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Author: Michael Rostovtzeff; translated and edited by Gavril Katzarov


M. I. Rostovtzeff: An Essay on His Life and Major Works

Rostovtzeff earned his first degree in 1892 by presenting his thesis on "Pompeii: In the Light of New Excavations". Rostovtzeff was completely immersed in his studies of the public buildings, monuments, and paintings of the newly uncovered Pompeii. For nearly three years he prepared for his master's examination and upon its completion he received a scholarship grant which allowed him to travel, between 1895-1898, throughout Europe and the Near East. In between his travels he studied at the University of Vienna, the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris and the German Archeological Institute in Rome.

By age 44, Rostovtzeff was thoroughly knowledgeable in relation to the disciplines of archeology, epigraphy, numismatics, and papyrology, publishing works not only in his native Russian but in Italian, German, French and English as well. His scholarship was not only learned and exacting but also bold. He was audacious enough to sketch in four pages so controversial a topic as the origin of European serfdom or to state that "the history of the tesserae reflects the whole development and gradual establishment of the Roman Empire." He was elected a member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences in 1917 and served on the Imperial Archeological Commission, which supervised archeological work and publications in the empire. During the period of the provisional government in Russia Rostovtzeff belonged to the Commission for Preservation of Monuments of Art in Russia.

Following the Communist revolution in Russia, facing either exile or the loss of his wide contacts with foreign scholars, Rostovtzeff chose exile and went, in June 1918, to Sweden and Norway and in September to Oxford, England, where, at Queen's college, he began his studies of Ptolemaic administrative procedures. In 1919 he gave eight lectures at Oxford University on the economic history of the Hellenistic and Roman periods. In the spring of 1920 he gave eight lectures at the College of France and made a lecture tour of French universities at the request of the government. Rostovtzeff failed to receive a permanent position at Oxford in part because of his heavy Russian accent.

In 1920 at the invitation of the University of Wisconsin, Rostovtzeff came to the United States to take chair of ancient history at the institution. He enjoyed his time at Wisconsin and related his administration for that school and his students in the preface to his "History of the Ancient World", planned and written between 1921 and 1923.

In 1925 Rostovtzeff became Sterling professor of ancient history and classical archeology, director of archeological research and curator of ancient art at Yale University, a position he held until his resignation in 1944. During his first year at Yale he conducted a course in ancient history for graduate students at Columbia University. At this time Rostovtzeff became quite in demand at various colleges, museums and lecture halls in America and Europe. From 1926 to 1941 Rostovtzeff took a leadership role of the excavation previously conducted by the French Academy under the direction of Franz Cumont at Dura-Europos. He headed this expedition for the next ten years resulting in three great works: "Excavations at Dura-Europos (1928), "Dura and Problems of Parthian Art" (1935), and "Dura-Europos and Its Art" (1938). His learning up to this point was exhibited in his prolific contributions to dozens of books and some 500 journals and monographs dealing with the historical literature and archaeology. The most striking feature of Rostovtzeff's work can be seen in his use of archaeological materials.

This use of archaeological, along with other physical source materials not only supported his two greatest works of the period between 1926 and 1941 but placed him in the company of the greatest historians up to that time; men like Theodor Mommsen, Eduard Meyer, George Grote and Edward Gibbon. The "Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire" (1926), and the "Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World" (1941) were immediately recognized as masterpieces of historical writing. G. W. Bowersock expressed in his 1975 review of the SEHRE that few contemporary historians would accept the basic thesis offered by Rostovtzeff but no historian could reject the greatness of the work itself. For the time, however, Rostovtzeff, due to his sober and enlightened use of materials, which up to that time had not really been utilized as materials of record for a general history of the ancient world, was seen as a new force in the study of history, especially the newly developing field of social and economic history which he felt was neglected by ancient as well as contemporary scholars.

