North American Scholar

CASSON, Lionel Irvin

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  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1914-07-22
  • Born City: Brooklyn
  • Born State/Country: NY
  • Parents: Abraham, owner of a lumberyard, and Bess Cohen
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 2009-07-18
  • Death City: New York
  • Death State/Country: NY
  • Married: Julia F. Michelman, 16 February 1946.
  • Education:

    B.A., NYU, 1934; M.A., 1936; Ph.D., 1939. 

  • Professional Experience:

    Instr. classics, NYU, 1936-45; Lieutenant, U.S. Naval Reserve, 1942-6; asst. prof., 1945-52; asso. prof. 1952-9; prof. 1959-79; Guggenheim fell., 1952-3, 1959-60; dir. summer sessions, AAR, 1963; NEH fell., 1967-8; summer seminar grant, 1978; AIA Gold Medal for Excellence, 2005.

  • Dissertation:

    "Nine Papyrus Texts in the New York University Collection" (NYU, 1939); printed TAPA 68 (1937) 274-91 & 69 (1938) 343-56.

     
  • Notes:

    Lionel Casson, known to his friends as "Jimmy," spent most of his life at New York University, where he received his undergraduate and graduate education and the entirety of his professional career (1936-79), interrupted by service in the U.S. Navy as a lieutenant in the Department of Naval Intelligence during World War II, where he was a specialist in interrogation.  His early scholarly speciality was papyrus and his first major book described the papyrus of Nissan. His interest in sailing may have begun as early as his teenaged years when he and a friend navigated Long island Sound in their small sailboat, but it was allied to his interest in antiquity in 1953 when he met the oceanographer Jacques Yves Cousteau who was salvaging amphoras from an ancient wreck. "I knew at once that I was in on the beginning of a totally new source of information about ancient maritime matters and I determined then and there to exploit it." The invention and widespread use of he aqualung enabled archaeologists to discover much new evidence about how the ancients built their ships. Casson recognized the use of "shell first construction" and that fore and aft sail rigging had come into use much earlier than previously thought. Using evidence from literature, papyri, coins, and iconography, along with his own familiarity with the sea, to build up a picture of ancient ships and seamanship and to become the undisputed master of the field. Casson could be learned and still appeal to the non-specialists, as Sterling Dow noted in his review of The Ancient Mariners: "The treatment, lacking footnotes, is intended to be 'popular'...and in the text a compulsion to be spectacular is often evident....such defects disappear when the author is in the midst of god sound exposition or narrative." Ships and Seamanship in the Ancient World spanned the era from Egypt to Byzantium and remains standard. His subsequent books, like his commentary on the Periplus Mari Erythrae and Travel in the Ancient World made the maritime story of the ancient world available to both the scholar and to the non-specialist.  In the first exploration of the Deep Sea using robots in 1989 with the "Jason Project" that reached about 225,000 school children, Casson participated in the training program for both American and Canadian teachers. He was also instrumental in gaining an NEH grant for the AIA to train high-school teachers on ancient trade.

    The popularity of his books is attested by the number and variety of translations. In addition to his prolific publication at both the scholarly and popular levels, he was a dedicated teacher and hard-working administrator. In the words of his colleague Larissa Bonfante, "He was twice chair of the Classics Department, but his leadership was crucial for a much longer time, and the practical sense and decisiveness I admired in later years as his colleague helped the Department to survive the difficult years of the Depression."

  • Sources:

    Larissa Bonfante, CW 102,4 (Summer 2009) 495-6; Citation, AIA 2005 Gold Medal Award for Distinguished Archaeological Achievement

  • Author: Ward Briggs