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Cumont, Franz


CUMONT, FRANZ . Franz Valèry Marie Cumont (18681947) was a Belgian historian of religions, as well as a philologist, archaeologist, and epigraphist. He studied at Ghent (18861888) and in Germany and Austria (Bonn, Berlin, Vienna [18881890], with Usener, Diels, Mommsen, Benndorf, and Bormann), after which he made the classical "grand tour" in Greece and Rome (1891), followed by a year in Paris (École Pratique des Hautes-Études, IVe section, 1892, with Duchesne, Haussoullier, etc.). He became professor of classical philology and ancient history at the University of Ghent in 1892, a position he left in 1911 when the minister of education, supported by the Catholic lobby, denied him the chair of Roman history. Cumont's Religions orientales dans le paganisme romain (1906) had presented a new vision of the historical links between the diffusion of Oriental religions and the development of Christianity. Cumont had friendly relationships with several modernists, including Alfred Loisy, Louis Duchesne, and Ernesto Buonaiuti; he also published works in modernist journals in France and Italy, and was thus considered a "subversive" scholar by conservative Catholics. He retired in 1911, and in 1913 he decided to live in Rome and Paris as a private scholar, rejecting offers of several academic positions.

Cumont passed through the two world wars without fighting, but he tried to maintain intellectual activity as a sign of cultural resistance. He never married and died in 1947 near Brussels, without direct heirs. Cumont bequeathed his archive and rich library, in which the history of religions and the sciences were especially well represented, to the Belgian Academy in Rome. The more interesting part of the archive is the scholarly correspondence, which includes about twelve thousand letters received by Cumont from 1885 to 1947 from more than a thousand scholars around the world. These documents offer a rich and complex picture of the scientific, cultural, and political background of Cumont's period and activity, and of the scholarly "cartography" of his time.

Cumont's first major study is the Mithraic corpus Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra (18941899), which was the foundation for the scientific study of Mithraism. Cumont published an abridged version, Les mystères de Mithra, in 1900, which was translated into German and English (The Mysteries of Mithra, 1910). In 1900 Cumont and his brother Eugène traveled to Asia Minor (Pontus and Armenia) in search of the Asiatic roots of Mithra, but, though he found and published a number of new inscriptions, he did not find answers to his questions about Mithra's origin. His Textes et monuments figurés relatifs aux mystères de Mithra remained the standard work on Mithraism for more than half a century.

In the 1970s Cumont's reconstruction of the Mithra's mysteries came under criticism by Richard Gordon and others. Three main problems were outlined: (1) The Anatolian, or more precisely Persian, origin of the Mithra cult, which seems to develop only in the Roman context; (2) the role attributed to the magi; that is, the Persian and Chaldean astrologers, in the cult's transmission and diffusion; and (3) the dating of Mithraism, which, according to Cumont, appeared in the Hellenistic period, though it was only documented in Roman times. However, after the discovery of the Mithraeum (Sanctuary of Mithra) in Dura-Europos in 1934 and then in Doliche (Commagene; c. 100 bce), it seems that Cumont's ideas were not in error, and research tends to back up both the Anatolian origin and the Hellenistic dating.

In 1905 Cumont lectured at the Collège de France about Asiatic cults in Roman paganism, which led in 1906 to his famous book ("a little book about a great topic," as he said himself) Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain. The book focuses first on the historical background and channels of the Oriental cults' diffusion in the Roman Empire; it also contains four chapters about major cults from Asia Minor (Cybele and Attis), Egypt (Isis and Serapis), Syria (Atargatis, Baal, Adonis), and Iran (Mithra). The book ends with a conclusion on the role of astrology and magic. In the fourth edition (1929), Cumont added a chapter on the Dionysiac mysteries. He was the first to point out the importance of the so-called Oriental cults for the evolution of Roman paganism, and he attempted to study them not only from the legal and public point of view, but also from the social and private one. Cumont emphasizes the multiethnic character of the Roman Empire, where the acculturative power of the religious practices was very strong. Cumont also tries to explain how the Oriental cults paved the way for the adoption of Christianity.

