North American Scholar

ROSTOVTZEFF, Michael (Mikhail Ivanovich Rostovcev)

  • Image
  • Date of Birth (YYYY-MM-DD): 1870-11-10
  • Born City: Zhitomir
  • Born State/Country: Ukraine
  • Parents: Ivan Yakovlevich, curator (chief education official) of Orenburg, & Marie I. Monachova R.
  • Date of Death (YYYY-MM-DD): 1952-10-20
  • Death City: New Haven
  • Death State/Country: CT
  • Married: Sophie Kulczycki, 8 May 1901.
  • Education:

    Graduate, St. Petersburg, 1892; M.A., 1898; Ph.D., 1903; LL.D. Leipzig, Oxford, Cambridge, Wisconsin, Harvard, Athens, U. Chicago.

  • Professional Experience:

    Prof. anc. hist. U. Wisconsin, 1920-5; anc. hist. & arch. Yale, 1925-44; dir. Yale expedition at Dura-Europos (Euphrates, Syria), 1928-38; pres. Am. Hist. Assn., 1935-6.

  • Dissertation:

    "Romische Bleitesserae: Ein Beitrag zur Sozial- und Wirtschaftsgeschichte der romischen Kaiserzeit" (St. Petersburg, 1905); printed, with revisions, Klio Beiheft 3 (Leipzig, 1905; repr. Aalen, 1963).

  • Publications:

    "Pompeii in the Light of New Excavations" (thesis) (St. Petersburg, 1892; published in Russian in the Journal of the Ministry of Education, Series IV, no. 291 [1894] 45-101; German trans. "Geschichte der Staatspacht in der römischen Kaiserzeit bis Diokletian" Philologus Erganzungsband 9 [1902] 331-512); Tesserarum Urbis Romae et Suburbi Plumbearum Sylloge (St. Petersburg, 1903); Studien zur Geschichte des römischen Kolonates, Archiv für Papyrusforschung Beiheft 1 (Leipzig & Berlin, 1910; repr. Stuttgart, 1970); Proletarian Culture, Russian Liberation Committee Series 11 (London, 1919); A Large Estate in Egypt in the Third Century B. C.: A Study in Economic History, University of Wisconsin Studies in Social Sciences and History 6 (Madison, 1922; repr. Rome, 1967); Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (Oxford, 1922; repr. New York, 1969); Scythia and Bosporus, published in Russian, Russian Academy of the History of Material Culture (Leningrad, 1925; Germ, trans. E. Pridik, Skythien und der Bosporus, kritische Übersicht der schriftlichen und archäologischen Quellen [Berlin, 1931]); A History of the Ancient World, written in Russian, trans. J. D. Duff, vol. I: The Orient and Greece; vol. II: Rome (Oxford, 1926-7); Greece, ed. E. Bickerman (New York, 1963) (a slightly revised reprint of chapters I—II, parts of VI & VII, chapters XII-XXVI of the 2d ed. [1930] of The Orient and Greece); Rome, ed. E. Bickerman (New York, 1960) (reprint of the second corrected impression [1928] of Rome; both repr. Westport, CT, 1971; Bulgarian trans. [1932, 1937]; Germ, trans. H. H. Schraeder, Geschichte der alten Welt [Wiesbaden, 1941-2; repr. 1955]; Dutch trans. [1955]; Italian trans., Storia del mondo antico [Florence, 1965]); The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (Oxford, 1926; 2d ed., rev. P. M. Fraser, 1957; Germ, trans. [1931]; Italian trans. G. Sanna [preface by G. De Sanctis], Storia economica e sociale dell' Impero romano [Florence, 1933]; Span, trans. L. Lopez-Ballesteros, Historia social y económica del Imperio romano [Madrid, 1937]); Mystic Italy, Colver Lectures (New York, 1927); The Animal Style in South Russia and China (Princeton & London, 1929); Caravan Cities, trans. D. & T. Talbot Rice (Oxford, 1932; repr. New York, 1971; Italian trans. C. Cortese de Bosis Citta carovaniere [Bari, 1934]); Dura-Europos and Its Art (Oxford, 1938); The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, 3 vols. (Oxford, 1941; 2d ed. with additions & corrections by P. M. Fraser, 1953; Germ, trans. G. & E. Bayer, Die hellenistische Welt: Gesellschaft und Wirtschaft [Stuttgart, 1955-6]; Ital. trans. M. Liberanome & G. Sanna, Storia economica e sociale del mondo ellenistico [Florence, 1966]); Preliminary Report of the Excavations at Dura-Europos Conducted by Yale University and the French Academy of Inscriptions and Letters (ed.), 10 vols. (New Haven, 1929-52); Final Report of the Excavations at Dura-Europos . . . (ed.), 6 vols. (New Haven, 1943-9). SELECTED ARTICLES: "Die hellenistisch-römische Architekturlandschaft," Rdmische Mitteilungen 26 (1911) 1-185; reprinted as a monograph in the series Mitteilungen des Kaiserlich deutschen archaeologischen Instituts. Römische Abteilung vol. 26, fasc. 1-2 (Berlin, 1911); "Why the Russian Intelligentsia is Opposed to the Bolshevist Regime," Struggling Russia 1 (1919-20) 792-5; "Proletarian Culture in Bolshevist Russia," ibid. 1 (1919-20) 459-62, 484-7; "Memorandum," The New Russia 3 (1920) 283-5; "Should Scientists Return to Russia?" ibid. 2 (1920) 370-2; "La crise sociale et politique de l'empire romain au Hie siècle," Musée Belge 27 (1923) 233-42; "The Hellenistic World and Its Economic Development," AmHistR 41 (1936) 231-52 (AHA presidential address).

