European Scholar

BOISSIER, Marie-Louis-Antoine-Gaston

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  • Date of Birth: 1823-08-15
  • Born City: Nîmes
  • Born State/Country: France
  • Date of Death: 1908-11-06
  • Death City: Viroflay (Seine-et-Oise)
  • Death State/Country: France
  • Education:

    Agrégé des lettres (premiere), Nîmes, 1847; D.L., Paris, 1856. 

  • Dissertation:

    Quomodo Graecos poetas Plautus transtulerit (Paris, 1857);

  • Professional Experience:

    Prof. rhetoric, Université d’Angoulême 1846-56 ; Nîmes, 1847-56 ; teacher, Lycée Charlemagne, 1856-61; prof. Latin eloquence, École Normale Supérieure, 1861-5; maître de conférences, École Normale, Paris, 1865-8 ; prof., École des Hautes Études, 1868-9; directeur d’études, 1885; prof. Latin eloquence, Collège de France, 1869-1906; administrator, 1892; memb. Académie Français, 1876; perpetual sec., 1895; secretary, Société de Linguistique, 1877-1906; Académie des Inscriptions, 1886; hon. memb., AAAS, 1904; officer, Legion d’Honneur, 1879; commander, 1888; grand officer, 1895.

  • Publications:

    Le Poète Attius, étude sur la tragédie latine pendant la République (Paris: St. Giraud, 1857); Étude sur la vie et les ouvrages de Marcus Terentius Varron (Paris: Hachette, 1861); Cicéron et ses amis. Étude sur la société romaine du temps de César (Paris: Hachette, 1865; Eng. trans. Adnah David Jones, London, Ward Lock, 1897; La religion romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1874); L'Opposition sous les Césars (Paris: Hachette, 1875); Promenades archéologiques: Rome et Pompéi (1880; 2nd ser. 1886 ; Eng. trans., D. Havelock Fisher, London Unwin, 1905); La Musée de Saint-Germain (Paris: Rollin et Feuardent, 1882); Nouvelles promenades archéologiques: Horace et Virgile (Paris : Hachette, 1886 ; Eng. trans. London 1896); Madame de Sévigné (Paris, 1887 ; Eng. Trans. London, 1887); La fin du Paganisme. Études sur les dernières luttes religieuses en Occident au IVe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: Hachette, 1891; repr. Hildesheim: Olms, 1987); Saint-Simon (Paris: Hachette, 1892); L'Afrique romaine. Promenades archéologiques en Algérie et en Tunisie] (Paris : Hachette, 1895; Eng. trans. Arabella Ward, New York: Putnam’s, 1899); Louis de Rouvroy, duc de Saint-Simon (Paris: Hachette, 1899); Tacite (1903; Eng. Trans. W.D. Hutchinson, London: Constable, 1906); La Conjuration de Catilina (Paris: Hachette, 1905); Les grandes institutions de France. L’Institut de France (Paris : H. Laurens, 1907); L’Académie française sous l’Ancien Régime (Paris : Hachette, 1909).

    Festschrift: Mélanges Boissier: recueil de mémoires concernant la littérature et les antiquités domaines dédié à Gaston Boissier à l’occasion de son 80e anniversaire (Paris: A. Fontemoing, 1903).

  • Notes:

    Gaston Boissier devoted his career to the study of Roman politics and society, Roman religion and the rise of Christianity. As a boy growing up in Nimes, surrounded by such Roman relics as the Amphitheater, the ramparts and circular towers of the Roman wall with its two surviving gates, the castellum aquae, and of course, the Maison Carée, Boissier lived among enough Roman relics to spark both his interest and his imagination for ancient history and its important figures. After completing his doctorate and returning to his hometown to teach at the age of 23, he continued the practice begun in his thesis of attempting to reconstruct through a combination of extant literature and logical supposition the Greek models of Plautus, the sources of Accius’s Roman tragedies, and the life of Varro Reatinus. Boissier remained in Nîmes for ten years when a travelling inspector of the university witnessed a lecture and recommended that Boissier be called to Paris as professor at Napoleon’s Lycée Charlemagne. Appointed to the chair at Paris, he turned from a lightly documented figure of the end of the Roman Republic to one of the most well-documented figures of Roman history, Cicero, and his circle of friends. While at the École Normale, he was greatly influenced by the Hellenist Ernest Havet (1813-89), Émile Deschanel (b. 1819), and Paul Jacquinet (1815-1903) to use the new discoveries in archaeology with the evidence of literature. Like such diverse scholars as Thomas Carlyle (1795-188) and Abby Warburg (1866-1929), Boissier chose to understand an era through the behavior of its great figures. Ciceron et ses amis enjoyed unusual success. Anthony Everitt wrote, “Gaston Boissier, who wrote in the mid-nineteenth century what is still one of the most charming and witty books on Cicero, observed: He always belonged to the best party [i.e., the optimates] … only he made it a rule not to serve his party; he was contented with giving it his good wishes. But these good wishes were the warmest imaginable.… His reserve only began when it was necessary to act.… The more we think about it, the less we can imagine the reasons he could give [his friends] to justify his conduct.” The approach he used for Ciceron et ses amis would recur in his studies of the champion of the industrial working class, Henri de Saint-Simon (1760-1825) and aristocratic epistolographer Mme. De Sévigné (1626-96). 

    He contributed many articles to a number of periodicals, but particularly the Revue des Deux Mondes, that summarized and advanced the investigative discoveries in epigraphy and archaeology. Boissier had the unique ability portray a society from its epigraphical and literary remains and to write with clarity and vivacity. La Religion romaine d'Auguste aux Antonins (1874), analyzed the great religious movement of antiquity that preceded the acceptance of Christianity. L'Opposition sous les Césars (1875) looked at political degeneration during the early empire. As E.K. Rand pointed out, “To Boissier’s hearers, his theme, so eloquently presented, must have thrilled with an almost contemporary interest, for France had passed from an age of Republican revolution to one of Imperialism.” Influenced by the literary histories of Gaston Paris (1839-1903) and Léon Gautier (1832-97) he turned to the epic. His study of Roman religion extends to the poets. His interest in archaeology and epigraphy appears in his casual promenades through Rome, Pompeii, the country of Horace and Virgil, and Roman Africa. Late in his career he turned to the late empire and the emergence of Christianity, which he considered inevitable and beneficial to mankind and the means of preserving the values and institutions of antiquity. 

    His later career included a study of the methods of Tacitus, and, finally, a return to Cicero and eloquence. Rand characterizes the work of this period as “Varied interests, searching analysis, profound generalizations…they show the universal outlook, a spirit of placid Horatian urbanity, a sprightly wit.”  These characteristics all translated into the highly popular English versions of his works. As his obituarist in CR noted, he “was more than a scholar he was a man of letters blessed with historic imagination and a fine taste.” 

  • Sources:

    Paul Monceaux, Gaston Boissier; Annuaire du Collège de  France (1908) 1-10; J.J. Hartman, Cornelia Sneyders de Vogel, Revue de l’instruction publique en Belgique (1908) 269-97; Paul Thoulouze & Marie Louis Antoine Gaston Boissier, Gaston Boissier 1823-1908 (Paris, 1923); Serge Velay, Michel Boissard, Catherine Bernié-Boissard, (2009); n.a., CR 21-2 (1908) 164; René Pichon, “La Vie et l’œuvre de M. Gaston Boissier,” Revue des Deux Mondes 46, 2 (15 Juillet 1908) 284-321 ; E.K. Rand, Gaston Boissier (1823-1908),” PAAAS 51,14 (Dec. 1916) 849-52; Anthony Everitt, Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (New York: Random House, 2002).

  • Author: Ward Briggs