For long, history was mainly political history, and historical narrative was confined to an account of the most important crises in political life, or to an account of wars and great generals. But even the Greeks realized that if these facts, the incidents of man's history in politics and war, are important, it is still more important to ascertain the causes of these incidents and their connection with one another and with the other phenomena of the life of communities. It has become clear that war, in spite of the profound impression it produces, is only one phase of man's life, and not the most important phase, and that the origin and course of wars are closely connected with the development of economic, social, and religious life and civilizations.

The Russian Revolution surprised Rostovtzeff. Although he could accept the Marxist idea that class warfare was the dominant factor in history, he was not willing to accept the dominance of the proletariat over the more enlightened bourgeoisie he came to idealize in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds and who he saw as a thriving class, building the economy of their society and raising the standard of civilization.

The plan for Rostovtzeff's "Social and Economzc History of the Hellenistic World" was similar to his earlier great work; illustrations, thoroughly described, and exhaustive explanatory notes. For Rostovtzeff the Hellenistic world was "a stupendous creation of the Greek genius and it had far reaching influence on the future. The influence lay strictly in the field of literature, art, religion, philosophy, science and learning, but it was considerable also in the social and economic sphere. The treatment of the period was much more detailed than that of his SEHRE and Rostovtzeff himself admitted in 1941 that if the "Roman Empire" had been done on the same massive scale as the SEHHW, it would have occupied "a shelf-full of volumes". In this work, the economic aspects of the Hellenistic World are given full attention. Rostovtzeff introduces us to the beginnings of the Hellenistic world in chapter two when he describes the economic problems of the Greek and Persian worlds in the fourth century B.C.; problems provided the impetus for Alexander's conquests and the Hellenization of the East through Greek migrations. He continues with the disruption of the fifth-century equilibrium in Greece between production and demand and how she was losing her markets for both agricultural and industrial products as new centers of industry and agriculture were growing, especially in Thrace, the Bosporan kingdom, Italy and Sicily.

Michael Rostovtzeff's works culminated in a successful attempt to describe the social, political and economic achievements and failures of both the Hellenistic and Romans worlds. His interpretations are often clouded by experiences, as is the case with most historians of the ancient world but his achievements shadow any obvious bias apparent in his work. Rostovtzeff offered historians and non-historians alike a view of the Greco-Roman world which was different from the usual antiquarian political histories written up to the nineteenth century. His learning was vast. Archaeology, papyrology, numismatics, epigraphy and monuments all served to enlighten his readers in ways seldom seen before his time. New approaches to the study of ancient social and economic history since the death of Rostovtzeff in 1952 reveal some weaknesses of his findings and the bias in his interpretations. Momigliano calls Rostovtzeff "more intuitive than logical, and therefore seldom thought his theories out clearly. This is an extremely debatable criticism. The two social and economic histories come equipped with voluminous notes providing very clearly considered evidence and the sources for his research on each point. This is a harsh assessment of Rostovtzeff and one that it seems is not entirely accurate. Rostovtzeff analyzed his conceptions to the extreme. His interpretations are less a result of lack of knowledge than of his own experience. He had lived as an important part of the intelligentsia in Russia under the Czars, as an exile of the Bolshevik regime, as a witness to two world wars, and as an explorer of the ancient world. His experiences shaped his unique view of the ancient world and set him apart from those who criticize him from a more "sheltered" perspective.



Rostovtzeff, M. I. History of the Ancient World, Vols I-II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

Rostovtzeff, M. I. Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire, Vols I-II. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1926.

Rostovtzeff, M. I. Social and Economic History of the Hellenistic World, Vols I-III. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1941.



Scythian Influence and the Thracians

Let us now turn to the west. Pompeius Trogus furnishes us with precious information about certain events, which took place at the end of the fourth century, and which bear witness to vigorous Scythian expansion towards the west. We learn that the Scythian king Ateas advanced to the southern bank of the Danube and attacked the Histrians: that is to say, he was in process of occupying the Dobrudzha. Philip of Macedon encountered him and defeated him with great loss. As Philip was returning, he was assaulted by the Tribalians and had to relinquish all his booty. The story related by Justin is full of suspicious details, romantic and anecdotical, but the fact of the expedition of Ateas and his fight with Philip remains certain. The defeat of Ateas was by no means final. We know from the same author that at the time of Alexander's eastern expedition, one of his generals, Zopyrion, made an expedition to Scythia, probably to cover northern Macedonia: after advancing as far as the walls of Olbia, which may have been held by the Scythians, he perished with his whole army of thirty thousand men. These two events testify to a Scythian policy of westward expansion, resolute, vigorous and systematic.

