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Toynbee, Arnold Josephlocked

  • Fergus Millar

Arnold Joseph Toynbee (1889–1975)

by Yousuf Karsh, 1955

© Karsh / Camera Press, London; collection National Portrait Gallery, London

Toynbee, Arnold Joseph (1889–1975), historian, was born in London on 14 April 1889, the only son and eldest of the three children of Harry Valpy Toynbee (1861–1941) and Sarah Edith Marshall (1859–1939).

Family and education

The family occupied a quite prominent position in late Victorian England. H. V. Toynbee was the fourth son of Joseph Toynbee (1815–1866), a highly successful London doctor, and was the younger brother both of Paget Jackson Toynbee (1855–1932), who became a very well-known expert on Dante, and more importantly of Arnold Toynbee (1852–1883), who at a very early age achieved a wide reputation as a reforming thinker on social problems, was a tutor at Balliol College, Oxford, and died young, at the age of thirty. Toynbee Hall in London was named in his memory, as was his nephew Arnold J. Toynbee, born six years after his death. H. V. Toynbee and his wife had two further children, Jocelyn Mary Catherine Toynbee (1897–1985), who became an important Roman archaeologist and art historian, and was Lawrence professor of classical archaeology at Cambridge University and a fellow of the British Academy, and Margaret (b. 1900). In later years the two sisters lived together in Park Town, Oxford.

H. V. Toynbee did not have a successful career to match those of the other members of the family. In 1883, following in the family's tradition of high-minded public service, he became district secretary of the Charity Organization Society, a position that neither held any great prominence nor provided an adequate income for the maintenance of an upper-middle-class lifestyle. W. S. McNeill, to whose penetrating and sympathetic biography Arnold Toynbee: a Life (1989) all treatments of Toynbee, including this one, owe much, attaches great importance to the strain imposed on the young Toynbee both by the necessity to live up to high expectations and by the sheer practical need, if a fitting education were to be secured, to gain the scholarships that would make this possible. McNeill also stresses the influence of Toynbee's mother, a strong-minded and highly principled person, who had studied history at Cambridge at a time when women were not admitted to degrees, and had gained what would have been classified as a first-class degree.

Toynbee was to show very early the capacity for mastery of languages, for voracious reading, covering a far wider range than would have been suggested by the educational norms of the period (or indeed of any period), and for sheer hard work. One of the most notable characteristics of his achievement over his lifetime was his astonishing productivity in writing. It could well be argued that this capacity, shown perhaps best of all in the annual Surveys of International Affairs which he produced in the 1920s and 1930s (see below), in the end served to damage his reputation. The sheer scale of his academic writing, public moralizing, travel writing, and personal comment on world affairs, had the effect of wearying readers and obscuring the true power and originality of his mind.

The course of Toynbee's intensive education up to the outbreak of the First World War serves to illustrate his capacities and to provide some idea of the training which made his later achievements possible, without of course explaining them. For the education that he received represented simply the standard curriculum for the middle and upper classes of the period, focused above all on the intensive early learning of classical Greek and Latin, to a level of proficiency which is now unimaginable, and on the reading of the major classical texts as the keys to the understanding of human nature and history. When Toynbee came, at the end of his Study of History, to write a characteristically self-referential chapter entitled 'How this book came to be written', he went directly back to his classical education in the years before the First World War:

Thanks to his professional good fortune in being born into a Time of Troubles that was, by definition, a historian's paradise, the present writer was, in fact, moved to interest himself in each of the historical conundrums flung at him by current events. But his professional good fortune did not end there. By the summer of ad 1914 he had been studying Latin for fifteen years and Greek for twelve; and this traditional education had the wholesome effect of rendering its recipients immune against the malady of cultural chauvinism … He could not live through the outbreak of war in ad 1914 without realizing that the outbreak of war in 431 bc had brought the same experience to Thucydides … There was a sense in which the two dates ad 1914 and 431 bc were philosophically contemporaneous.

