The renewal of research into ancient history in Italy is owed to Gaetano De Sanctis. With more coherence and rigor than such contemporaries as Pais and Bonfante, he successfully applied the German philological method to the study of scholarly problems larger and more complex than those that, up to his time, had been the subject of research by the dominant erudition, which tended to be antiquarian and archaeological in nature.
De Sanctis was born in Rome a few days after the capture of the city had made it part of the unified national state. The traumatic conclusion to the centuries-old temporal power of the popes was an event that had significant consequences in the years of his education. His early training took place in a climate marked by sharp tensions. On the one hand were sentiments of devotion to the papacy and hostility to the new national government, sentiments shared by his entire family. On the other hand was his adherence to the new order of things, cultural in nature before it was political, which he developed as a young man. A climate of pride and hope reigned in Italy after the risorgimento, as well as the desire to give new life to a tradition of greatness that traced itself back to ancient Rome.
De Sanctis, a fervent Catholic, had made up his mind to guard the free development of his personality both from the reactionary conditioning of his family as well as from the attitudes of the dominant positivistic lay culture. While completing his studies at the University of Rome, in a rather advanced cultural environment, he found ways to reinforce his independence of judgment through contact with teachers of various orientations: among others, the Hellenist Piccolomini, the prehistorian Luigi Pigorini (1842-1925), the archaeologist Emanuel Loewy (1857-1938), the epigrapher Federico Halbherr (1857-1930), and above all the ancient historian Karl Julius Beloch (1854-1929), a German who had been living in Italy for many years. It was from Beloch, as well as from other scholars with whom he soon came in contact, particularly those who were in charge of the Deutsches Archaologisches Institut in Rome, that De Sanctis derived a way of approaching classical antiquity that was far from rhetoric, not conditioned by nationalistic preconceptions, and placed on a rigorously scientific basis. Despite some differences, the relations of the rationalist Beloch and the Catholic De Sanctis were solid and deep. To the secure critical sense and realism derived from his teacher in the criticism of sources, the pupil joined interests of great range, which concentrated on the political and institutional aspects of ancient societies. At the center of his studies he placed the life of the state in its juridical and military articulations as well as its religious and cultural manifestations.
His first works show us De Sanctis as a precociously mature scholar capable of participating in the scholarly discussion of important topics. Significantly, his first work is dedicated to the Athenaion Politeia of Aristotle (1892), the text of which had recently arrived at London and was published in 1891. Such timeliness from one who was still a student demonstrated a lively attention to current questions, but also a singular sharpness. He argued that Aristotle’s exposition was based on antiquarian sources of the fourth century, which should not be assumed to be superior to the information given us by the triad of great historians. It was still a respectable view in the late twentieth century, while the thesis of Wilamowitz’s monumental Aristoteles und Athen, which appeared in the next year, that there existed annalistic sources from the sixth and fifth centuries, is today obsolete.
This happy beginning happened to fall in years of important work for the study of the ancient world. Just then numerous wide-ranging and lasting works were appearing, such as those by Georg Busolt (Die griechischen Stoats- und Rechtsalterturner, 1892), Eduard Meyer (Forschungen zur alten Geschichte, I, 1892; Geschichte des Altertums, II, 1893), Robert von Pöhlmann (Geschichte des antiken Kommunismus und Socialismus, 1893), and Erwin Rohde (Psyche, 1894). There was also Beloch’s Griechische Geschichte, a work very different from traditional introductory handbooks and innovative in its treatment of political and social problems. We should not forget that, even though Beloch was isolated from the world of Germany, he was nevertheless in fruitful correspondence with Meyer, whose teaching he mirrored and introduced to Italy.
De Sanctis’s thesis (tesi di laurea) was devoted to the Athenian political history of the first half of the third century. It was subsequently published in Beloch’s journal as “Contributi alia storia ateniese dalla guerra lamiaca alia guerra cremonidea” (1893). The young student showed himself capable of filling a void in the historiography of the Greek world on the basis of fragmentary witnesses, both epigraphic and literary in nature. (Cf. Ferguson, Hellenistic Athens,London, 1911: vii). His interests in the next period led him to a deeper knowledge of “Questioni politiche e riforme sociali” in the third century. He worked on a terrain all the more fertile because it was far from the usual beaten paths, with its tired treatment by Italian historical research.
The development of his scholarly personality tended to reinforce his deepest tendencies and sensibilities. He writes essays that confront problems in the religious beliefs of the Homeric poems (“La divinita omerica e la sua funzione sociale,” 1896; “L’anima e l’oltretomba secondo Omero,” 1897), where he is seen to have readily assimilated the lessons of Rohde. In other articles he demonstrated his vocation as an epigrapher (in this field he would produce excellent results and give birth to a school of high quality). Other articles represent his first steps as student of the Roman world.
As an admirer of Eduard Meyer and to some degree a sharer of his vision of the centrality of the state, De Sanctis consecrated his first large work (Atthis, 1898) to the reconstruction of the process whereby the polis surpassed the limits of tribal structure and became a state. Wilamowitz’s severe judgment, in refusing to write a review of the book, was communicated privately to the author: it would be impossible for him to write on it without saying “dass das hier gegebene Bild der Geschichte ein Spiel der Willkür ist” (letter of Wilamowitz to De Sanctis of 4 October 1898). The book received different and much more favorable opinions from many other reviewers. Theodore Reinach (1860-1928) greeted the book’s appearance with enthusiasm and noted the high level that scholarship in Italy had reached thanks to Italians such as Domenico Comparetti (1835-1927) and Girolamo Vitelli (1849-1935) and “metics” such as Adolf Holm (1830-1900) and Beloch. The time had passed in which one could say a priori of an Italian book on Greek antiquity: italicumest, non legitur. He praised the book’s command of the facts and its mature critical sense, equidistant from credulity and extreme scepticism. This was no piling up of material but an organic rethinking of traditional facts and the hypotheses that had been formulated from them over the course of time. Atthis seemed worthy of the same interest that had greeted the great books of Wilamowitz and Busolt (REG  435-436).
In 1900 De Sanctis became ordinarius at Turin, where he taught Greek and Roman history in alternate years. He stayed there until 1929 and had as students, among others, Luigi Pareti (1885-1962), Aldo Ferrabino (1892-1972), Mario Attilio Levi (1902-98), and, finally, the keenest and most versatile of all his students, Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-87). The memories of his activity as a teacher indicate that the seminar was more congenial to him than lecturing. In seminars he shone in his ability to guide students by furnishing them with the necessary facts so that their intuition caught fire. It is significant that his commemoration of Mommsen at the Accademia delle Scienze di Torino began with a phrase of Otto Seeck’s (1850-1921): “Teaching reveals a man’s nature. In no other area is there a clearer manifestation of the good and bad characteristics of one’s scholarly personality than in his effect on his students.”
In his first decade at Turin articles appeared that began from epigraphical and archaeological discoveries. The latter took account of the results of the Italian excavations at Crete, directed by Federico Halbherr. Several articles also dealt with papyrology. “Una nuova pagina di storia siciliana,” 1905, deals with a new papyrus, variously attributed, that De Sanctis held to be by Philistus; “L’Attide di Androzione e un papiro di Oxyrhynchos” attributes to the Atthidographer the so-called “Oxyrhynchus Histories.” But it ought to be said that the work has an annalistic structure and adopts the Thucydidean framework.
Many of the articles of these years came together in 1909 in a “libro di battaglia” (as the author called it): Per la scienza dell’antichita. Saggi e polemiche. Besides articles on Homeric subjects, he reprinted a speech, La guerra e la pace nell'antichita, an opening lecture from 1904. The topic was a polemical treatment of a recent book by the Marxist historian Ettore Ciccotti (1863-1939) (La guerra e la pace nel mondo antico, Turin, 1901). De Sanctis echoed this title almost literally and developed his ideas further in an appendix, “Intomo al materialismo storico.” De Sanctis claimed as the historian’s role the “intuition of the reality of life” that hides behind documents, as well as the precise interpretation of those documents. De Sanctis attached himself explicitly to the teaching of Benedetto Croce (1866-1952) and attacked the exponents of other historical currents: Bonfante for his sociological schematism, Pais for his prejudiced skepticism toward tradition, Ferrero for his dilettantism. De Sanctis’s tone as a polemicist is energetic, on fire. “He felt pleasure in opposing, provoking, challenging,” Momigliano remembered. He was himself later the victim of several polemical assaults by his teacher.
The 1909 book was intended to give a theoretical foundation to the great work he had started in 1907 and that would accompany De Sanctis through his life as Lebenswerk: the Storiadei Romani. The first two volumes of the history were intended to counter analogous reconstructions recently published in Italy, above all Pais’s Storia dei Romani. They begin with the remoter periods and then give a lively reconstruction of the Regal era and the period of the early republic on the basis of a systematic reconsideration of all the epigraphical and archaeological material known up to that point, as well as the literary tradition. The clear narrative exposition was joined as far as possible to a critical analysis, which tripped up the development of the narrative every now and again. Here too, as in the Atthis, the basic theme of the work is the analysis of the city becoming a state.
The Storia dei Romani contains more transient aspects, as is only natural in a synthesis of such proportions, and even annoying elements. A certain phil-aryan racism was a constant factor in the man and in the scholar, a factor that often returns to the concept of “inferior races” and “sterile cultures” (Oriental, Semitic) from which Western civilization had to guard itself. (“Civiltà caduche e civiltà perenne” [“Transient cultures and lasting civilization”] is the title of an essay of 1943 on this topic.) These attitudes in historiography are in complete harmony with his position in 1911 in favor of Italian colonial expansion in Libya, in the name of the diffusion of a higher civilization, Catholic and Roman (not to mention an increased national power)
Once he had put himself on this dangerous slope, even though he was a 1over of personal and political liberty, he could not then condemn Fascist aggression in Ethiopia in the thirties. Because of his hatred of England, the opponent of Italian pretenses in the Mediterranean, he will view Germany’s cause in the Second World War with relative sympathy.
On the eve of the First World War he had publicly taken the position that Italy should remain neutral, the position of Benedetto Croce and the young philologist, Giorgio Pasquali (1885-1952). He did this both out of sympathy for the German world and its culture and because of his conservative political vision for which conflict, in the presence of strong social differences, represented a potential danger for the state system and constituted order. After Italy entered the war, like all conservative Catholics, he abstained from further manifestations in favor of neutrality.
In 1916-1917 De Sanctis published the two fascicles of volume III of Storia dei Romani, which was mainly devoted to political and military affairs. In the preface the author pointed out the similarity between the warlike background in which his work was written and the material it treated, but he dissuaded his reader from seeking easy and mechanical analogies between strategies and events that were apparently similar. (Many years later, in his late work Pericle of 1944, he found analogies of a political nature attractive, as he saw the end of Periclean Athens relived in the light of the tragedy that Italy was undergoing in those years.) The numerous appendices were rich in learning. Their outstanding aspect is a careful scrutiny of the sources for the history of the Punic Wars, but it is meaningful also for its treatment of “Dido in the Greco-Roman tradition,” where, in the learned discussion on the sources of that character’s legend, we find sensitive notes on the Virgilian version. In promising in the preface that the following volume would contain a general historical picture of Roman culture (such as he had to some degree given in volume III for Rome’s enemy, Carthage), De Sanctis perhaps noticed the limits of an undertaking substantially closed to the new problems that had been placed before the attention of scholars, problems confronted by recent significant works on Roman history, such as Rostovtzeff (1870-1952) on Roman colonies (1910), Warde Fowler (1847-1921) on the religion of the Roman people (1911), and Gelzer in the prosopographical area. So, drawing his inspiration perhaps from Beloch’s Geschichte, he will devote an entire large section of his Storia to the literature and religious life of Rome.
During the crisis that followed the First World War, when Italy was lacerated with serious political battles and social conflict, De Sanctis felt it necessary to participate directly in political life. He enrolled in the Partito Popolare, whose principles of devotion to the Church inspired an essentially conservative politics. In the years from 1919 to 1921 he was a candidate in political and administrative elections. His scholarly writing reflected these interests, although never in a fashion that was crudely “relevant.” In 1920 he published an essay on “Dopoguera antico,” in 1921 one on “Rivoluzione e reazione nell’eta dei Gracchi.” The latter closed with words that might seem prophetic of what was waiting for Italy in just a little while. With the death of Scipio Aemilianus, wrote De Sanctis, “there was no longer anything to stop the fierce strife between revolutionaries and reactionaries. Therefore, the people who were the masters of the world hastened to pay for its own imperialism, by bowing its head under the yoke of military monarchy.” It is in this spirit that we should understand the dedication/epigraph that opens volume four of the Storia dei Romani, which was already circulating before the March on Rome (Polverini, ASNP 3  1056): A quei pochissimi / che hanno parimente a sdegno I d’essere oppressi e di farsi opresssori. (“To those very few who scorn equally the role of oppressed and oppressor.”)
With this volume, devoted to the great conquests and their political consequences (which were negative according to his condemnation of imperialistic expansionism, a condemnation made in ethical language), the writing of the work was interrupted for about twenty years. When he took it up again, it had become something rather different. In the twenties, when De Sanctis had achieved full scholarly maturity and even international recognition of his worth (he received a degree honoris causa from Oxford in 1925), his research was directed toward the themes of the history of historiography. He would later collect the articles that came from this period devoted to Hecataeus, Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Sallust, and Livy in the volumes Problemi di storia antica (1932) and Studi di storia della storiografia greca (1951).
From 1923 De Sanctis’s work became more and more devoted to cultural organization. In that year he assumed, together with the philologist and man of letters Augusto Rostagni (18921961), the editorship of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious classical journal, Rivista italiam di filologia e di istruzione classica. He published there from time to time notes on Greek epigraphy (he was the head of the research group working on the inscriptions from Cyrenaica and Crete), “Cronache e commenti,” and many book reviews. An especially important book review was devoted to Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire in 1926. Rostovtzeff was a foreign scholar to whom De Sanctis was bound by ties of true friendship.