Though Cumont's work had a deep influence on the next generations, his vision must be revisited. First, the concept of "Oriental religions" is too imprecise and too general. The "Oriental cults" were in fact more "Greco-Oriental"they passed first from Asia to Greece, where they were deeply Hellenized, and then from Greece to Rome. Thus, Cumont's vision is too linear and "diffusionist," and the diffusion from Asia to Rome seems to be an artificial reconstruction. The reception of the "Oriental cults" in different parts of the Roman Empire (for example, on the Danubian limes) provoked assimilations and syncretisms between the Roman, Greek, and Oriental cults and did not erase the Romans' ancient religious beliefs, but it encouraged cultural interactions, as demonstrated in Nicole Belayche's work (e.g., 2001) on this topic. Nonetheless, Cumont's Les religions orientales dans le paganisme romain remains a fundamental step in the history of ancient religions.

In 1911 Cumont lectured in Sweden and in the United States about Astrology and Religion among the Greeks and the Romans (1912). In this work Cumont underlines the importance of astrological determinism and its consequences on the religious conceptions of the soul's destiny and of its afterlife journey. This work is related to a great philological enterprise that Cumont began in 1898: the Corpus codicum astrologorum graecorum. The aim was to collect information about astrological manuscripts conserved in major European libraries. Cumont, with several collaborators (in particular Franz Boll), published several volumes on the Italian, German, British, and French libraries. He used the occasion to study ancient astrological conceptions and the relationship between philosophical and religious theories, especially Neoplatonism.

Cumont thereafter published numerous essays on Greek and Roman eschatology. In 1922 he published Afterlife in Roman Paganism; in 1942 Recherches sur le symbolisme funéraire des Romains ; and in 1949 (posthumously) Lux Perpetua, a scientific testament that has not been supplanted as a standard work. Cumont traces the development of conceptions of the soul, especially in the Roman world. According to ancient popular belief, a dead person survived in the tomb or as a shadow in the netherworld and could return to earth as a ghost to haunt the living. Belief in a celestial immortality appeared to Cumont to have been borrowed from Irano-Chaldean magi by Greek philosophers. This belief, owing to Pythagorean, Platonic, and Stoic influences, gradually spread from the cultivated elite to the common people, although at this point the soul was still not conceived as nonmaterial; rather, it was believed to be a subtle fluid or vapor. It was not until the rise of Neoplatonism that the opinion arose, which prevailed in Christianity, that the soul was distinct from the conditions of space and time and reached, after death, beyond the limits of the world into eternity. As for funerary art, most was allegorical, though a small proportion was supposed to represent literally the afterlife in the netherworld. Cumont examines how Greek mythssuch as the stories of Phaeton, Marsyas, or the Musescame to be used, through philosophical interpretation, as themes for the decoration of the sarcophagi of the upper classes.

Different aspects of Cumont's reconstruction were challenged by Arthur Darby Nock and Paul Veyne, who doubt that such a symbolic value is actually perceptible. Veyne prefers to speak of an "aesthetic" atmosphere, while Nock stresses the fact that Cumont gives too much importance to philosophical and literary evidence, and consequently presents as a general phenomenon what was actually a conception among elites.

Cumont's works on Julian include Recherches sur la tradition manuscrite des lettres de l'empereur Julien (1898); with Joseph Bidez, Imp. Caesaris Flavii Claudii Iuliani Epistulae, leges, poematia, fragmenta varia (1922); L'Égypte des astrologues (1937); and, with Bidez, Les Mages hellénisés (1938). This last work is a critical edition of and an abundant commentary on texts (mostly in Greek) that were issued in antiquity under the authority of Zoroaster/Zarathushtra, or other so-called magi. The very existence of such Hellenized magi remains doubtful however: many if not all of those works were written by Greeks, Romans, and others, who were not magi.