A Study of History, 10, 1954, chap. 13

It may be doubted whether a classical education in fact generally served to broaden the perspective of Toynbee's contemporaries in this way; the truth was rather that he was able to use it, in a unique manner, towards the wholly admirable end of a perspective which, in its own distinctive way, was to embrace the whole of human history as he saw it.

But the passage also alludes to the concrete details of bourgeois education as then experienced. For it indicates that Toynbee had begun Latin at the age of seven or eight, which was in fact at a day school called Warwick House in Maida Vale, London, situated near where the family lived, in not entirely comfortable circumstances, in a house owned by Toynbee's great-uncle, the brother of Joseph Toynbee. His Greek had begun when he was about ten, when he was sent to a boarding preparatory school, Wootton Court in Kent. From there Toynbee took the crucial step of winning a scholarship to what was intellectually the most prestigious public (that is, fee-paying) school in England, Winchester College. In the competitive scholarship examination in 1901 he just failed, but in 1902 was successful, gaining the third of eleven scholarships. Within the school also the intensity of the linguistic education provided, and the stress on writing, not only in English but also in Greek and Latin, served him extremely well. He was later to be a conspicuously good linguist, able not only to read a variety of modern languages, but to converse and lecture in them. So it is worth noting that among the battery of prizes that he collected at Winchester was one in German. The record also shows, perhaps more surprisingly, that he was already writing extensive essays on wide historical themes, such as Byzantine history or central Asia in the medieval period.

The natural next step for an outstanding classical scholar at Winchester would have been to go on to New College, Oxford, also founded by William of Wykeham. Toynbee did go to Oxford, but characteristically did not quite follow the conventional track; instead he won a scholarship to Balliol College, which under the mastership of Benjamin Jowett (1870–93) had become the embodiment of late Victorian seriousness, with a mission to train the most talented of the young men of each generation for public service.

The emphasis here too, however, was firmly on the classics, and specifically on the four-year course entitled literae humaniores, consisting of a first part (moderations) devoted essentially to further study of classical literature, and a second part divided between ancient (meaning Greek and Roman) history and philosophy. Toynbee entered Balliol in October 1907, and took his finals, after a further string of prizes, in the summer of 1911. Two aspects of his personal life in this period deserve particular mention. First, his father, H. V. Toynbee, suffered increasing mental strains, and in 1909 was confined to an institution (he remained in one or another institution until his death in 1941). Second, already as an undergraduate student, Toynbee attracted the attention of Gilbert Murray, who since 1905 had been a fellow of New College, and in 1908 became regius professor of Greek, as he remained until 1936. It was to be very significant for Toynbee's personal history, as explored by W. S. McNeill, that Murray had married Lady Mary Carlisle, the eldest daughter of the earl of Carlisle. At the personal level both Murray and Toynbee represented examples of high-achieving members of the educated bourgeoisie who rose into the orbit of the English aristocracy. Toynbee was invited to the Carlisle family seat, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, while still an undergraduate in 1910.

Travels in the Mediterranean, marriage, and wartime propaganda

At the intellectual level Murray's prominent role in making Greek literature and culture intelligible in contemporary terms was surely relevant to Toynbee's development, as was his capacity for ambitious and large-scale categorization. His Four Stages of Greek Religion was published in 1912. In the meantime Toynbee had demonstrated his mastery of conventional classical scholarship by publishing an article on Herodotus in the Classical Review (1910), again while still an undergraduate. In the fashion of the period, when young men of exceptional talent could be regarded as ready for established teaching posts already at the moment of taking their final exams, he was offered a fellowship and tutorship in ancient history at Balliol for October 1912. Far more important for the future, however, was the fact that by winning the Jenkins prize in 1911 he was provided with the resources that enabled him to spend the year from September 1911 to August 1912 travelling through Italy and Greece, partly with others and partly alone, often walking through remote areas with no modern comforts or facilities.

