Another sad episode in the history of Classics

Over the weekend there was minor episode on the Classics Jobs Wiki that further adds to my disgust with classicists. Someone decided to segregate the job postings into an unnamed main category and another labeled ‘Classics Adjacent.’ The latter category includes mainly philosophy, Near Eastern studies and history jobs that encompass ancient history but do not focus on it. There was some pushback; old timers on the site (like me) noted that these jobs had always been on the wiki and that one random individual is not empowered to decide what is and is not ‘classical.’

How does it possibly affect the usefulness of the site or hurt anyone to include these jobs? It is true that some of them will definitely not go to classicists (i.e. people with degrees in classics as opposed to philosophy or political science), but that has always been the case. One user suggested that the ‘adjacent’ jobs should include those that require a degree in a field outside of classics, but this too is unhelpful, since there are many interdisciplinary or joint degree programs. Also, many successful candidates ultimately do not fit the job descriptions in ever respect, even the ‘required’ qualifications. Anyone who has been on the market as long as I have would know that (perhaps I am showing my age here).

It makes me sad to see bigoted and chauvinist classicists. There was a time when classics was an ecumenical field — look at Rawlinson, Meyer, Rostovtzeff, Cumont, Nock and M. L. West, to name a few. It’s depressing to see the younger generation trying to limit its scope, for no appreciable purpose.

Rostovtzeff’s sense of humor

Another gem from my research into Rostovtzeff’s life is this remark of his, in a 1938 letter to his friend Pitrim Sorokin (a fellow Russian émigré the founder of Harvard’s Department of Sociology), recalling his initial difficulty in attracting students at Wisconsin and Yale,

“In spite of all the comic aspects of my personality, which I understand more than you think: a curious external appearance, exotic manners, a strong accent, and a large number of mistakes in my English. All this remains and grows even more rather than less.”

Rostovtzeff’s students in Madison came to like him and even called him ‘Rough Stuff’ (in part because of the difficulty of pronouncing his name). And evidently he was successful at Yale too, where the university retained him even after his retirement as a professor. But this letter seems to reveal a combination of wit and sadness that seem characteristic of Rostovtzeff and it provides (for me, anyway) a telling insight onto his personality.

(This letter is courtesy of G. Bongard-Levin and G. W. Bowersock, “Rostovtzeff and Harvard,” Philologus 140 [1996], 340-4; they also provide Sorokin’s reply at 344-5.)

A curt job offer

My research on Rostovtzeff has turned up an interesting detail, namely the text of his job offer from the University of Wisconsin, sent via cable January 3, 1920:

“University Wisconsin history department offers professorship for academic year beginning September subjects elementary ancient history Russian history and research salary five thousand dollars and five hundred for travel Paxson.”

Rostovtzeff replied on January 6:

“Thankfully accept offer. Writing. (Signed) Rostovtzeff.”

According to rumor, Rostovtzeff then took an atlas from the shelf to see where Wisconsin was.

(I found the cables in M. A. Wes, Michael Rostovtzeff, Historian in Exile, Stuttgart, 1990, 47-8. Rostovtzeff’s time in Madison is usefully discussed in G. W. Bowersock, “Rostovtzeff in Madison,” The American Scholar 55.3, 1986, 391-400.)

In memoriam Elizabeth A. Clark (1938-2021)

It is quite unfortunate that I am so often in a position to memorialize recently departed scholars and actors (and the occasional baseball player) on this site, but I never want to miss an opportunity to say why I think someone mattered. Today I would like to remember Elizabeth Clark, an expert on early Christianity. I know Prof. Clark only from her phenomenal book History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn (Harvard University Press, 2004). This book is essentially a historiographic study of historical thought, from Rankean objectivism to Foucauldian postmodernism. The beauty of it is that the reader takes this entire intellectual journey himself, seeing what each succeeding scholarly paradigm has to offer as an improvement on its predecessor. I highly recommend this book to any historian (i.e. anyone working on any period).

In memoriam Michael K. Williams (1966-2021)

I am very sad to learn of the death of Michael K. Williams, whose character Omar Little was one of my favorites on The Wire (and I am not alone in that regard). I especially loved his unusual combination of menace, Zen and cheerful whistling, as well as his fierce independence. But I also really enjoyed his performance on Community as Marshall Kane, a biology professor who earned his PhD while in prison. He was hilariously solemn, something which I, as an educator, aspire to myself. He will be sorely missed.


New fellowship

As of today, I am a fellow at the Bard Graduate Center in New York (just across Central Park from the Met), working on a project concerning Mikhail Rostovtzeff and the study of Parthian art. More details to follow — especially as the project begins to take shape!

Franz Cumont (left) and Rostovtzeff (right) in the Mithraeum at Dura-Europos, 1933-4 (Yale University Art Gallery)