work was, ‘Tell me, what are you worrying about’. The conversations, though memorably vivid, even hilarious, were shot through with a certain melancholy: there would be a sudden silence, as if Momigliano experienced, at moments, a sense of bleakness in the face of so much knowledge, in a world where so little was still known.
Above all—certainly for the younger persons who now gravitated towards him—he left the strong impression that so much erudition, controlled with such exacting precision, and yet gathered with dispassionate curiosity and genuine good nature, from so many sources, somehow served as a lightning conductor. The impression was confirmed by the famous little carbon copy notepads, that would emerge from his pockets on all occasions. These would make their way into virtuoso feats of bibliography, in footnotes whose resolute up-to-dateness managed to add a sense of freshness and daunting scholarly horizons to each of the problems on which Momigliano ‘worried’ at that time; or they would reach a student, in the form of a new title on the back of a postcard (daunting reminders of a wider world of scholarship, such as the fact that the best recent article on the composition of the Byzantine senate was, ‘of course’, that now just published in modern Greek!). The conversations and the patient bibliographical erudition seemed to lead the charge of an intuitive mind—a mind almost frighteningly untrammelled in its ability to sense the links between diverse phenomena in any age and to seize the unseen implications of any argument—safely into the ground of conventional scholarship.
Yet it was a little to one side of University College, at the Warburg Institute, that Momigliano seemed to be most in his natural habitat. His ties with the Institute were deep and complicated. It was a link to much of what he valued most in Europe, such as no university department could provide. Immediately after the war, he put together a volume of the Institute’s Journal devoted to Italian scholarship. His admiration for Gertrud Bing, Warburg’s assistant, and, after his death, Assistant Director and, from 1955 to 1959, Director of the Institute, was transparent:
a scholar, scrupulously well-informed, attentive to detail, yet nonetheless devoted to making plain the nature of European culture, by rendering intelligible the irrational elements and by eliminating the prejudices. She needed only to shake her proud head with a gesture of `Why not?’ for a dry leaf of bigotry or vanity to fall, somewhere, to the ground.
Furthermore, the friendship and devoted help that he received, since his first meeting with her, in 1944, from the Secretary and Registrar of the Institute, Anne Marie Meyer, can hardly be measured: it showed Momigliano as a scholar whose fierce self-reliance embraced the utter confidence that he could depend on others.
Momigliano’s most lapidary statements of these years were
delivered for the annual series of lectures given at the Warburg Institute. As suited a place notorious for elevated pursuits, his style on such occasions was studiously ingenu. Refusing to join in elaborate academic speculation on the date and Tendenz of the Historia Augusta, he offered, with evident glee, the method of Simple Simon—who, when he had no penny, told the pieman he had not any.
The series for which he himself was responsible, on The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century A.D., took place in 1958/59. The lectures still stand out as a landmark in the study of late antiquity, by reason of the felicitous union of Europe-wide scholarship (Henri-Irenee Marrou, for instance, gave a magnetic evocation of the tension of Christianity and Neo-Platonism in the mind of Synesius of Cyrene, gesturing like a great bird in the upward light of the podium, as he spoke of the intellectual ascent of the soul to God) and inspired common sense.
Altogether, the Warburg Institute was the place where Momigliano’s specific, English ‘style’ of academic leadership was played out at its most provocative arid polished. From 1965 to 1982-3, it was in the Warburg that he collaborated with Mrs Sally Humphreys, in conducting the Ancient History Seminar, which took place every session, frequently for all three terms. On that neutral ground, scholars from all over the south of England, and foreign visitors to London, took the full measure of the dilemmas of their predecessors and of the methodological riches of their own times, through the discussion of papers that covered virtually any scholarly endeavour that might affect the study of the ancient world.
His life at University College seemed, at first sight, to be as royally unstructured as was his physical appearance. Students would be confronted by a short, yet surprisingly robust, figure, a shock of dark hair still rising above a wide forehead, his nose and lower face, with wide mouth and irregular teeth, made to seem more sharp by large glasses, from behind which his eyes looked out with penetrating directness. His clothes were always dishevelled. They spoke of a physical person fiercely protected against the outside world: a plethora of woollen cardigans, a heavy, shapeless short coat of Italian make, and a long woollen scarf.
