Yale Daily News

Tuesday night, over 150 historians and curious viewers attended the 14th Annual Michael I. Rostovtzeff Lecture, which featured a talk by historian Roger Bagnall ’68 about caravan cities and the transport, capital and inequality of the Egyptian oases.

The lecture, which was free and open to the Yale community, hosted attendees from across the world over Zoom, run by the University’s four ancient historians. In anticipation of the endowed lecture — named after Rostovtzeff, a Russian emigree, ancient historian and Sterling Professor of ancient history — Joseph Manning, professor of classics and history, expressed his excitement for the event.

“It’s essentially a showcase for ancient history at Yale to the world,” Manning said. “People around the world … will be able to tune in live, and that’s a new audience for us. I mean, now we’re kind of broadcasting globally, a huge opportunity to just get Yale and the exciting Yale program out there.”

Manning served as a member of the panel of ancient historians tasked with selecting the speaker for the lecture and organizing the event. Manning, who has been on the committee for 13 of the 14 lectures, works alongside professors of classics and history Noel Lenski, Andrew Johnston and Jessica Lamont.

In an interview with the News, Manning expressed the committee’s typical commitment to trying to have “good coverage of the field,” with a balance in representation of the study of ancient history, with most talks throughout the years giving “a nod” to Rostovtzeff and his work.

“[Bagnall] works very much in the tradition of Rostovtzeff … [and is] interested in the fine details of economic and social history,” Lenski said. “He’s a revolutionary … on many levels, including being a ‘nerdy’ protest figure [while] he’s been singularly one of the most important people in the world at digitizing the classics.”

Lenski, who specializes in the Middle Ages, emphasized the significance of the lecture, naming it the “most important endowed lecture in classics each year” at Yale and explaining how it was sponsored by a fund initiated by Rostovtzeff’s widow.

Manning also drew connections between Rostovtzeff, “one of the great ancient historians of the 20th century,” and Bagnall on the basis of their studies and integration of archaeological material and historical documents.

“Roger Bagnall’s lecture title refers to a famous little book by Rostovtzeff,” Manning said. “Roger’s work is particularly exciting … [and] actually makes ancient history relevant to … the current situation in the world, which I find, probably, the most exciting aspect of it all.”

Bagnall attended graduate school at the University of Toronto, briefly taught at Florida State University and was a professor of Greek, Latin and history at Columbia University for 33 years. Given the opportunity to further engage with his specialization in Hellenistic, Roman and late antique Egypt, he led New York University’s excavation project at Amheida in the Dakhla Oasis in western Egypt, writing his latest book, “An Oasis City,” and formulating his lecture around its findings.

Bagnall’s excavation and research allowed him and his team to “reconstruct an entire social and economic system” in the Egyptian desert during the period of Roman rule from the first century B.C. to the fifth century A.D., mainly through the use of archaeological remains, Lenski said.

“[The population] made a living by producing things that are valuable enough [that] they could be shipped a couple of hundred miles across the desert to the Nile Valley and still be valuable enough to sell,” Bagnall said. “The way in which this character is [in this] zone, demanding a lot of capital investment, causes it to be a place of …  very high inequality, economically and socially.”

In his lecture, Bagnall focused on the relation of the five principal oases to caravan traffic and societies in Egypt.

He also discussed the economic incentives of capital investments in wells and the oases’ export economy to the distinct social stratification into managerial, tenant, transport-worker, artisan and capitalist classes.

“The issues that come out of studying the oasis are very contemporary in many ways,” Bagnall said. “The issue of inequality has been a pretty big topic of discussion in recent years … [and] has filtered into political discourse [and] certainly played a role in the election that just happened.”

Before Bagnall started his lecture, Chair of Classics Christina Kraus gave a brief history of Rostovtzeff and the endowment fund. Lamont then introduced Bagnall by providing his background information and describing him as the “ideal Rostovtzeff lecturer.”

With no technical issues or difficulties during the lecture and a high level of attendance, Lenski expressed his satisfaction with the event, despite his interest in “getting back to the original format” and regaining its usual level of personal interaction.

Regarding both his postponed archaeological project — due to insecurity in the western desert and the Egyptian security administration’s unwillingness to let his team work at their Amheida site — and the lecture, Bagnall shared Lenski’s excitement for a return to normalcy.

“I’m glad to reach an audience [but] the chance to see a lot of friends would be great,” Bagnall told the News. “It’s really the in-person part, and I hope, you know, come April, there’ll be a chance to actually meet some students and talk to them.”

Rostovtzeff taught at Yale from 1925 until his retirement in 1944.

Amelia Lower | amelia.lower@yale.edu