The experience of direct and intimate contact with the Mediterranean landscape made a powerful impression on Toynbee, vividly reflected in his autobiographical work Experiences, published nearly six decades later, in 1969, as it is also in the preface to the first volume of his Hannibal's Legacy (1965). While travelling in Greece, he also had one of a series of mystical visions of the past, on the site of the battle of Cynoscephalae (197 bc), as he was to recall in volume 10 of A Study of History (1954). It was his capacity for revealing to the public an apocalyptic vision of himself and his relation to human history that was to be one of the factors that were to leave him exposed to so much derision in the 1950s. The fact remains, however, that his demanding journey through Italy and Greece in 1911–12 was no mere post-finals jaunt, but was put by him to profound use in something more than a merely intellectual sense—in giving himself both a deep feeling for the landscapes of the region and their exploitation by peasant farmers over the centuries, and an awareness of the modern condition of both societies.

Whether or not these experiences left him already not entirely content with the conventional role of a tutor at Oxford, Toynbee duly entered on that position in October 1912; he published a very substantial article, 'The growth of Sparta', in the Journal of Hellenic Studies in 1913, and gave lectures in 1913–14 that were to serve as the basis of Hannibal's Legacy (1965). The lectures, like the two-volume work itself, will have stepped far outside the normal bounds of the story of Hannibal's conflicts with Rome, to look both at the wider history of the world as it was between the fourth and second centuries bc, and at the impact of the war on the Italian countryside. At the same time, with a typical combination of ambition and breadth of vision, he was planning to write a history of Greece which would extend from prehistoric times to the Byzantine period.

It must have seemed that Toynbee was set for an exceptionally successful career within an established framework, and all the more so when in May 1913 he became engaged to Rosalind Murray (d. 1967), the daughter of the regius professor and of Lady Mary Murray. They were married in September 1913, and their first child, Antony Harry Robert Toynbee, was born on 2 September 1914. The future, however, was not to be the untroubled success that might have been expected. Tony Toynbee committed suicide in 1939, and his parents' marriage ended in separation in 1942, and in divorce in 1946. Just before the birth of their first child the First World War had broken out, and for Toynbee, as for millions of others in different ways, the effects were to break up irrevocably a course of life which may have seemed entirely set and predictable. In his case the disturbance did not take the form of military service. He did indeed offer himself for service, but at the same time presented an opinion from a doctor to the effect that, if he did serve, the dysentery which he had contracted during his travels in 1911–12 would be very likely to recur. He was consequently excused. In the view of W. S. McNeill, he was persuaded into finding this pretext by his wife, was subsequently ashamed of having done so, and devoted most of the rest of his life to foreign affairs as a way of performing the public service that the traditions of his class would have expected, and which he had found a means of avoiding.

Naturally, such an interpretation, however convincing, cannot be proved. But the facts show that Toynbee was drawn into government propaganda work from 1915 onwards, and that he also emerged, with astonishing rapidity, as a public commentator on international affairs. His book Nationality and the War, a substantial work of 511 pages, was published in 1915, and a vigorous denunciation of Turkish atrocities, The Treatment of the Armenians in the Ottoman Empire, 1915–16, in 1916. In 1915 also, to the dismay of his friends and mentors, especially A. D. Lindsay, he resigned his fellowship at Balliol. Though he was to come back very late in life to write major works on Graeco-Roman history, he was never again to hold a teaching post concerned with the classical world. It is surely also of profound relevance to the nature of his most significant and controversial work, A Study of History, that when he abandoned the career of a Graeco-Roman historian he was extremely well read in the major historians of Greece and Rome, of whom Thucydides, as already noted, was the most important for the development of his conceptions; and also that he had had time to write precisely one scholarly article on ancient history. His preparation for his magnum opus was therefore to take the form of involvement, at quite a junior level, in foreign affairs, during the war and its aftermath, and in bold and controversial writing on current affairs.