He carried his own life on his own person. From his outer pockets he would draw the familiar carbon copy notepads and manuscripts in every stage of preparation; inside, in recesses closed off by large safety-pins, he bore the currency of all nations, carefully-folded letters, and, next to the skin, his Italian passport. Two great key-rings, which he ostentatiously hauled from deep within his trouser pockets—comparing them, with a small boy’s glee, against the more meagre equipment of his colleagues—were his access to the many compartments into which he had, by now, divided his life as a scholar. They gave him private entry, at all hours, to many of the best libraries in the world. In his last years, travelling long distances by air in America, he would settle back in the sunlight of a window seat, take out the key-rings, and stare intently at each key in turn, as if they were for him a house of memory.
The flow of his conversation, in the afternoon and early evenings, seemed endless, as did the enviable ease with which he seemed to write. He could be seen at the library of the Warburg Institute or at the Institute of Classical Studies, faced by a row of books or a pile of notepads, composing, it appeared, straight on to long yellow pads, with carbon paper between their sheets. Those who worked for him as his research assistants were astonished by the unfailing precision of such impromptu writing: though he insisted that they check every footnote, few needed correction.
For the impression of easy, perpetual motion disguised an unbending order in his life. Food meant little to him—or, rather, lack of austerity in diet, above all, drunkenness, struck him as a veritable affliction. Public affability was balanced by long periods of intensely private reading. The classical texts that ringed his room in Hammersmith bore no marks on their margins and had no markers inserted in their pages: Momigliano had evidently absorbed them, methodically, from cover to cover, and stored their contents in his head.
Apart from the long night-hours at Hammersmith, summer holidays in Italy were the time of the grands manoeuvres that resulted in the systematic reading of original texts. The first books of Livy were re-read and entirely re-thought on one such occasion. Momigliano returned to London happy: ‘Tired’, he said, ‘It is a hard job to found Rome.’ In the same, ordered manner, he would read, every day, the Hebrew Psalms, that lay by his bed, and, if possible, a passage of classical Greek. Punctilious rhythms brought order and integrity to a life lived, by then, in many places and with a seemingly headlong momentum.
To the undergraduates, he dispensed lectures that treated them instantly, to their surprise, as fellow-scholars—or, as Momigliano would have put it, as intelligent beings. These were delivered in a formal manner, from a carefully-prepared text, that was invariably kept up to date. A touching shyness would come over him when faced by the young. It was as if he feared that his formidable mind, so aggressively sure of itself and unsparing of those of his colleagues whom he suspected of triviality or, simply (and less excusably), of slighting his own endeavours, would crush these small creatures. Students would emerge from his room somewhat dazed, holding an orange he had given them (from a large crate sent by a friend in Israel) or clutching a shilling with which to buy an ice-cream. His more mature charges, as graduate students or as junior colleagues, knew instinctively something of the effort that went into his extraordinary gift for allowing young scholars to be. He expected an autonomy as massive as his own in those he valued; and, for that reason, perhaps, he often felt more at his ease with those whose work contrasted with, even challenged, his own, than with those who wished to follow too closely in his footsteps.
Momigliano became a Fellow of the British Academy in 1954; from 1956 to 1968 he was President of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies. Now a leading figure at the biennial meetings of the ancient historians of England, at Wellingborough, he shared in the tradition of relaxation by taking his colleagues to the local Zoo. (A. H. M. Jones, by contrast, he reported with respect for a kindred esprit fort, would station himself with his back pointedly turned against the other attraction, the traditional game of cricket.) At the Zoo, a peculiarly morose chimpanzee, he instantly remarked, reminded him of librarians that he had known.
In 1964, he took his supernumerary professorship to the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa, thereby initiating a series of two-week long seminars in the early spring of each year until his death. His arrivals at Pisa rapidly assumed the aspect of the lit de justice of an itinerant medieval monarch. He would introduce the theme of the seminars in a formal lecture to a packed hall: on one occasion he told his audience, with ill-disguised impatience, that this was a scholarly gathering and not an appearance of Sophia Loren. The ensuing papers had been allotted to individual speakers, along lines dictated by the theme chosen in the previous year. If in a more public manner, the proceedings were similar to those at seminars in the Warburg Institute. Momigliano would take his seat in the front row of the audience, humped in his chair, frequently appearing to be fast asleep. The moment the speaker had finished, he took full control of the seminar. His replies could be acerbic. Few scholars wielded the adverb ‘fundamentally’ with such devastating certainty: the proud were humbled; the humble, predictably, were heartened. Yet, what might easily have degenerated into adulatory occasions were rendered serious and fruitful by Momigliano’s dispassionate concern for the work of younger scholars. Papers given in to him at an apparently endless dinner would be returned the next morning, miraculously absorbed, their margins heavily annotated with suggestions and criticisms.
What was most exciting, at Pisa, was the sense of an expatriate giant still wrestling sincerely, and without clear outcome, with the intractable idiosyncracy of the Italian tradition of classical studies. His programmatic statements were frequently more provocative—even, at times, Utopian—than any he delivered in England. In 1968, for instance, Italian classical scholars assembled at Perugia were told that they must ‘de-colonialise’ the study of Greek history. They could save themselves from the rhetorical incubus of a German Neo-Humanism only by turning to the culture of their age, as the great erudits had done in earlier centuries. They must adjust their curricula to include anthropology and sociology, and send their best students to London and to Paris, in order to sit at the feet of teachers who knew how to make use of the modern human sciences.
1968, of course, was a heady year. Later, Momigliano’s concern changed almost to the reverse. He continued to ‘worry about’ the roots of Italian classical scholarship. Studies of lonely geniuses, Vico and Comparetti, of the Italian background to the work of Gibbon, and a series of case-studies of the awkward relationship of one Italian region, Sicily, to its Greek past, were the way in which Momigliano worked his way, once again, back to his own times. In the last decade of his life, indeed, he emerged with greater respect for a specifically Italian tradition, that had maintained, at the undeniable cost of a loss of technical competence, a certain splendid isolation from the dominant forms of German scholarship. Hard-working young scholars were urged to reinvigorate this tradition, as a necessary counterweight to the huge contemporary prestige of the French.
His travels to America began with a visit to Chicago in 1959; he delivered the Sather Lectures at the University of California at Berkeley in 1961/2; he taught at Harvard for a term in 1965, and delivered the Jackson Lectures there in 1968. He travelled to Israel for the first time immediately after the Six-Days War, in 1967, and received an honorary degree from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. To a gushing young man who opined that he must feel like the Messiah, finally entering Jerusalem surrounded by welcoming crowds, he simply stopped, looked around his colleagues and remarked: ‘But, then, who will be the ass?’
Honours, in fact, frankly delighted him. He was not, like Croce, ‘a prudent administrator of his own reputation’. He was touchingly glad to be known. Invitations to give lectures or to appear at conferences were rarely refused: ‘I go to preach . . was his way of referring to yet another gratifying stop in a crowded itinerary. He was a man, we must remember, once wounded by exile. As the time of his retirement from the professorship in London approached, in 1975, irrational panics at the prospect of impoverishment and an anger as terrible as the cracking of a glacier, at the thought that his life’s work in England might be trivialized or forgotten, temporarily tried the patience of his friends.
The decade that had preceded his retirement witnessed a burst of creativity. In the diffuse nebula of his writings, incandescent clusters formed, heavy with almost half a century of learning. The ‘discipline of doubt’ was maintained on a wide variety of themes in ancient history. But it came to bear, with greatest vigour, on the very borderline of history, in the study of archaic Rome. In studying Rome, he felt free to reconstruct the past. He wished to draw a profile of the first society of the West to appear in historical documents. He appreciated the robustness of the plebs, as they set about creating a civic existence for themselves. He liked the way in which the Romans manipulated their legendary past to include, rather than to exclude, foreigners—a trait he came to value greatly, also, in the Americans. He could display knowledge of the most sophisticated social anthropology, if only to decide how much or how little of it could be used to understand the stratification of an archaic society. By agreeing to write the chapters on the ‘Origins of Rome’ for the new edition of the Cambridge Ancient History, Momigliano became the only contributor to have written both for the edition of the 193os and for that of the 198os.
The lure of ‘a modern, unclassical way’ to the ancient world remained close to him. Invariably interested in the young, at times, competitive with them, in a graciously roundabout manner, he had gathered around him many scholars who either had been trained as modern historians, or who wanted to escape the constrictions of their classical formation. In 1972, he helped to create a post at University College for the teaching of graduates and undergraduates in Ancient History and Anthropology. (Lest we forget the changing of the times in which Momigliano lived: Hugh Last had once intervened to crush the proposal that Oxford University create an honour school of anthropology, with the remark that ‘an acquaintance with the habits of savages is not an education’.)