The aim of the Scythians was not only to strengthen their power beyond the Danube, but also to occupy, if possible, the whole western bank of the Black Sea, and to reduce to vassalage the small tribal states in the adjacent part of Thrace. To judge by the expeditions of Philip and of Alexander, the danger was grave, and the Macedonians had great trouble in dislodging the Scythians from Thrace and in driving them back beyond the Danube. No doubt the Macedonian expeditions weakened the Scythian power, but they did not succeed in destroying Scythian influence on the Danube and beyond it. The Scythians were able to hold out for a long time, perhaps until the Roman period, in the Dobrudzha, where they founded a fairly powerful state, which endured for centuries, outlasting even the ruin of the great Scythian state in South Russia and the retreat of the Scythians into the Crimea. The existence of a Scythian state in the Dobrudzha, resembling that in the Crimea, is attested by archaeological and numismatical evidence. I shall speak later of the silver rhyton found at Poroina, which closely resembles contemporary work of the same class from South Russia, and which points to similar religious and political ideas. I shall also mention the instructive series of coins issued by the Scythian kings of the Dobrudzha, which suggest that the Greek cities of Tomi and Istros were dependants of the Scythian kingdom of the Dobrudzha. No doubt this state was strongly influenced by the Thracian population of the country.

A deadly blow was dealt to Scythian expansion beyond the Danube, not by the Macedonian monarchs, but by the general political situation in Central Europe from the beginning of the third century onwards. In 291, when Lysimachus was trying to strengthen the northern frontier of his Thracian kingdom, the enemies who confronted him on the Danube were not Scythians but Getians. This suggests that Scythian power in the steppes between Danube and Dniester had sustained a serious reverse, no doubt owing to the victorious advance of Celtic and perhaps Germanic tribes, who, about this time, began to invade the steppes of South Russia on their way to the Black Sea.

The anarchy which began to prevail in the Russian steppes, as the result of this advance of Northern tribes, is attested by the facts related in the well-known Olbian decree in honour of Protogenes, a rich citizen and merchant of Olbia. The most interesting feature of the decree is the evidence which it furnishes as to the attitude of the Scythian king Saitapharnes towards Olbia, and the attitude of diverse petty kings and princes of adjacent tribes towards the same city. Their demands for tribute became more and more exacting and vexatious. One feels that the little tribes, of different nationality, established in the steppes between Dnieper and Bug, were mortally afraid of the advancing Galatians and Scirians and were desirous of finding refuge and security behind the Olbian city walls, which Protogenes had helped to build. The anxiety to complete the fortifications of Olbia shows that conditions had greatly changed since the fifth, and probably the fourth century, when the Scythian dynasts lived peaceably in Olbia and built houses and palaces there.

I must state in passing, in order to avoid misunderstanding, that I see no reason to date the Protogenes inscription in the second century or even in the second half of the third. Historical as well as palaeographical considerations are entirely in favour of an earlier date, the beginning of the third century. I also insist on the fact, not generally realized, that King Saitapharnes was the great Scythian king who retired, before the advance of Northern tribes, towards the seat of his power, the steppes in the district of Taurida. It is he who is the King pure and simple, the suzerain of the various sceptre-bearers who are mentioned in the inscription of Protogenes.

The advance of the Galatians put an end, once and for all, to Scythian ascendancy on the banks of the Danube. The survival of a Scythian state in the Dobrudzha is explained by the geographical situation of the Danube delta, which resembles the delta of the Kuban. Have we more precise evidence as to the Scythian occupation of the lower Danube valley, its duration, character, and vicissitudes? Unhappily we have not. We do not possess sufficient archaeological data, for the archaeological exploration of Bulgaria and Rumania is still in its infancy: and the literary tradition does not deal with these questions.