In May 1917 Toynbee was formally appointed to the foreign intelligence department of the Foreign Office, and in 1918–19 he was a member of the British delegation to the Paris peace conference. He may well have hoped to have a significant influence at this time, but if so was disappointed; it should be recalled that at this point he was still only reaching his thirtieth birthday. At all events, it was an unexpected opportunity, and one which was highly fortunate financially, since he had no significant private means, and no obvious prospects of secure employment, that just at this moment a group of Greek subscribers had provided the funds for what was eventually to be called the Koraes chair of modern Greek and Byzantine history, language, and literature, to be established at King's College, London. The proposal had the support of the Greek government, but when Toynbee was appointed in May 1919 he was not made aware that a ‘subscribers' committee’ still existed, or that it expected to receive reports on the work of the professor. The tangled story of the conflicts that subsequently arose is told with great clarity and detail by R. Clogg in Politics and the Academy: Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes Chair (1986).

'The tragedy of Greece'

Before that story is discussed, two other features of Toynbee's intellectual biography deserve to be stressed. One is the appearance in 1918 of Spengler's Der Untergang des Abendlandes, which Toynbee recorded later that he read in 1920. Even more significant is the remarkable lecture entitled 'The tragedy of Greece' which he delivered in Oxford in May 1920 for students reading literae humaniores, and which was to be published in 1921. As has often been observed, almost all the features of his later grand design are adumbrated here; given the sonorous tone of the text, it is hard for the reader to recall that at that moment Toynbee was thirty-two. The lecture begins with the pronouncement that 'civilizations are the greatest and rarest achievements of the human mind', and then proceeds to enumerate them, noting that civilizations worth the name are few in comparison with the total of known human societies. It continues by suggesting that great civilizations are like great tragedies, and may all reveal the same plot.

Against this background Toynbee then turns to the current reasons for studying Greek history, as they seemed in 1920. First, and above all, it was because the war had made it impossible to take our civilization for granted. Greek history should be studied because it can be seen as a complete story: because of the fine literary quality of the narratives through which it is approached; because it could provide a form of katharsis; and because the study of another language and another political system could serve to put our society in perspective. He then divides the ‘plot’ of Greek history into three ‘acts’: from the eleventh century bc to 431 bc (the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, as described by Thucydides); from 431 to 31 bc; and finally from 31 bc to the seventh century ad. At the end he turns, in explicit comparison to the Bolshevik revolution, to the decline of the Roman empire, with the emergence of an 'internal proletariat' as the bearer of a new civilization, Christianity. But, Toynbee claims, 'the fatal catastrophe had occurred six centuries earlier, in the year 431 bc'. The lecture shows Toynbee's capacity for perspective, combined with an almost mystical acceptance of the validity of a historical turning point, or 'catastrophe', as fashioned for subsequent readers by a literary narrative, that of Thucydides.

Responsiveness to contemporary events was at all times a primary characteristic of Toynbee's mind, and quite shortly after taking the Koraes chair he obtained leave of absence to travel through Greece and Turkey, which he did between January and September of 1921, while employed to act as correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. This was a fateful moment in the modern history of the eastern Mediterranean. After the end of the war Greek ambitions had won the support of the allies. A Greek landing had taken place at Izmir in May 1919, while allied forces occupied Constantinople in May 1920. Greek forces advanced steadily, and had occupied large parts of western Turkey before being met by nationalist forces organized by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk). The Turkish advance between September 1921 and September 1922 ended with the complete expulsion of Greek forces from Turkey, and the forced emigration of the large, long-settled Greek population.

Toynbee's observations of these events resulted both in dispatches to the Guardian and, with typical rapidity, in his extremely significant and controversial book The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: a Study in the Contact of Civilizations, published in a first edition in 1922 and a second in 1923. In the longer term the importance of the book is that in it Toynbee felt able to use his observations of these events first to express a major thesis: the destructive efforts of a ‘Western’ conception, nationalism, on societies (those of both Greece and Turkey) to which it was foreign; and second to offer wide-ranging reflections on Greece as embodying the ‘Near East’ and Turkey the ‘Middle East’, and on the history of Christianity in the region. The characteristic tones of A Study of History are already present: 'The early Christian Church was the last phase of Ancient Hellenic or Graeco-Roman society, which died after it had had intercourse with other societies and had given birth to several children' (Toynbee, The Western Question, 328).