Yet, for Momigliano, once again, the ancient world resisted annexation. It could never be treated, simply, as one traditional society among many others. The peculiar ‘shape’ of the ancient history came to preoccupy him. Previous concerns lost momentum. A synthesis of his work on The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography was delivered as the Sather Lectures at Berkeley, but was never .handed in for publication in his lifetime. Something did not fit. One loose end, at least,—the anomalous position of biography in ancient historical writing received more prompt attention. The study of Greek biography was accompanied by a long essay on freedom of speech in the ancient world (for which a research assistant had compiled some two thousand examples of decision-making in ancient assemblies—such was his sense of the need for concreteness in those years!). Both themes brought him back, for a moment, to the preoccupation of his earliest days in England—to the problem of freedom, and, especially, to the place of the individual against, or above, the state:
By keeping biography separate from history, the Greeks and Romans were able to appreciate what constituted a poet, a philosopher, a martyr, a saint.
But what held his attention, in the early 1970s, was the intractable fact, highlighted by his increased knowledge of all other societies, that what a modern scholar could know of the ancient world was, itself, a product of the political and religious conflicts that had followed the conquests of Alexander and the subsequent expansion of Rome into the Greek world. No matter how much we might now understand civilizations adjacent to the Mediterranean—the Persia of Zoroaster, Buddha’s India and the warrior-societies of the Celtic West—Europeans still had room in their hearts only for ‘an old triangular culture’—that is, for what, in effect, Jews and their successors, the Christians, decided to adapt and to transmit of the culture of their two overpowering neighbours, the proudly monolingual Greeks and the absorptive Romans. Momigliano resumed the preoccupations of his youth: as in the 193os, he went out of his way to point out that the Greeks should not be considered Europe’s ‘nearest neighbours’.
Conquest and conversion made Greek culture our culture. Anything Greek we meet in our past is inextricably combined with Rome and with Christianity.
Conquest, chillingly described, provided the background to a series of vivid portraits of Polybius, a historian who knew how to `save his skin and his intelligence’ by cultivating an intuitive understanding of those Roman aristocrats who, Hellenized in culture, spent much of their time in sacking and destroying centres of civilisation.
Conquest and conversion formed the theme of the Trevelyan Lectures, first delivered in Cambridge in 1973, and soon published as Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization. This luminous little book gives the measure of Momigliano’s slow maturation as a scholar and as a man, since he first dealt with the Hellenization of the East, forty years previously. Deep knowledge of the conquered runs through the book: the voiceless populations of the Celtic West now join Judaea and Iran. The protagonists are no longer the ‘leading ideas’ of the age, summed up in the tragic figures of great men, but ordinary persons—cowed, mendacious, or simply obtuse. We meet, for instance, the ‘first Greek Jew . . . a frightened little being . . . sold into slavery in a remote land’. This was no story of an exciting epoch of cultural interchange, pregnant with a mighty future in the birth of Christianity: rather, the book is an unflinching study of limitations. Heavy silences fall between groups thrown together by the chances of war. Supremely intelligent, but resolutely ignorant of any language but their own, the Greeks learned from their subjects only what they wished to hear, with results that were dangerous and demoralizing for both parties:
I am not sure that one can calculate the consequences of being fed on forgeries.
It was those who had emerged with their identities roughly intact who won Momigliano’s sombre respect: Jews and Romans gained in their sense of particularity by measuring themselves against the Greeks. The rest made do on ‘an Ersatz . . . of low quality’. Alien Wisdom was a deeply personal book. It was dedicated to his murdered mother, ‘always present in watchful love’. The accompanying citation, from Psalm 79, spoke of the unburied dead around Jerusalem. Momigliano had gained the strength, in these years, to look more clearly at the black shadow which had ringed his own world, defining the shape of the scholarly tradition he had himself inherited.
In 1958, he made the first draft for his own epitaph. He would be buried with his forefathers in the Jewish cemetery at Cuneo, `where I have passed hours in meditation’. The names of his parents must appear on the tombstone, and the nature of their deaths, ‘killed in German land by insane hatred of their race’. Of himself, he wrote: ‘His faith was that of a free-thinker, without dogma and without hatred. But he loved with a son’s devotion the Jewish tradition of the Fathers.’ From that time onwards, loyalty to his Jewish identity (which he had always taken for granted among his Jewish friends) gained ever sharper, ever more public profile.
Ignorance of the extent to which leading classical scholars had allowed themselves to collude with Nazism provoked deep anger: only the indolent, for whom historiography was an amiable `weekend relaxation’, could forget, in reading such tainted works, the ghosts of the murdered, who still walked the streets of Italy and Germany. His memory of the society and culture of modern Europe became relentlessly precise. Jewish scholars who had assimilated with too great success were characterized bleakly (often, their friends thought, unfairly) in terms of the unacknowledged resources of ancient dignity that they seemed to carry with them unawares. Had such scholars accepted more readily the fact that ‘their vicissitudes belonged in the context of millenarian Jewish history’, so these sharply-etched portraits implied, they might have taken more conscious joy in the `companionship, simple wisdom and uncompromising truth’ that had characterized their own lives, as it had once identified their forgotten ancestors as students of the Torah.
