Momigliano and Gibbon

Jonathan Blaney, Institute of Historical Research

When I was an undergraduate I lived in a house formerly owned by the great classicist Eduard Fraenkel. Fraenkel left Germany to escape the persecution of Jews and others and became one of ‘that remarkable group of refugee classical scholars who congregated in the library of the Ashmolean Museum’. Another of this group, from whose ODNB entry the above quotation is taken, was Arnaldo Momigliano, who left in Italy in 1939 and spent the rest of his life as an expatriate, teaching primarily at UCL and Chicago. Momigliano had a lifelong interest in biography and a clear intellectual commitment to it as a way of understanding the past, as the editors’ introduction to one collection of his essays emphasises:

It was the complex interplay of intellect and personality that particularly attracted Momigliano. His essays are major contributions to intellectual history, and yet personality and character are never far away. The more one reads Momigliano’s essays on modern scholarship, the more one sees that their exceptionally profound insights into the humanity and thought of their subjects reflect an unceasing struggle on the part of their author to comprehend the counterpoint of thought and action in his own career.[1]

Religion was a preoccupation of Momigliano’s work, and it is tempting to wonder what effect his own life’s events – fleeing religious persecution in a Christian country, and finding refuge in another – had on his writing about Christianity and Judaism in the ancient world.

We can get a firm sense of Momigliano’s attitude to the historical study of religion in his writing about a historian he engaged with frequently, Edward Gibbon. Gibbon converted to Catholicism when an undergraduate and was sent by his father to Lausanne to be unconverted forthwith. Gibbon duly obliged and credited the invigorating intellectual atmosphere in Lausanne with turning him into a historian.

Certainly Gibbon’s time in Lausanne enabled him to become completely at ease in the French language. Momigliano connects Gibbon with the intellectual heritage of Montesquieu and Voltaire: ‘He was entirely at home in the new Paris of the encyclopedists and he shared many of their convictions’[2] and even ascribes Gibbon’s famous style, a blend of ‘malice and erudition’,[3] to the powerful influence of Pierre Bayle.

Yet an essential part of Gibbon’s greatness as a historian was his open-mindedness – to Islam, for example. Indeed elsewhere Momigliano carefully contrasted Gibbon’s approach with that of Voltaire:

Even here, where the thought is Voltairean, and where Voltaire himself would have wrapped everything up in an epigram, the writing loosens up and carefully defines its subject.[4]

Momigliano then goes on to quote a passage from chapter 47 of Decline and Fall where Gibbon is fulsomely generous about the historical Jesus:

The familiar companions of Jesus of Nazareth conversed with their friend and countryman, who, in all the actions of rational and animal life, appeared of the same species with themselves. His progress from infancy to youth and manhood was marked by a regular increase in stature and wisdom; and after a painful agony of mind and body, he expired on the cross. He lived and died for the service of mankind: but the life and death of Socrates had likewise been devoted to the cause of religion and justice; and although the stoic or the hero may disdain the humble virtues of Jesus, the tears which he shed over his friend and country may be esteemed the purest evidence of his humanity.

Naturally Momigliano wondered what effect Catholicism, rather than the manner of his leaving it, might have had on the historian: ‘An unresolved and, I think, irresolvable problem in his biography is what remained of his brief conversion to Catholicism’.[5] Despite Gibbon’s own claim that his Catholicism left no trace, Momigliano notes his general preference for Catholic over Anglican historians. Then, in a way which is clearly connected to Gibbon’s biography, Momigliano pays tribute to his predecessor’s general approach to religion, in words which have something of a credo about them:

In Gibbon’s irony there is much scepticism and much prudence; but there is also something more: a solid realism which refuses to condemn what being considered, even if it not believed.[6]

Momigliano died as Peter Brown’s celebrated The Body and Society, was going to press; Momigliano was the book’s dedicatee and Brown took the opportunity pay tribute – in words that remind me of Momigliano’s praise of Gibbon – to his late friend’s

sense of truth, as we all to the magnificently unconstricted range and human warmth of his concern for the role of Judaism and Christianity in the history of the ancient world.[7]


[1] AD Momigliano, Studies in Modern Scholarship, Bowersock and Cornell (eds), introduction, p. xi

[2] ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, p. 42 in Studies in Historiography

[3] Ibid., p.43

[4] ‘Anche là, dove il pensiero è volteriano, e il maestro avrebbe risolto tutto nell’epigramma, il discorso si snoda lento e attento a delimitare l’oggetto’, ‘La Moderna storiografia sull’impero romano’, p.203 in Contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[5] ‘Un problema non risolto e, credo, non risolvibile, della sua biografia e ciò che sia rimasto della sua breve conversion al Cattolicesimo’, ‘Edward Gibbon fuori e dentro la cultura italiana’, p.234, in Sesto contributo alla storia degli studi classici.

[6] ‘Nella ironia di Gibbon c’è molto scetticismo e molto prudenza; ma c’è anche qualcosa di più: un fermo realismo che si rifiuta di condannare ciò che serve, anche se non ci si crede.’ Ibid.

[7] Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, p. xx

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