The more immediate effect was the furore which resulted from Toynbee's reports of atrocities committed by Greek forces in Turkey (for instance the section headed 'Narrative written at Yalova on 1st June, 1921', pp. 299–300). His preface to the book shows that he was well aware of the possible reaction:

It may, I fear, be painful to Greeks and ‘Philhellenes’ that information and reflections unfavourable to Greece should have been published by the first occupant of the Koraís Chair. I naturally regret this, but from the academic point of view it is less unfortunate than if my conclusions on the Anatolian Question had been favourable to Greece and unfavourable to Turkey. The actual circumstances, whatever personal unpleasantness they may entail for me and my Greek friends and acquaintances, at least preclude the suspicion that an endowment of learning at a British University has been used for propaganda on behalf of the country with which it is concerned.

Toynbee's personal dignity and high-mindedness are perhaps nowhere better shown than here. However, to an extent even greater than he had anticipated (especially as he was not aware of the potential rights of the subscribers' committee in checking on the conduct of the holder of the chair), a major controversy broke out, and in the end he resigned as from 30 June 1924. His letter to The Times explaining his position is printed in Clogg's Politics and the Academy (p. 116).

Once again Toynbee might potentially have been without employment, a prospect made more serious by the birth of his sons (Theodore) Philip Toynbee, in June 1916, and Lawrence, in December 1922. Partly, it seems, because of Toynbee's unremitting dedication to work, and partly owing to unresolved and conflicting expectations, even relating to Castle Howard itself, in relation to Toynbee's aristocratic in-laws and their properties, family life was never entirely happy or harmonious. Philip Toynbee proved difficult, resentful, and unsettled.

Survey of International Affairs

However, even before Toynbee formally left the Koraes chair in June 1924, the essentials of the position that he was to occupy (with an interval during the Second World War) for the rest of his working life had already been established. A temporary post at the British (later the Royal) Institute of International Affairs had been given to him already in February 1924, and was made permanent, along with a chair of international history at London University, in 1925. Since in the event he did not teach, this latter became a research professorship in 1928. From 1926 onwards he held the post which he kept until retirement, director of studies at the Royal Institute of International Affairs.

Toynbee's principal duty in this position was one which he achieved with a success that none of those who followed him were able to match, namely the publication each year of a volume of the Survey of International Affairs. The series began in 1925 with a resumptive volume, The Survey of International Affairs, 1920–1923, and thereafter one volume, on an almost unbroken rhythm, came out every year until 1938, which saw published the Survey for 1937. On occasion the volumes focused on a specific area, for example that published in 1927, The Islamic World since the Peace Settlement. The fifteen volumes published up to 1938 represent an unparalleled achievement in terms of their scale and scope, and the analytical power required to bring the material, mainly derived from newspaper cuttings, into intelligible order. As an exercise in contemporary history, and as expressing the values and outlook of the inter-war years, they surely deserve a significant place in the history of historiography, and would equally merit detailed analysis.

From the 1929 volume onwards the title-pages indicate that the author was assisted by Veronica Marjorie Boulter (1894–1980), who selflessly took on a larger and larger proportion of the work, eventually writing substantial sections herself. She was to be Toynbee's mainstay and assistant for the rest of his life, and became his wife in 1946. Quite unjustly, her death in 1980 seems to have gone effectively unmarked; there was no Times obituary.

A Study of History

One of the reasons why Veronica Boulter needed to take on an increasing proportion of the work on the Survey was that from 1930 onwards Toynbee was preparing for his Study of History. It should be recalled that, strictly speaking, he had at that point written no scholarly history at all, other than one large article in the Journal of Hellenic Studies (1913). The bases on which he felt able to launch himself on such a project can hardly be summed up in any definitive way. But they include the overwhelming importance in his educational background of Thucydides, as a historian who set out not only to record but also to offer authoritative explanations of events, in the explicit expectation that they would be useful in the future; the shock of the outbreak of the First World War, and the sense (as he had told Oxford undergraduates in 1920) that our civilization was not to be taken for granted; and the experience, which in his case had begun in his mid-twenties, of commenting publicly, and in sweeping terms, on current affairs. This latter of course still was his main public role when he began work on the Study in 1930, at the age of forty-one.