Altogether, the ‘shape’ of modern historiography of the ancient world revealed a sinister contour. The silence that fell between the converted or assimilated Jews of Central Europe and their past had effectively blocked the way of classical scholars to the ancient Near East and to an understanding of the place of Judaism in the Greco-Roman world. In his seminars in the Warburg Institute and, more especially, at Pisa, Momigliano emphasized this phenomenon—it was a study in absence, as chilling as the glimpse of the dark precipice submerged beneath a shimmering iceberg, and as exciting, for a man of his divinatory powers and unfailing memory, as the discovery of nothing less than the cultural unconscious of modern Europe.
What was at stake, above all, was Momigliano’s new joy in particularity. History, for him, was not a process in which groups merged, surrendering their identity with ease, so as to create a `superior’ state of the human spirit, as the idealist philosophers of nineteenth-century Germany and of the Italy of his own youth had suggested. This was a dangerous misconception—a secularized legacy of Christianity, for whom the problems of the Jews admitted no other solution but conversion. This refusal to see permanent value in the particularity of the Jews had left Christian countries morally impotent, when the Nazis proposed annihilation as the alternative to absorption.
Particularity, successfully maintained, was the lesson of the ancient world. Elias Bickerman, Momigliano’s guide since his youth, in the study of the Hellenization of Judaism in Maccabaean times, was imperceptibly overshadowed by the figure of Gershom Scholem, the settler in Israel, who brought back to European scholarship knowledge of the most resolutely particular, and least acceptable, strands in the Jewish mystical tradition. What was best in the confused history of the Hellenistic age were those groups—the Jews and the Romans–who showed an intelligent appreciation of the ideas of others without surrendering their own identity. Momigliano settled back, with deep satisfaction, to study Jewish appropriations of the historical ideas of their neighbours in the vast whispering gallery of the Achaemenid Empire and under the successors of Alexander. He was genuinely excited to have intuited the Greek and the Near Eastern backgrounds to the potent image of universal history contained in the dream of the statue in the Book of Daniel:
We are no longer likely to be surprised that Jews talked to Greeks in the third century B.C. . . What is remarkable is the energy and independence with which the Jews turned Greek ideas upside down.
On his retirement from his London chair, in 1975, Momigliano left for the University of Chicago, as Alexander White Visiting Professor, attached to the Committee on Social Thought. It was neither an abrupt nor a permanent transfer. Momigliano gave his lectures and seminars in the autumn and spring terms, that is, from April to early June and from October to December of each year. From 1975 to 1982, he was also Associate Fellow at All Souls College, Oxford—and delivered the Grinfield Lectures on the History of the Septuagint for three consecutive years. From 1983 onwards, he was Visiting Fellow and, later, Honorary Fellow, at Peterhouse, Cambridge. In 1974, he had been made an Honorary Knight of the British Empire—the highest honour that can be conferred on a non-British national.
He liked all this. The solemnities of High Table (which he had once found daunting) now charmed him: it was good to be wished ‘Happy Birthday’ by the Assistant Butler, who had read of the anniversary in the social column of The Times, and to be embraced by the Bishop of Ely, Visitor of Peterhouse, and a former student of his Oxford tutorials. Intelligent young persons, many of them scientists, and so doubly interesting to him, were available for conversation: ‘I learned much from him’, he would say, ‘and, I think, . . . vice versa’.
Returns to London coincided with his renewed interest in the history of the Jews. He swept his friends and helpers, Abramsky, Joanna Weinberg and Ada Rapoport-Albert, into chases for rare evidence. He was never quite confident that his ability to read Hebrew met the same high standards that he had set for himself in absorbing Greek and Latin texts: he only claimed to know `what I have remembered from my father’s house’. The excitement of collaborative discovery never slackened. Further details of the Central European Jewish background of Hugh Last, for instance, were unveiled in these years (a topic which caused him evident excitement). A passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, that mentioned Latin as a ‘barbarian’ language, was unearthed and discussed between tea at the Warburg Institute, a taxi ride to King’s Cross, and coffee in the station buffet before the departure of the train to Cambridge.