With the Fascist regime established in power, De Sanctis became involved, as did almost all Italian intellectuals of note, with the Enciclopedia Italiana, a cultural initiative of great prestige, supported by the government, which intended to make itself deserving of respect in the scholarly arena. This gigantic enterprise took a decade to reach its successful conclusion. De Sanctis was head of the Section for Classical Antiquity. He was given this position by Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the theoretical philosopher of fascism and scholarly director of the Enciclopedia, who nourished the greatest esteem for De Sanctis and served as his political patron on more than one occasion. In a climate of openness and tolerance notable for a totalitarian regime, De Sanctis worked for the success of the enterprise with a rhythm that was prodigious. He allowed the printing of no article without a careful reading and revision, often intervening, correcting, and improving. The articles on classical antiquity, entrusted to the greatest classicists, are admirable and can often still be useful today for their high level of information and scholarly originality. Among De Sanctis’s collaborators I would record, for the philological side, Giorgio Pasquali (1885-1952), and then Momigliano (his student in ancient history from the last years at Turin), Plinio Fraccaro (1883-1959), Rostagni; from outside Italy, Paul Maas (1880-1964) and Rostovtzeff contributed articles.
Meanwhile, in 1929, De Sanctis moved to Rome as Professor of Greek History, filling the chair that had been Beloch’s. His teaching in the capital was soon interrupted. In 1931 all university professors were asked to swear an oath of loyalty to the regime. De Sanctis refused and was removed from his chair, losing at the same time the use of the university buildings and libraries. He was among the few, some ten in all Italy, to give this example of intellectual honesty in opposing the dictatorship.
His old age was rendered harsh, besides the material problems attendant on his loss of work, from progressive blindness, even though voluntary readers were always present. It was in these difficult conditions that he began to work on another great work of synthesis, the Storia dei Greci (1939). Already in the early ’30s he had returned to the history of the Greeks, the land of political liberty and free and critical thought. The volume Problemi di storia antica, published with timely solidarity by the antifascist publishing house of Laterza soon after he lost his chair, began significantly with the 1930 essay “Essenza e carattere della storia greca," in which Aldo Ferrabino’s La Jissoluzione della liberta nella Grecia arnica (1929) was implicitly discussed and criticized. It was under De Sanctis’s guidance that the young Piero Treves (1911-92) worked on Demostene e la liberta dei Greci (1933). The Storia dei Greci in the form in which it was published appeared without scholarly apparatus. It reflected scholarly positions that the author had matured much earlier and did not intend to open up again to discussion, e.g. the Doric invasion of Greece. It took no account of additions to knowledge that were being achieved in those years in the area of anthropology. It remains a work of great originality, where the prejudice in favor of national political unity coexists with a leading idea of great force and civil value, the idea of history as the ethical and political history of liberty. The influence of the liberal Croce on the Catholic De Sanctis could not be more evident. So in his less successful Pericle (1944) he repeated his thesis that the Duce of Athens had caused the collapse of Athens by an irresponsible pursuit of imperialist objectives, a formulation that had to appear to allude to the present.
The last part of his life was devoted to working on his great work, which was destined to remain unfinished, the Storia dei Romani. The second part of volume IV was already finished when, sharing a common fate with the Thucydides commentary of A.W. Gomme (1886-1959), the only copy was stolen. With a brave heart the old scholar devoted himself to reconstructing it. The first fascicle appeared in 1953, dedicated to religious, literary, and artistic aspects of the age of the conquests, while the second was published posthumously in 1957 and discussed the evolution of juridical institutions. The author did not live to reconstruct the treatment of economic and financial aspects. As in the Storia dei Greci, these last fascicles are not based on research and analysis but on a clear synthesis able to dominate an enormous field of knowledge.
With the fall of Fascism, he was restored to teaching and named Professor of Greek History for life. He became the president of the Enciclopedia Italiana.
Aside from his boundless productivity, the universal approbation accorded De Sanctis is based on his work as the head of a school. He showed respect to the human and scholarly personality of his students and was incapable in his relations with them of being conditioned by preconceptions, such as those concerning Indo-Europeans or the West, to which he was by no means immune. He had among his best students intellectuals of the most varied views: liberals and democrats like Momigliano and Treves, liberals and then Catholics like Aldo Ferrabino (1892-1972), Catholics like Silvio Accame (1910-97), Fascists like Luigi Pareti (1885-1962) and Levi. Mussolini himself intervened to brake the university careers of the numerous Jewish students of his school (Momigliano, Levi, Treves) in his preoccupation to guarantee an orthodox nationalistic imprint on the teaching of ancient history, and Roman history in particular. The school of epigraphy created by him (Maghareta Guarducci [1902-99], Luigi Moretti [1907-73]) has produced notable results. At the beginning of this century, in commemorating Mommsen, De Sanctis proudly proclaimed the rebirth of the study of ancient history in Italy. Everyone today acknowledges that that rebirth is due principally to him.