It would be worth research being undertaken to see if there is any evidence on how the vast reading necessary for this project was undertaken, and how the information was filed and stored for use. In the nature of the plan, as laid out very early, the work was not to be in any sense a sequential, narrative, history of the world, but an analytical, or moralizing, or even philosophical, study, whose subject was to be ‘civilizations’. Nation states, as Toynbee explains in the case of England in the first volume, represented units which had to be seen as parts of larger wholes, and were therefore not in themselves satisfactory objects of study. Nor were all past societies, but only those twenty-one or so which, by virtue of a higher culture, qualified as civilizations. The purpose of the study is to analyse characteristic features of the genesis and then the disintegration of civilizations. A subordinate theme is to ask which civilizations are 'affiliated to', that is, in some sense derive from, earlier civilizations. The characteristic features which are taken as providing the model are very explicitly derived from what he takes to be the story of Hellenic civilization, and of Western society which is 'affiliated' to it. These features are: a universal state (the Roman empire); an 'internal proletariat' (the slaves or former slaves who—it is assumed—formed the earliest Christian churches); an external proletariat (the barbarians); an interregnum, marked by invasions and also the emergence of the church; and then rise of the Western society. Both the attraction, to readers trying to find meaning in history, and the dangers of Toynbee's method, in the eyes of almost all professional historians, arise from the use of such a model to bring out the significance of comparable features allegedly to be found in a whole range of civilizations or societies—some of them, such as Syriac society, essentially a construction by the author.

However, whatever the reservations felt by professional historians, none should feel entitled to denigrate the gigantic intellectual energy which enabled Toynbee to gain at least some intelligible conception of so many different societies, or the underlying moral impulse to rid himself, and his readers, of the parochialism inherent in a conventional Western outlook. Whether the effort to incorporate all that he discovered within models of genesis and disintegration was an equally justifiable project is of course more open to question.

The first three volumes of A Study of History were published in 1934, and volumes 4–6 in 1939. With the outbreak that year of the Second World War, Toynbee reverted once again to government service, first as director of the foreign research and press service in 1939–43. In this period he was based in Oxford, while Rosalind Toynbee decided to move back to London. In 1943–6 he was director of the research department of the Foreign Office, and in 1946 was once again a member of the British delegation to the peace conference, held in Paris in April of that year. After the dissolution of his first marriage in August 1946, on 28 September he married Veronica Boulter.

Post-war reputation

In 1946 Toynbee returned to his post as director at the Royal Institute. The next few years saw both the high point of his international standing and its rapid decline. The key factor in his (for a time) unparalleled fame was unquestionably the publication in 1946 of an extremely intelligent abridgement by D. C. Somervell of the first six volumes of A Study of History. Originally prepared spontaneously, the two-volume abridgement was readily accepted by Toynbee, and was published with his full agreement. It was a success on a scale probably never matched by any other historical work. By September 1947 Oxford University Press had sold 100,000 copies. More striking still, Toynbee had come to be seen in the USA as someone uniquely equipped to give meaning to history in an age of rapid change. A cover story on him in Time magazine in March 1947 made him a national figure, and contributed to sales of more than 250,000 copies by the New York office of Oxford University Press.

Toynbee's purpose in writing the Study had always been in one sense a moral or propagandistic one, to free himself and his readers from the limits of a parochial, Western view. But in execution it had been an analytical one, devoted to the discovery of recurrent features in the genesis and disintegration of civilizations. In that sense it represented, in intention at least, an objective and cyclical view of the rise and fall of civilizations. But in the war years and after, while he never returned, in any strictly confessional sense, to the Christianity in which he had been brought up, he certainly became much more religious, even mystical, in outlook, and grew closer to Catholicism. In a more general sense he also began to see his own role as a historian, in the words which he used for the title of the final section of his Study, as being 'The quest for a meaning behind the facts of history'. In volume 10, indeed, he even speaks of that meaning as being 'a revelation of God and a hope of communion with him'.

When volumes 8–10 were finally published in 1954, therefore, the underlying logic of the whole project had changed, and Toynbee had come to see history not as a cycle of rises and falls but as a progression towards an end whose nature and meaning were spiritual. There remained, along with the vast sweep of information and the real engagement with different civilizations, the heavily moralizing tone, an ever present tendency to put concepts into capitals (such as 'Time of Troubles'), and an unguarded and all too perceptible self-importance in the representation of himself as author.

It was not surprising, therefore, if critics among professional historians began to assert the view that the entire conception was inflated and overblown, and rested on the evidence of patterns which were not really there. The most pointed criticism, if invariably polite in tone, perhaps came from the major Dutch historian Pieter Geyl in three essays subsequently republished in his Debates with Historians (1955): 'Toynbee's system of civilizations' (1948), 'Toynbee once more: empiricism or apriorism' (1952), and 'Toynbee the prophet (the last four volumes)' (1955). But the most devastating and wounding satire on the pretentiousness of the project, and on the inflated tone of the self-representation of its author, came from H. R. Trevor-Roper in his article 'Arnold Toynbee's millennium', published in Encounter in June 1957.

From that time on it would be true to say that Toynbee's work has not been much discussed among professional historians, and has gradually faded from view among the educated public. In the face of criticism Toynbee himself remained resolutely polite and reasonable, and published a volume of more than 700 pages, entitled Reconsiderations, as volume 12 of the Study in 1961 (volume 11 was devoted to maps and a historical gazetteer). In 1955 he retired, and for the next two decades travelled and lectured widely, and retained a considerable public role internationally, especially in Japan. He also wrote incessantly, in part in a moralizing or philosophical vein, but he also published two volumes of an autobiographical character, Acquaintances (1967) and Experiences (1969).

Later classical and Byzantine studies

It should be stressed that in these years, when the fame and perceived significance of the Study were receding in the eyes of the public and of professional historians alike, Toynbee showed a truly remarkable energy, and an academic capacity of a highly professional kind, in going back to the classical and Byzantine world, and publishing three very substantial and considerable works, which have not really received their due among historians. The first of these was the massive two-volume work Hannibal's Legacy, published in 1965. As mentioned earlier, this theme had formed the subject of lectures in Oxford in 1913–14. The terms in which in the preface Toynbee alludes to the origins of the book are characteristic of him: 'I had meant to follow up my lectures, immediately after I had delivered them, by writing this book; but from August 1914 to August 1957 I was prevented from doing this by other preoccupations'. The book is a massive re-examination, first, of the evolution and structure of Roman domination in Italy in the fourth and third centuries bc, set (as indicated above) against the background of other political formations in the known world of the period. He also stressed, rightly and in a way not matched by others, the profound originality of the Roman system for the incorporation of other communities, beginning in the 330s bc. Similarly, the second volume looks in equal detail at Rome and Italy in the second century, after Hannibal, and at the wider context of Rome's role in the Mediterranean world. The sheer weight and size of the work, and the ponderous prose in which it is written, combined with the relative absence of archaeological, documentary, or epigraphic evidence, have given it, very misleadingly, an old-fashioned appearance, and it has had less impact than it should have. But it is in fact the most important modern work on the period.

Not quite as much could be claimed for Some Problems of Greek History (1969). But none the less it is a major original achievement. It is divided into four parts: a discussion of population movements in the post-Mycenaean period, which is indeed out of date; a detailed treatment of a still hotly debated topic, the progress of Hellenization and the use of the Greek language in antiquity in the areas to the north of the Greek peninsula; at the end some jeux d'esprit on the question of what would have happened if certain key figures (for instance, Alexander's father, Philip) had lived longer; and, as the centrepiece, 260 pages on the rise and decline of Sparta, admittedly a somewhat old-fashioned subject, but one on which Toynbee showed himself easily the equal (to say the least) of similarly old-fashioned scholars of a much younger generation.