He already knew America well. He appreciated the openness of the students, and had long valued the greater opportunities that existed, in American universities, to discuss his work with non-classicists with modern historians, Biblical theologians and philosophers. To a well-established collaboration with History and Theory, he added membership of the board of The American Scholar, and more frequent opportunities to write for the New York Review of Books. Not least, the friendship of Edward Shils, whom he had first known in London and then at Peterhouse, gave Momigliano a much needed continuity, at what could have been a time of disruption, that sprang from the self-effacing and constant admiration of one scholar for an older friend.
It might appear sentimental to suggest that, in his last decade at the University of Chicago, Momigliano came home. Yet there was a profound congruence between his needs and that particular environment. It was as if Chicago was London University at a yet greater degree of density: Chicago was as vivid, as diverse, as serious, as was London, and yet it was psychologically as well as physically more close to him. He loved the University, and, predictably—even touchingly—he loved to be loved by the University.
He became a regular feature in the great Gothic hall of the University cafeteria. He could be seen sitting, surrounded by a group that had followed him out from a lecture, with a cup of tea in his hand and a yoghurt dribbling down his front, or, in a quieter mood, faced by a large bun which would slowly disappear in small pieces, in the course of a long conversation. Undergraduates, refreshingly unawed, would enter with ease into deep conversation with this remarkable old gentleman. To the staff of the Quadrangle Club, where he lodged, he would show unfailing courtesy and curiosity for their feelings and prospects. Europeans abounded, and especially fellow-Italians, with whom he would recapture, in pointilliste detail, the links of family and interest that had held their world together in modern times: the remarkable memoir on the Jews of modern Italy came from this environment. To be a Jew, and to be proud of that particularity among so many others, was, of course, natural: for the first time since his boyhood, Momigliano attended the Passover Seder in the homes of friends.
His gift for accessibility, of course, had an exacting obverse: a talent for depending on others for the most minute physical details of his life and movements grouped a whole confederation of families around him. There was no doubt, in the University community, as to when Momigliano arrived and when he departed from Chicago. The Spring journey to O’Hare Airport, for London or Italy, meant the summoning of the car of one friend, then that of another—just in case of mishap; the disposal of a pile of winter clothing; the sending of packages of books to Hammersmith; and, last of all, the stuffing of innumerable plastic bags with the last-minute necessaries of scholarship.
Years that might have been passed in comfortable and esteemed retirement were marked by an unexpected intensity. As is often the case with an Altersstil, there is a strangeness about Momigliano’s last writings. Those on the religious life of the Roman Empire, especially, remain now like the lines of an explorer’s route along the edges of a vast, unfilled continent. The re-emergence of a heart condition and a period of acute distress, left Momigliano, after 1983, more gaunt, more pensive, more than usually open to new influences and sensitive to the drift of new developments in the thought of his times.
The problem of truth suddenly re-emerged for him, in new form. The work of Hayden White on historical narrative, and the enthusiasm with which White’s ideas seemed to be received in American academic circles, disturbed him. To speak of the great historians of the nineteenth century in terms of the rhetorical strategies by which they formed a representation of the past, according to the hidden constraints of a dominant ideology, and to ignore their long battle to establish the truth about the past, through the use of evidence, struck him as at one and the same time trivial and a profanation. On the occasion of the Lurcy Lecture, at the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, in 1982, Momigliano ‘preached’ yet again, but, this time, he preached in earnest: such an approach to the study of the past `eliminated the search for truth as the main task of the historian’.
I must say that this revival of the respectability of rhetoric . . . appears to me as one of the most comic consequences of the decline of classical education. Having discovered something they had not met before our new ideologists are quite simply enchanted by rhetoric.
But what was truth? The disquiet went deeper than the defence of historical evidence. Of one thing he was certain: men did not learn the basic truths by which they lived their lives from the study of history. A self-confessed unbeliever, he nevertheless admired the pride of the orthodox. Jacob Bernays, for instance, the resolutely orthodox Jew and great classical scholar, had known exactly where he stood: ‘Having received a faith, he did not look to history for one’; and Bernays was a master-historian of Judaism and Christianity in the ancient world for just that reason. The spread of the teaching of history to the young, in the universities of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (a vast topic whose outlines Momigliano promptly sketched out in a few, skilfully tentative strokes) was responsible for a bizarre misconception: university teaching had made the historian’s work ‘a complicated substitute for revelation’. Tor at least two thousand years . . . history was written for adult minds.’
How, then, did ancient men absorb the religious faith of their fathers? The subject suddenly drew his attention. He now worked fast. Formal lectures in Chicago, delivered every spring in a sprawling, bleak lecture hall, were the master-plans for a campaign of thought and reading of the original authorities on
the religious life of the Roman world. He would walk into each, carrying his text, which he had often reworked up to the time of the lecture. He would scribble some of the less intelligible names on the board, step up to the microphone, start for a few sentences, then, with an outraised hand, would gesture to the back to be sure that he would be heard, after which he continued to deliver, from the pad, a perfectly-turned lecture of fifty minutes. This was the usual origin of the syntheses that would appear, within a year, in Classical Philology or The American Scholar. In the seminars on historiography, as at Pisa, he would plunge ever deeper into the tangled roots of the European study of religions: a title drafted, in his hand, `Bachofen and worse’, would appear, on the notice, with the respectable title of `Bachofen as an historian of religion’.
Momigliano had always reserved his judgement on the methods of historians of religion. Now he applied to this theme his accustomed method for mastering any historical problem—he balanced the ancient evidence, absorbed, once again, in its entirety, against the conflicts and reticences of the past century of European scholarship (the views of Bachofen on the entwined theme of women and of death, the notion of the person in the work of Marcel Mauss, and, for Italian readers, a remarkably intricate evocation of the problem of the self, as this had been debated in the small group of modernist historians and anthropologists known to him from his early days). It was as if he were pushing to roll back a heavy barrier that stood between himself and yet another new territory of the ancient world—the religious experience of the Roman Empire.
He wrote contributions to the Encyclopedia of Religion. At Chicago, philosophers and theologians—some, indeed, ordained priests—were part of his world, as, alas, now were doctors, modern bearers of truth about .nature and the human body. It seemed to his austere eye that the very pluralism of America, which had welcomed his vivid particularity as a Jew and an Italian, extended a somewhat uncritical welcome to religious belief. It mattered to him whether a belief was true or false, and how much of the real world it could explain.
In the past decade, the most original work in England and elsewhere had concentrated on the function of religion in the ancient world. It had not addressed cognitive issues. How were religious truths passed on to the young? To what extent, and at what times, were they accepted by serious thinkers such as Cicero? How successful were polytheistic beliefs in answering questions about the workings of an Imperial society? Having, for a long time, treated the Jews in a resolutely even-handed manner, as the neighbours of the pagans, he now turned the tables: he asked of polytheism questions that had usually been deemed more appropriate for Jews and Christians—questions affecting belief, the role of education and the nature of conversion.
There is an inspired simplicity in the articles that he wrote between 1982 and 1986, that is less self-conscious than had been his ingenu stance of earlier years: he was on the edge of a great wonder, and of a great doubt.
I woke up one winter morning to ask myself: ‘What do we know about what people believed in Athens, Rome and Jerusalem in the last century B.C.?’ … But [again] do we really know?
In February i986, Momigliano fainted after a lecture. It was the heart attack that had been feared for many years. He had had a pace-maker installed in 1982, and had fainted on at least two occasions, when in London, in late 1985. On the advice of his doctor, he even purchased a cyclist’s helmet at that time—of Italian make, proudly bearing the tricolore—thereby adding a further unusual item to his carefully amassed apparel. Rory Childers, his doctor, had joined the circle of those he loved to talk to: Childers spoke to him about Merezhkovskii’s Julian the Apostate, and Momigliano would always visit his office with the xerox of some article relevant to the history of medicine. This attack was truly serious. Momigliano now faced an overwhelming tiredness and, in effect, the prospect of death.
It is already difficult enough [he wrote to me] to understand what the various’ religions do of this world without taking into account what they imagine about the other (to my mind) most unlikely world.
His ‘namesake’, Dante, of course, had something to offer the imagination, as did ‘my grandfather and Moses Finley’s ancestor, the Maharal of Prag’: in the heavenly yeshiva, the righteous would study Torah for three hours every evening with the Blessed One, and had the right to answer back in God’s seminar!
In those days, he talked quietly to a succession of friends, deploring, for instance, the inability of modern theologians—he had just read a book by D. Tracy—to grapple with the problems posed by modern knowledge of the animal world. The news that he had been awarded a Fellowship by the MacArthur Foundation was brought to him in hospital by the Director of the Prize Fellows Program. Frequently consulted by the Program, he had invariably advocated that the awards should go, exclusively, not to the great and the aged, but to young scholars. Asked whether he would accept the award, given his firm views on who should be its recipients, he replied at once: ‘I thought that I had made it clear that I was defending my own interests.’