Cumont also played a major role in the excavations of Dura-Europos (Fouilles de Doura-Europos, 19231924, 1926), begun in 1923 and later led by Cumont with Michael Rostovtzeff. Cumont also encouraged the Belgian excavations in Apamea.

From a methodological point of view, Cumont was a complete scholar able to make use of all the sources (literary and material) available to him to present a vivid and richly documented historical fresco. He was an excellent philologist (Hermann Diels's favorite pupil), epigraphist, and historian of religions, sciences, and art, and he was also deeply involved in geographical and institutional history. He believed that the study of Asia, through excavations and the discovery of archives, was a real revolution in historical science and that it was impossible to study the Greek and Roman world without taking Asian influences into account. His point of view was obviously that of a classicist who did not always have firsthand knowledge of the different aspects of the "Orient." Cumont learned Syriac, but he was not an Orientalist in the strict sense of the word; he asked Charles Clermont-Ganneau or Giorgio Levi della Vida to help him when he had to study Semitic inscriptions. Nevertheless, Cumont was a great scholar and a generous open-minded person who had a major influence on historians and philologists of the 1950s and 1960s, especially in France and Belgium, and including Pierre Boyancé, Jean Gagé, Henri-Irénée Marrou, André-Jean Festugière, and Jerome Carcopino.


Biographical sketches are available in L. Canet, "Préface," in Cumont's Lux Perpetua (Paris, 1949), pp. viixxx; and Corinne Bonnet, "Franz Cumont," in Religion und Geschichte in Gegenwart, 4th ed. (Stuttgart, Germany, 1999), col. 504505. On Cumont's life, works, and correspondence, see Bonnet, La correspondance scientifique de Franz Cumont conservée à l'Academia Belgica de Rome (Brussels and Rome, 1997); as well as Bonnet's "La formation de Franz Cumont d'après sa correspondance (18851892)," Kernos 11 (1998): 245264. See also Aline Rousselle, ed., Actes de la Table Ronde: "Franz Cumont et la science de son temps," Paris, 56/12/1997 (Paris, 1999; MEFRIM 111 [1999]); Bonnet, "Franz Cumont recenseur," in Képoi: Mélanges en l'honneur d'André Motte, edited by Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge and Edouard Delruelle (Liège, Belgium, 2001), pp. 309335; Bonnet, "Le grand atelier de la science": Franz Cumont et l'Altertumswissenschaft, Héritages et émancipations, vol. 1: Des études universitaires à la première guerre mondiale (Brussels and Rome, 2004).

On Mithraism, see Richard Gordon, "Franz Cumont and the Doctrines of Mithraism," in Mithraic Studies, edited by John R. Hinnells (Manchester, UK, 1975), pp. 215248; Roger Beck, "Mithraism since Franz Cumont," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt (ANRW ) II, 17, no. 4 (1984): 20022115; Robert Turcan, "Franz Cumont, un fondateur," Kernos 11 (1998): 235244; and Roger Beck, "The Mysteries of Mithra: A New Account on Their Genesis," Journal of Roman Studies 88 (1998): 115128.

On iconographical analysis, see Arthur Darby Nock, "Sarcophagi and Symbolism," American Journal of Archaeology 50 (1946): 14170, and Paul Veyne, "L'empire Romain," in Philippe Aries and Georges Duby, eds., Histoire de la vie privee, vol. I, De l'Empire Romaine à l'an mil (Paris, 1985), pp. 221222.

On Oriental religions, see Ramsey MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire (New Haven and London, 1981); Nicole Belayche, "'Deae Syriae Sacrum': La romanité des cultes 'orientaux,'" Revue Historique 302 (2001): 565592; and "L'Oronte et le Tibre: L''Orient' des cultes 'orientaux' de l'empire romain," in L'Orient dans l'histoire religieuse de l'Europe, edited by Mohammad Ali Amir-Moezzi and John Scheid (Louvain, Belgium, 2001), pp. 135.

Jacques Duchesne-Guillemin (1987)

Corinne Bonnet (2005)

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