Recent finds, however, made by chance in one or two tumuli in southern Bulgaria, give us a glimpse of the result that may be expected from methodical investigation of the tumuli in Bulgaria and in Rumania. I need not dwell upon these finds, which have lately been published, with a commentary by Filov, whose conclusions I am unable to accept. Unfortunately, he has not taken the trouble to make a close study of Russian archaeological material, but has contented himself with a few superficial comparisons. Without entering into controversy, I shall briefly indicate the nature of these finds and the conclusions which I draw from them. The most instructive finds are those of Brezovo and of Panagyurishte in the department of Philippopolis: after them, of Bedniakovo in the department of Chirpan and of Radyuvene in the department of Lovech. The objects from the first three places were discovered in tumuli graves. Although the graves were not regularly excavated, the information which Filov collected locally enables us to form a notion of the funerary ritual. It closely resembles the Scythian ritual, and particularly that which prevailed on the Dnieper in the fourth and third centuries B.C.: an Oriental ritual, but here attenuated and unpretentious, compared with that of the great royal tombs by the Kuban and the Dnieper. Characteristic, the burial of the body under a tumulus in a stone chamber, and the interment, beside the body or in the loose earth of the tumulus, of one or more horses with richly ornamented bridles. We may conjecture that the bridle was sometimes laid in the tomb with the body, and the horse slaughtered on the half-finished mound. The tomb furniture, also, is very like that of the Scythian graves: a group of sacred vessels — chiefly paterae and sometimes spherical vases, amphorae with wine and oil, and various drinking vessels: Greek and local weapons; rich garments and diadems, loaded with gold; symbols of power, sceptre and ring; lastly, horse trappings, including a richly ornamented bridle. Just as in the Scythian tombs, part of the furniture consists of Greek objects imported from Greek colonies, especially Amphipolis, part of local imitations of Greek work, and part of purely native objects.

These similarities cannot all be accidental; they point to close relations between the Scythians and the population of southern Bulgaria, and to strong Scythian influence on the natives. But there is more: we are astonished to find that the horse trappings are almost the same in the Thracian tombs and in the tombs of South Russia. We find the same pieces: frontlet, ear-guards, temple-pieces, nasal; the same Oriental practice of covering nearly the whole bridle with metal plaques; the same system of bits. Further, the two types of bridle ornament: round plaques embossed in the Greek manner; and plaques in the form of animals, cast and incised in the Oriental fashion. Lastly, and this is the most important of all: all the pieces in the animal style find striking parallels in the Scythian horse trappings, from Scythian tombs of the fourth and third centuries, which we shall discuss at length next in the course of this chapter: some of these are almost duplicates.

Besides these coincidences I may mention the tendency to reproduce local religious scenes on objects made for or by the natives: such scenes are the unexplained representation on the horse's frontlet from Panagyurishte, and the royal investiture, or holy communion, which appears on the Brezovo ring, and is common in objects from fourth or third-century Scythian tombs in South Russia. We shall see that this tendency is characteristic of Scythian tombs in the fourth and third century, while it is unknown in earlier Scythian graves.

The tombs of southern Bulgaria were no doubt constructed for Thracian kinglets and princes. But it is clear that for their material culture these princes were completely dependent upon Greek and Scythian civilization. The horse trappings cannot all have been imported from Scythia: they were probably made in Thrace, but certainly after Scythian models. The local craftsman may well have introduced one or two alterations of detail, but he has preserved not only the principle of Scythian art, but even the features characteristic of western Scythia in the fourth and third centuries B.C. I see no reason for agreeing with Filov in postulating a parallel development of the animal style in Thrace and in Scythia. The Thracian pieces are obvious imitations of western Scythian work of the fourth and third centuries B.C.