  • Notes:

    Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff was, in the opinion of those competent to judge, the greatest and most influential ancient historian between Eduard Meyer and Sir Ronald Syme. He belonged to the greatest of his day and one can compare him with the greatest of the dead. In this context I am concerned with his American phase (1920-52). There had earlier been distinguished European visitors. One recalls E. A. Freeman, Wilhelm Dörpfeld, and S. H. Butcher, not to speak of Eduard Meyer. They came from curiosity or to earn dollars. Dörpfeld wanted to install central heating in his Ithaca home. Rostovtzeff was the first top European classical scholar, a refugee, aged 50, from brutal political repression, denied a post by the insular English—Hugh Last deplored his accent—who gratefully found a new home in the United States and, if not the stimulating milieu of the society he left, at least peace for work, supportive funds, and adoring students ready to learn. He became the example that some 15 years later could be cited to justify the welcoming of Hitler's victims and thus anticipated the greatest single renaissance in modern American classics.His origin was educated bourgeois. His father began as a prep-school instructor in Greek and Latin and rose to local prominence in the educational bureaucracy at Kiev. To his father the scholar attributed his proficiency in Greek and Latin. He began study at the University of St. Petersburg in 1892. Among his teachers there were the Hellenist Victor Jernstedt and the Pole Thaddeus Zielinski. N. P. Kandakov first turned him to the archaeological artifacts and the inscriptions of South Russia. He early mastered philological and archaeological sources and the Totalitätsideal became attainable. His M.A. dissertation (1898) concerned the history of tax-farming. For an earlier degree he had written on Pompeii (1892). He traveled widely in Europe studying archaeology and epigraphy at Vienna in 1900 under Otto Benndorf and Eugen Bormann. Later under A. Mau he learned firsthand of Pompeii. Ulrich Wilcken at Leipzig turned him toward Roman administration and papyrology. He met Wilamowitz at Rome in spring 1903. Already in 1901 the Berlin Hellenist had written to Althoff of "a young Russian whom I hold to be a scholar of the first rank." His doctoral dissertation (1905) showed that important conclusions can be derived from modest evidence. He sought to write social and economic history from Roman lead tesserae. Wilamowitz recommended him to Wissowa. Seven years later the article "Frumentum," in RE 7 (1912) 126-87, appeared and began the modern economic history of the ancient world. He had become Ordinarius at St. Petersburg on 10 Nov. 1908. In Spring 1914 he became a corresponding member of the Berlin Academy.Wes has shown how the fall of the Romanov Empire, the triumph of Lenin and Trotsky, and the exodus of millions of refugees from Russia during the civil war of 1918-20 determined Rostovtzeff s view of the Roman Empire. The world he knew disintegrated. Probably in May 1918, with his wife, and allegedly a cow, he crossed the frontier to Finland. He abandoned his library and the manuscript of Scythia and the Bosporus. Two years at Queen's College, Oxford, followed, presumably owed to the intervention of Sir Ellis Minns.  