Finally, published in 1973, the year in which Toynbee celebrated his eighty-fourth birthday, there came Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his World. Here again, though the whole work makes, inevitably, an old-fashioned impression in style and language, it would be hard to find anywhere else so detailed and comprehensive an overview (in 768 pages) of the tenth-century Byzantine empire or of the life and works of the emperor himself. In the year after the publication of this book Toynbee was ceremoniously received 'at the gates' ('ad portas') at his old school, Winchester, and made a speech in Latin from memory. Shortly after, he suffered a stroke, from which he never recovered; he died the following year, on 22 October 1975, at Purey Cust Nursing Home, York. He was buried at Terrington, Yorkshire. Veronica Toynbee, who had supported him as his wife for the previous thirty years, and as his assistant for half a century, died five years later.

Toynbee received a number of forms of public recognition, including honorary doctorates, the fellowship of the British Academy in 1937, and appointment as a Companion of Honour in 1956. But given the unprecedented scale of his scholarly achievement, as a historian, as an observer of international affairs, and as what one might call a historical moralist or philosopher of history, he might reasonably have expected more. Nor is there any sign that his unique grasp on international affairs was put to use by successive British governments except during the two world wars.

Toynbee did achieve, for a few years after the end of the Second World War, a level of public recognition not matched by any other historian of his time. But it could not be said, at the end of the century, that his influence had lasted either among the educated public or among professional historians. The twelve volumes of A Study of History were long out of print, though D. C. Somervell's two-volume abridgement was still available, as were a very few of his almost innumerable other books (listed in the bibliography by S. Fiona Morton, 1980). Toynbee was always very clearly aware of having been the product of a specific social and educational environment, the late Victorian and Edwardian English upper middle class, steeped from an early age in Latin and Greek. His prodigious output of scholarly work, lasting until the 1970s, would deserve reconsideration in terms of the history of culture and of historiography. But the Study itself, the Surveys published in the inter-war years, and the three massive contributions to classical and Byzantine history produced in his old age also deserve recognition and re-evaluation as intellectual achievements in their own right.


  • W. H. McNeill, Arnold Toynbee: a life (1989)
  • W. H. McNeill, ‘Arnold Joseph Toynbee, 1889–1975’, PBA, 63 (1977), 441–69
  • R. Clogg, Politics and the academy: Arnold Toynbee and the Koraes chair (1986)
  • W. McNeill, Toynbee revisited (1993)
  • C. T. McIntire and M. Perry, eds., Toynbee: reappraisals (1989)
  • P. Geyl, Debates with historians (1955), chaps. 5, 7, 8
  • A. J. Toynbee, The tragedy of Greece (1921)
  • A. J. Toynbee, The Western question in Greece and Turkey: a study in the contact of civilisations, 2nd edn (1923)
  • A. J. Toynbee, Reconsiderations (1961), vol. 12 of A study of history
  • A. J. Toynbee, Acquaintances (1967)
  • A. J. Toynbee, Experiences (1969)
  • S. F. Morton, A bibliography of Arnold J. Toynbee (1980)


  • Bodl. Oxf., papers
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis
  • Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Alfred Zimmern
  • CUL, corresp. with Sir Herbert Butterfield
  • King's Lond., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Philip Kerr
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to Rosalind, countess of Carlisle
  • Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell
  • Parl. Arch., letters to Herbert Samuel


  • BL NSA, ‘A personal memory of Arnold Toynbee’, 10 June 1964
  • BL NSA, performance recording


  • E. Stillman, wax medallion, 1893, NPG
  • W. Stoneman, photograph, 1945, NPG
  • Y. Karsh, bromide print, 1955, NPG [see illus.]
  • W. Bird, photograph, 1959, NPG
  • G. Argent, photograph, 1969, NPG
  • J. Pannett, chalk, 1972, NPG
  • L. Toynbee, oils, Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, London
  • photograph, Hult. Arch.

Wealth at Death

£132,425: probate, 13 Oct 1976, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

£8087: further probate, 2 June 1977, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

Proceedings of the British Academy
Calendars of the grants of probate … made in … HM court of probate [England and Wales]