Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff

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Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff

Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff (1870-1952), Russian-born American historian and the foremost classical scholar of his day, specialized in the social and economic movements of Greece and Rome.

Michael Rostovtzeff was born on Nov. 10, 1870, in Kiev, where he went through the university, earning master and doctorate degrees in classical philology. From 1895 to 1898 he traveled throughout the classical lands. He then became professor of Latin at the University of St. Petersburg, a post he occupied until 1918.

Rostovtzeff and his wife left their country in 1918 because of the Russian Revolution and went to England. His Proletarian Culture (1919), published under the auspices of the Russian Liberation Committee, showed his revulsion against the principles of the Russian Revolution. In 1920 he became professor of ancient history at the University of Wisconsin, a position he held until 1925, when he went to Yale as Sterling professor of ancient history and archeology. In 1928 he directed Yale's archeological expedition to Dura-Europos on the Euphrates River in Syria. He continued as director and remained as editor of the excavation reports after he retired from teaching in 1944.

At the same time, Rostovtzeff was writing monographs and more general books. Two of his studies, A Large Estate in Egypt in the Third Century B.C. and The Iranians and Greeks in South Russia (both 1922), showed his interest in economic and cultural development. His Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (1926) is considered one of the principal modern contributions to Roman historiography. In his popular text A History of the Ancient World (2 vols., 1926-1927) Rostovtzeff devoted considerable space to art and literature, and he extended this interest to Chinese art in his next book, Inlaid Bronzes of the Han Dynasty in the Collection of C. T. Loo (1927). He continued to write on topics such as Italy, Seleucid Babylonia, the animal style in Russia and China, and the art of Dura-Europos. The Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World (3 vols., 1941) is his most famous work. He died in New Haven on Oct. 20, 1952.

Rostovtzeff believed that the past had meaning for the present. He thought the ancient world displayed features similar to the modern and argued that the economic development of the ancient world roughly approximated that of the present, although it did not reach the full stage of industrial capitalism. He favored the open Greek economic system in contrast to the closed Egyptian one and the urban middle class over a rural aristocracy. He attacked the notions that the ancient world was a stage from which modern economic development evolved and that economic factors were the sole cause of cultural change.

Further Reading

Rostovtzeff presents his ideas about history in the preface to his A History of the Ancient World (2 vols., 1926-1927). Herman Ausubel, Historians and Their Craft: A Study of the Presidential Addresses of the American Historical Association, 1884-1945 (1950), considers Rostovtzeff the greatest classicist since Mommsen. □

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