He never ceased to struggle against the Bolsheviks. His political writings were influential, and he attended the Versailles Peace Conference where he met the intelligence operative and friend of Woodrow Wilson, W. L. Westermann. On 3 Jan. 1920, after evidence had been provided that he was neither a Jew nor a Communist, he was offered Westermann's chair at the University of Wisconsin, for a year as visitor, then permanently. His five years at Madison he later called the happiest of his life, as von Fritz did his years at Reed. A Large Estate in Egypt in the Third Century appeared in 1922. His undergraduate survey course resulted in A History of the Ancient World, until recently standard in many American colleges. At this time he wrote some seven chapters in the Cambridge Ancient History, possibly his most widely read contributions.In 1925 he became Sterling Professor of Ancient History and Classical Archaeology at Yale. The next two decades may have been the most productive of his career. The better library facilities and an established graduate program could not be refused. His Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926) and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (1941) were the last great histories done by one man, in the tradition of Gibbon, Grote, Eduard Meyer, Beloch, and Busolt. The erudition, the breadth of coverage, and the lucid exposition won universal praise from those most competent to bestow it. In 1944 a frontal lobotomy was performed on his brain and effectively ended original work. At Yale he undertook in 1927 direction of one of the most successful excavations of this century. Dura-Europos was a caravan center on the Syrian Euphrates founded by Macedonians about 300 B.C. The climate allowed the preservation of wall paintings, cloth, wood, and papyri. Rostovtzeff cooperated with the French Academy, especially Franz Cumont, found funding in the midst of the Depression, and much to his credit edited ten volumes of the preliminary report and six volumes of the final report. The discovery of an early painted Christian chapel and a synagogue with paintings illustrating the Old Testament made the site required for both art historians and historians of religion. Men like Clark Hopkins and Frank E. Brown, and one of the first women field archaeologists, Margaret Crosby, began their careers there.The Dura dig determined appointments at Yale for 25 years amd put literary studies aside as unworthy. Rostovtzeff had the intelligence and energy to win the respect and allegiance of a generation of outstanding students. He assigned dissertations to become excavation reports and cooperated in publication. One recalls Alfred R. Bellinger, R. O. Fink, J. F. Gilliam, Clark Hopkins, C. H. Kraeling, and his successor, C. Bradford Welles. He formed one of the few schools in the American history of the discipline. Economic history had seen its day. His books are often used as collections of source material with their theses impugned. One recalls A. B. Cook's Zeus. Though himself a victim of the October Revolution and very much a supporter of the Czarist regime, Rostovtzeff s whole approach to ancient history was Marxistic. The class struggle, the bourgeoisie, the proletariat, each plays a decisive role. And like a Marxist he underestimates the role of religion and the inexorable progress of the ancient world to Christianity. Marx is much out of fashion now. He was followed by Freud and Nietzsche. On the other hand, after Rostovtzeff one cannot deny the central importance of economy in determining history. Eduard Meyer's attribution of history to coincidence and the great man could no longer hold the field. Marxistic terminology prevailed. Moses Finley and G. de Sainte-Croix, influential and discredited, are unthinkable without him. He taught the value of humble evidence earlier neglected and the need to base hypotheses on sources. He showed Americans how to get things done. He frightened most of them. He never became Sather lecturer, president of the APA, or even chairman at Yale. But he was epoch-machend in the sense that nothing will be the same after him. And there are few of whom that may be said.