After a short stay in the apartment of Edward Shils, Momigliano was eager to return again to London. This he did on 2 I July 1987. It was a somewhat uncanny period. The medication that stimulated his heart acted, more slowly, to destroy his kidneys. Pushed in a wheelchair through Heathrow Airport, a glass of orange juice in one hand, and gesticulating with the other, he had already discussed and validated one friend’s new project before he had reached the car. In his apartment at Hammersmith, he appeared fully active, once again, among his friends. It could not last. At the Central Middlesex Hospital, he remained conscious, a smile lighting up his face for a moment as he was wheeled back to bed from yet another examination, impatient to open mail that contained the proofs of yet another article, and plainly angry at the failure of his body to support the mind. He died on Tuesday, t September 1987, and was buried the next Monday, on 7 September, in the Jewish cemetery at Cuneo, in the presence of his wife, Gemma, and his daughter, Anna Laura.
The clearest measure of the man, perhaps, is the void that his death has left. We had got used to his unceasing work: it was like one of the great Russian novels of the last century, which a reader could pick up with the delicious certainty that, by the end, no situation that could preoccupy a thinking person would not have been touched upon, in one way or another, with humanity and with liberating intelligence. Now, there were no more pages left to turn. There was nobody left to answer so many questions.
Momigliano was learned. He knew what Bentley meant when he wrote of Scaliger:
Learning, consummate learning, is a thing a good deal more rare than genius.
But learning, for Momigliano, was never the antithesis to genius, still less the mere tool of genius: it was the way in which his formidably intuitive mind found a place of rest, in the reassuring concreteness of a known, and always vivid, real world.
The lapidary firmness of his vision of human affairs was what, perhaps, meant most to the present writer: it was impossible to forget the first impression made by the tour de force of synthesis, with which, in 1954, he conjured up, from an unpromising argument on the Quellenkritik of a minor historian of the sixth century AD, the world of Cassiodorus and the Christian aristocracy of Italy:
They had the vision of a busy, educated, holy society while Theodoric’s kingdom was going to pieces.
It was a firmness that preferred to characterize. Momigliano did not claim to enter the soul. For a man with so profound a sense of the power of religion in the ancient world, it is surprising how seldom he attempted to conjure up the intimate thoughts and feelings of the religious leaders of any age—indeed, he regarded it as yet another sign of the essential honesty of Ammianus Marcellinus, the lonely historian of the fourth century, that he had not attempted to waste empathy on the formidable Christians of his time. One met, instead, a world of rich textures, their substance heightened through a gentle luminosity, as a ray of light falls across the face and drapery in a Rembrandt portrait.
He never seemed to doubt what his audience should be—it was those who, like the young scholars he inspired, had chosen to live among books and who were engaged, like himself, in the mildly absurd pursuit of scholarship. For those who shared with him that most serious form of play, his good nature seemed unlimited. It took all sorts to make his world: ‘a learned imbecile’, he would say, … but you should read him’. He disliked dogmatism, despised discipleship of all kinds, and shrewdly pointed out that A. E. Housman, in his famous reviews, had chosen to attack only persons smaller than himself. He preferred dialogue to polemics: a series of studies on the same theme, written and re-written over the years, and very rarely a single, sharp review, were his favourite means of contradicting scholars whom he respected. Touchy to a fault, on many issues, he contributed with rare humility to the progress of learning: his autobiographical reminiscences concentrated on his childhood; he never considered that his readers might wish to know, also, why he wrote certain essays and changed his mind on certain issues.
Happy among the learned, he was unmoved by the need to overcome time, and seemed a clear-sighted, but resigned, observer of the wide cultural spaces of a modern society. Except when the issue of truth was at stake, he had little wish to preach to the unconverted. Books, therefore, were unnecessarily monumental for a man of his style: for a book sought a range and a transcendence that did not interest him. Momigliano, rather, lived for history, and, therefore, he lived in history. An uninterrupted dialogue with scholars enabled him to sense, with the uncanny skill of a deep-sea fisherman, the swell of the vast and troubled ocean of European culture, as it stirred uneasily, in the necessary and redeeming effort to bring to consciousness an ancient past that still lived on in its most vital concerns. This, for Momigliano, was life.
And so he thinks of nothing less than death. Instead his wisdom is a meditation on life, q.e.d. Spinoza, Ethics IV, Proposition lxxii. (chosen to be read by Momigliano at his memorial services at London and Chicago.)