Early in 1924, Yale announced in The New York Times that it was hiring a new Sterling professor of ancient history and would be accepting applications. The appointment caused some stir: Michael Rostovtzeff, one of the century’s greatest historians of the ancient world, would leave his home in Madison, Wisconsin, lured to Yale by greater resources and greater freedom to research.
Rostovtzeff (like Albert Einstein) belonged to the generation of European intellectuals who, when they were dislodged by war and killing, found new homes, embraced new cultures and dazzled students with their incredible breadth of experience. He taught at the University of St. Petersburg until the Russian Revolution of 1918, when he crossed into Finland with his wife and one cow. He taught briefly at Oxford and then for five years in Madison. His students loved to trade legends about him. Short and stocky, he could lecture and bicker in six languages. He could drink an enormous amount — and sometimes enough that he would pick fights on the streets of Athens. Rather than stumble over his difficult name, his closest American students preferred the designation, “Rough Stuff.”
He did not feel at home at Yale. He found his students harder to teach. As he put in the preface to his “History of the Ancient World”: “This book is a course of lectures on ancient history which I gave yearly for five years to the freshmen of Wisconsin University, and which I am now giving, in a slightly altered form, to the sophomores of Yale University.” He found his colleagues in the Classics Department amusingly literary, willing to ignore the real, on-the-ground history of the people and places they studied.
But the department surrounded him with the resources to achieve great things. In 1926 his first masterpiece came out, the massive “Economic and Social History of the Roman Empire.” It summoned vast amounts of material evidence — coins, metals, figurines —and brought the ancient empire back to life in a way that had not been done before. Rostovtzeff imagined Rome as vividly as he remembered the political catastrophe of his former life: The book freely deploys terms like “proletariat” and “bourgeoisie.” “His learning was enormous,” said another historian, “but he cannot be confused with people who know all about a thing without knowing the thing.”
Around the same time, British soldiers in Syria stumbled upon some ruins and ancient-looking artifacts. Classical archaeologists, supposing that this was not a drill, sprang to action. The French and Syrians were first. But by 1928 their operations sputtered out and had little to show for it. The president of Yale at that time, James Angell, already burdened by the cost of building the first residential colleges and the monumental Sterling Memorial Library, nevertheless managed to carve out funds for three years’ work. Rostovtzeff assembled a team, partnering with the famous French archaeologist Franz Cumont. In the coming years Angell himself paid close attention to their progress. He was quick to send congratulations east through telegraph when Rostovtzeff’s team began to pull amazing things from the sand.
The city they found, Dura-Europos, told Rostovtzeff what he already knew about the ancient world: It was a place of unbelievable cosmopolitanism and radical diversity. A Jewish synagogue, one of the earliest known, displayed Abraham and Isaac, as well as Moses fleeing Egypt. A Christian church contained the earliest painting of Jesus we have. The walls were inscribed with more ancient languages than many have ever heard of. Rostovtzeff, now well over 60, disturbed his colleagues by staring at the blinding white walls for hours, reading one item after another and placing each into his cosmic historical framework. In New Haven, the students and faculty of the Classics Department summoned their common expertise and published study after study, year after year, exposing for the first time material that had been hidden from the world since the third century A.D. (What is not in a museum is now gone again: Last year, ISIS raided the ancient city and demolished whatever they saw.)
Last month, current Classics professor Kirk Freudenburg pointed out, courageously, that the University has for years been channeling the funds set aside for scholarship in the Classics into construction and maintenance — as if the proper task of an old department is to take care of its old buildings. Now, like Rostovtzeff before him, professor Andrew Johnston oversees the excavation of Gabii in Italy, which still has many secrets left to yield. But students inspired by Johnston’s Roman history lectures can no longer help with these excavations. Lecture series have been cancelled; projects have been shelved.
The department’s teachers continue to push students to do cutting-edge research and bring their learning to life. But its position is still unfortunate. Instead of investing in buildings, the University should invest in scholarship. What else is a university for?
William Theiss is a senior in Berkeley College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .