Arnaldo Dante Momigliano (19081987), by unknown photographer
Momigliano, Arnaldo Dante (19081987), ancient historian, was born on 5 September 1908 in Caraglio, near Cuneo, Italy, the only son and eldest of three children of Riccardo Salomone Momigliano, grain merchant, and his wife, Ilda Levi. His was a prominent Jewish intellectual family; his father and mother died in a concentration camp in the Second World War. He was educated at home, and from 1925 at Turin University, where he came under the influence of Gaetano De Sanctis in ancient history and Augusto Rostagni in Greek literature.
Immediately after graduating in 1929, Momigliano followed De Sanctis to Rome, where he joined the group of scholars employed on the Enciclopedia italiana, for which he wrote over 230 articles, including the long and important Roma in età imperiale (1936). At the same time, from the age of twenty-four he was teaching Greek history at Rome University as assistant and from 1932 as substitute for De Sanctis. He married in 1932 Gemma, daughter of Adolfo Segre, civil servant; they had one daughter, Anna Laura.
Despite his connections with De Sanctis and Benedetto Croce (both openly opposed to fascism) in 1936 Momigliano won the concorso for the post of professor of Roman history at Turin University. His inaugural lecture (published posthumously in 1989) was The concept of peace in the Graeco-Roman world. In September 1938 he was dismissed on racial grounds.
Momigliano's second book, on the emperor Claudius (1932), had been favourably noticed by Hugh Last, professor of Roman history at Oxford, who arranged for its translation into English in 1934; he therefore wrote to Last, who applied on his behalf to the Society for the Protection of Science and Learning (founded to assist academic refugees), which responded with an invitation and a small grant for a year to continue his researches in Oxford. He arrived on 30 March 1939, and his wife and daughter followed shortly. In 1940 he was interned briefly as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. Throughout the war the family lived in rented rooms, supported first by the society, then by research grants from the Rockefeller Foundation arranged through the Oxford University Press. During this period he was preparing a major book under the title Liberty and peace in the ancient world (later abandoned, although substantial fragments survive). He was the youngest (and only Italian) member of that remarkable group of refugee classical scholars who congregated in the library of the Ashmolean Museum, and who subsequently repaid their debt to Britain by transforming classical studies in the Anglo-Saxon world.
After the war Momigliano was reinstated as supernumerary professor at Turin in 1945. In 1947 he was appointed lecturer at Bristol University and in 1949 he was promoted to reader. In 1951 he moved to the chair of ancient history at University College, London, where he remained until 1975. From 1964 he was also professor at the Scuola Normale Superiore of Pisa.
For many years Momigliano played an important part on the editorial boards of the Journal of Roman Studies, Rivista Storica Italiana, and History and Theory. After retirement he was appointed an associate member of All Souls College, Oxford from 1975 to 1982, and from 1983 a visiting (later honorary) fellow at Peterhouse, Cambridge. From 1975 to his death he was Alexander White visiting professor at Chicago, where he spent a semester each year, and he also lectured widely throughout Europe and in Israel. The deaths of most of his family and childhood friends in concentration camps meant that his connections with Germany remained distant.
Momigliano's early work was in the tradition of Italian idealist and critical historical studies, and showed a firm grounding in classical philology. His first book was on the Hellenistic Jewish book of Maccabees (1930); after his biography of Claudius, he wrote a study of Philip of Macedon (1934). These were all highly professional works, distinguished by critical use of sources, sympathy with the subject, and a mastery of the extensive bibliography. By the time of his exile his own bibliography already comprised 208 items (apart from encyclopaedia articles).
The move to England, with the need to master another culture and another language, coincided with a period of deep questioning of the meaning of European history. By the end of the war Momigliano had identified a new subject for research, the history of historiography from antiquity to the present day; his immense learning and sound judgement made him the acknowledged creator and master of a new area of study for a generation. The long delayed publication of the 1962 Sather lectures after his death (The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography, 1990) showed that he had already then established the framework for researches which he pursued in detail over the next twenty-five years; these are included in his Contributi alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico, which appeared in nine volumes between 1955 and 1992. Many selections from these essays have been published, in English, Italian, French, and German. Some have criticized the fact that he preferred the essay to the book; but his choice relates to his conception of history as a way of life and an attitude of mind, rather than a set of permanent results.
Momigliano's influence was felt in many areas. His work on Edward Gibbon, George Grote, and nineteenth-century continental scholarship is particularly important. He opened up the study of late antiquity in Britain (The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, 1963). His work on early Rome inspired a new generation of Italian scholars. In 1972 he helped to establish a joint degree in anthropology and ancient history at University College, London, and comparative themes are evident in his London seminar, culminating in Alien Wisdom: the Limits of Hellenization (1975). Since his early contacts with Croce, he had been interested in the idea of liberty and its relation to the concept of the person; this provoked a controversial study, The Development of Greek Biography (1971), and towards the end of his life papers on the idea of the person and biography in late antiquity. He retained a lifelong interest in Jewish history, and his latest work centred on the history of ancient religion.
It was in the lecture and the seminar that Momigliano's distinctive combination of immense learning and facility with ideas had most impact. Although his accent remained impenetrably Piedmontese, he wrote English with an unacademic elegance and wit, and Italian like an Englishman. His teaching presented no general theory of history, for he respected too much the autonomy of the past to wish to impose general patterns on it; as he said once: I have now lost faith in my own theories, but I have not yet acquired faith in the theories of my colleagues. To him, theory was created by the historian, not by the facts; it was this emphasis on the role of the observer in the interpretation of history which was one of his most distinctive contributions to the study of history. Another was his insistence that methodology (as opposed to ideology) was the central theme of the history of historiography.
Momigliano's teaching followed the continental tradition of seminars, and his efforts were directed towards the next generation of scholars. In England the main centre of his activity was the Warburg Institute: he contributed many lectures, and from 1967 to 1983 conducted a regular seminar at the institute, which became the centre for young historians throughout Britain. In Italy his annual seminar at Pisa attracted audiences of hundreds, and his Chicago seminar was equally famous. None who presented a paper on these occasions could forget the mixture of awe and fear which he inspired, as he summed up the problem with greater clarity and learning than the speaker could ever hope to achieve.
Widely held to be the most learned man of his age, Momigliano was a masters' master (as George Steiner dubbed him), and one of the dominant figures in European historical studies for a generation, in which he seemed to many to be the embodiment of history itself. Stocky, untidy, and of immense vitality, a non-drinker always on the move, with his pockets full of medicines, carbon copy cash-books (for writing references in), and bunches of keys, his books in a string bag, his scarf attached by a safety pin, he took scant interest in administration, and lived for intellectual discussion. He was immediately approachable, and paid no attention to rank: he lacked all pomposity and most of the social graces, even forgetting his own retirement dinneran act which he described as a triumph of the Id over the Ego. He would move in a cloud of younger scholars; and an hour with him would often change their lives. He was fascinated by ideas, new and old; in his later years he became more insistent on the need to know, and returned to ancestral traditions of rabbinic learning and exact scholarship, but he never lost his delight in discussion. To those he respected intellectually, especially the young, he was generous to a fault; he would dismiss openly those who did not measure up to his standards. As a result he had many devoted friends and disciples, and not a few enemies. For he was a man of passion, capable of quarrelling magnificently and permanently; yet it must be said that he never did so without good cause, personal or intellectual.
Through his writing and his personality Momigliano made a major contribution to intellectual life in England, Italy, and America. But he remained true to his origins; during a lifetime of exile he retained his Italian citizenship, and as a free thinker was proud of his three inheritances, Celtic Piedmont, Italy of the Risorgimento, and the Jewish tradition of learning.
Momigliano held a number of visiting professorships in America; he became a fellow of the British Academy in 1954, and was president of the Society for the Promotion of Roman Studies in 19658; he received many honorary degrees, and an honorary KBE in 1974. Momigliano died on 1 September 1987 in the Central Middlesex Hospital, London, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery at Cuneo. A memorial meeting was held in University College, London, on 4 March 1988.
Oswyn Murray, rev.
Rivista Storica Italiana, 100 (1988), fasc. 2 · The Times (3 Sept 1987) · The Times (5 March 1988) · P. Brown, Arnaldo Dante Momigliano, 19081987, PBA, 74 (1988), 40542 · C. Dionisotti, Ricordo di Arnaldo Momigliano (1989) · L. Cracco Ruggini, Omaggio ad Arnaldo Momigliano (1989) · History and Theory [Beiheft], 30 (1991) · Scuola Normale, Pisa, Momigliano MSS · Bodl. Oxf., Society for the Protection of Science and Learning, MSS Momigliano · Oxford University Press, archives, Momigliano MSS · personal knowledge (1996) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1989)
Bodl. Oxf., Society for the Protection of Science and Learning MSS
Oxford University Press, archives
Scuola Normale, Pisa
photograph, British Academy [see illus.]
Wealth at death
£303,824 in England and Wales: administration with will, 9 March 1989, CGPLA Eng. & Wales