  • Sources:

    I. Borodin, Uchenye zaslugi M. I. Rostovtseva (Moscow, 1915); G. W. Bowersock, "The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire by Michael Ivanovitch Rostovtzeff," Daedalus 103 (1974) 15-23; idem, "Rostovtzeff in Madison," The American Scholar 55 (1986) 391-400; W. M. Calder III, "The Later Letters of Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Michael I. Rostovzev," Philologus 134 (1990) 248-53; Karl Christ, Von Gibbon zu Rostovtzeff (Darmstadt, 1972; 3d ed., 1989), 334-49; J. D'Arms, "M. I. Rostovtzeff and M. I. Finley: The Status of Traders in the Roman World," Ancient and Modern: Essays in Honor of Gerald F. Else, ed. J. D'Arms & J. Eadie (Ann Arbor, 1977) 159-79; A. Demandt, Der Fall Roms: Die Aufldsung des römischen Reiches im Urteil der Nachwelt (Munich, 1984), 452-4; S. Dow, Fifty Years of Sathers (Berkeley & Los Angeles, 1965), 47; idem, "The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire: Rostovtzeff s Classic after Thirty-Three Years," AmHistR 65 (1959) 544-53; Arther Ferrill, The Fall of the Roman Empire: The Military Explanation (London, 1986), 16; Alek-sandr K. Gavrilov, "Drei Briefe von Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff an Michail I. Rostovzev aus dem Jahre 1914," Philologus 134 (1990) 238-47; J. F. Gilliam, DAB Suppl. 5:594-6; A. Heuss, "Das spatantike romische Reich kein 'Zwangsstaat'? Von der Herkunft eines historischen Begriffes," GWU 37 (1986) 603-18; Clark Hopkins, The Discovery of Dura-Europos, ed. Bernhard Goldman (New Haven, 1979); A. H. M. Jones, PBA 38 (1954) 347-61; The End of the Roman Empire: Decline or Transformation?, ed. D. Kagan., 2d ed. (Lexington, MA, 1978), 3-6, 91-102, 180; H. Kreissig, "Der Hellenismus und die Epochen der okonomischen Gesellschaftsformen," EAZ 23 (1982) 45-50; V. I. Kuzish-chin, Great Soviet Encyclopedia: A Translation of the Third Edition (New York, 1979) 22:292; Hugh Last, JRS 43 (1953) 133-4; Arnaldo Momigliano, "M. I. Rostovtzeff," The Cambridge Journal! (1954) 334-6 = Contributo alia storia degli studi classici (Rome, 1955) 341-54 = Studies in Historiography (London, 1966) 91-104; Arnaldo Marcone, "Michele Rostovtzeff e l'Istituto Archeologico Germanico di Roma: la cor-rispondenza con Christian Holsen (1894-1927)," Critica Historica Bollet-tino A.S.E. 26 (1988) 341-50; idem, "Rostovtzeff e il colonato romano," Critica Storica Bolletino A.S.E. 26 (1989) 75-114; NatCAB 39:558; Edgar Pack, "Una lettera di Johannes Hasebroek a M. I. Rostovtzeff," Athenaeum n.s. 65 (1987) 542-7; H. W. Pleket, "Afscheld van Rostovtzeff," Lampas 8 (1975) 267-84; C. Preaux, "Michel Rostovtzeff," Chronique d'Egypte 29 (1954) 179-90; M. Reinhold, "Historian of the Classic World: A Critique of Rostovtzeff," Science and Society 10 (1946) 361-91; G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World from the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (Ithaca, NY, 1981) 463-5; Chester Starr, "The History of the Roman Empire 1911-1960," JRS 50 (1960) 149-60; idem, Past and Future in Ancient History, Publications of the Association of Ancient Historians 1 (Lanham, MD, 1987) 27; L. Varady, Die Aufldsung des Altertums (Budapest, 1978) 54-7; G. V. Vernadsky, "M. I. Rostovcev," Seminarium Kondakovianum 4 (1931) 239-52; C. Bradford Welles, "Michael I. Rostovtzeff," in Architects and Craftsmen in History: Festschrift fUr Abbot Payson Usher, ed. Joseph Lambie (Tubingen, 1956), 55-73; idem, "Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff," The Russian Review 12 (1953): 128-33; Marinus Wes, "The Russian Background of the Young Michael Rostovtzeff," Historia 37 (1988) 207-21; idem, Michael Rostovtzeff, Historian in Exile: Russian Roots in an American Context, Historia Einzelschriften 65 (Stuttgart, 1990) with reviews by W. M. Calder III, BMCR 2 (1991) 156-62 & Brent D. Shaw, JRS 82 (1992) 216-28; WhAm 3:744.Bibliography: C. Bradford Welles, "Bibliography—M. Rostovtzeff," Historia 5 (1956) 351-88 (444 titles of books, monographs, articles, notes, & reviews arranged under the following headings: Archaeological News; The Tesserae; Serfdom; The History of South Russia; The Monuments of South Russia; The Art of Asia; Decorative Wall Painting; Problems of the Roman Empire; Problems of the Hellenistic East; History of the Ancient World; The Cambridge Ancient History; "Out of the Past"; Religion; Caravan Cities; Dura; Miscellaneous; Reviews; Personalia; Russian History; Modern Russia); J. F. Gilliam, "Addenda to Bibliography of M. I. Rostovtzeff," Historia 36 (1987) 1-8.Papers: Letters to Rostovtzeff are in the collection of the American Society of Papyrologists at Duke University. Manuscripts of published books and articles, lectures & research notes are in the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale, and the Yale Art Gallery holds items related to the Dura expedition. Material concerning Rostovtzeff’s first American appointment is in the University of Wisconsin library.

  • Author: William M. Calder III