Bury, John Bagnell

views updated


British classical scholar and Byzantine historian; b. Monaghan, Ireland, Oct. 16, 1861; d. Rome, June 1,1927. His father, an Anglican clergyman, taught him Latin and Greek at an early age, and he had a brilliant career at Trinity College, Dublin, his principal teacher being the famous classical scholar J. P. Mahaffy. He graduated from Trinity in 1882, was made a fellow in 1885, was elected to the professorship of modern history in 1893, and was appointed regius professor of Greek in 1898. In 1902 he became Lord Acton's successor as regius professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, a post that he held until his death. By 1891 he had acquired a knowledge of Sanskrit, Hebrew, Syriac, and several modern languages, including Russian and Hungarian. His classical training and love of ancient classical literature had a profound affect on his later work and outlook. He regarded later Roman and Byzantine history as essentially the continuation of ancient, and particularly Hellenic, civilization. Although influenced by the philosophy of G. W. F. Hegel, he was more Hellenic than Hegelian in his rationalism, opposing revealed religion and the theory of contingency in history. In 1889 he published his History of the Later Roman Empire from Arcadius to Irene (2 v. London); and shortly afterward, his excellent edition of the Odes of Pindar (2 v. London 189092). Between 1896 and 1900, he produced his scholarly edition of Gibbon's Decline and Fall (7 v. London), with introduction, notes, and appendices, which has remained standard. His History of Greece to the Death of Alexander (1st ed. London 1900, 2d ed. 1913) was long regarded as the best one-volume work in its field. His Life of St. Patrick and His Place in History (London 1905), inspired by his interest in the influence of Roman civilization, marks an epoch in critical Irish hagiography. His Ancient Greek Historians (New York 1909) retains a high place in Greek historiography.

Bury's profound knowledge of Byzantine constitutional history is exhibited especially in The Constitution of the Later Roman Empire (Cambridge, Eng. 1909) and The Imperial Administrative System in the Ninth Century, with a Revised Text of the Kletorologion of Philotheos (London 1911). His detailed History of the Eastern Roman Empire from the Fall of Irene to the Accession of Basil I appeared a little later (London 1912). Preoccupation with philosophical questions led to the writing and publication of A History of Freedom of Thought (London 1913) and The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into Its Origin and Growth (London 1920), both books revealing a marked rationalistic bent. His last significant work was the History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian (2 v. London 1923). He planned the Cambridge Medieval History, and the first six volumes of the Cambridge Ancient History carry his name as one of the main editors.

Bury was one of the greatest of modern scholars in the Byzantine field. He was primarily concerned, however, with political, constitutional, and administrative history, showing too little interest in social historyand even less in religion as such. His failure to perceive the significance of religion as a dynamic and guiding force in ancient and Byzantine civilization is a weakness, above all, in his works on Byzantine history, that must be recognized.

Bibliography: n. h. baynes and h. last, The Dictionary of National Biography from the Earliest Times to 1900 (London 18851900) 144147. j. w. thompson and b. j. holm, History of Historical Writing, 2 v. (New York 1942) 2:527529. n. h. baynes, A Bibliography of the Works of J. Bury with a Memoir (Cambridge, Eng. 1929).

[m. r. p. mcguire]