How can we account for this Scythian influence, which shows itself not only in the adoption of the animal style, but also in funerary ritual and in political and religious ideas? I can see only one way. The Bulgarian finds all belong to the fourth century B.C. We have seen that the fourth century was marked by considerable Scythian expansion towards the west, and by the enfeeblement of the Odrysian state, which was no longer supported by Athens, and which was a dangerous rival to Macedonia. We must suppose that, profiting by these circumstances, the Scythians established themselves firmly on the lower Danube, influenced the neighbouring Thracian tribes, and probably reduced some of them to vassalage. The Bulgarian excavations show that the expeditions of Philip and of Zopyrion were only the last manifestations of a rivalry which had existed between Macedon and Scythia since the collapse of the Odrysian state, and that these manifestations presuppose Scythian ascendancy, nominal at least, in the regions adjoining Macedonian territory. Can it be presumed, that this ascendancy had continued without interruption from the expedition of Darius and the Scythian inroad into the Chersonese? I can hardly accept the theory: it is contradicted by what we know of the Odrysian kingdom and the anti-Scythian policy of Athens. Further and more systematic excavation in Bulgaria and Rumania will give us more definite information. For the present I incline to believe that the Scythians, driven back by the Thracians with the aid of Athens in the fifth century B.C., resumed the offensive in the fourth, and succeeded in asserting supremacy, for some decades at least, over a number of Thracian tribes. The reverses suffered by the Scythians in the west, during the last years of the fourth century, and the pressure of the Sarmatians from the east, forced them to concentrate their efforts in the central and northern part of their state, the land on the Dnieper and between Dnieper and Don, including the tributaries of these rivers and the rich district of Poltava. We have already spoken of this country as it was in the neolithic, copper and bronze ages: what happened to it in the iron age, immediately before the arrival of the Scythians and after their conquest of South Russia?



Ellis H. Minns. Scythians and Greeks. Cambridge, 1913.

M. Rostovtzeff. Greeks and Iranians in South Russia. Petrograd, 1918. (in Russian, later in English from Clarendon, 1922)



Addendum: It has been extremely difficult to comment on M. I. Rostovtzeff and his scholarship. The introduction to the book at hand, together with editorship and part of the translation, were done on the Bulgarian side by Prof. G. Katzarov (Kazarow). Since the latter was long time correspondent to Rostovtzeff's influence in Bulgaria, even before-time when the Russian Imperial Archaeological Society was in existence, we dutifully oblige to give few touches on the Rostovtzeff - Kazarow relationship which played major role in establishing the early origins and antiquities of the Thracians.

We don't have here full compendium on Thracians early chronology and specifically on their antiquity before establishing the Odrysian Kingdom in a. 492 B.C. On this topic we should recommend English language readers to the book from Ralph Hoddinott "Thracians" (1981), where issues before Herodotus' time have been clarified. The perspective of this short review lied elsewhere. We wanted to ascertain how the knowledge on Thracians developed in the Bulgarian domain, and particularly the contributions of Prof. G. Katzarov as first expert in the field of Thracology. That's not superficial because the works and heritage of this author (i.e., which was recently re-published in two volumes, low-quality, "Collected Works") continue to stay in vacuum, so to say. Many new factology had appeared but the only true approach seemed to be missing with the contemporary scholars.

To make a full connection to Rostovtzeff's book let us try to be explanatory. The Thracians were undoubtedly of Scythian origin. The Scyths were themselves Indo-Iranian tribes that came in separate sways to the North Pontic area (as Cimmerians, then Sarmatians, etc). Though seldom called Proto-Meotian, the country of origin remain in South Iran and Hindu-Kush (thus Aryans). The history of Scythians have been traced from a. 3000 B.C. to 400 A.D. when the Bosporus Kingdom was annihilated by the Huns, with some small remnants reclusive in the Caucasus. It is this time-period that links accordingly the royal dynasty of the Thracians to the lands of the Scythians (Cimmerians, Sarmatians), and through the Hellenic and Roman antiquities. At least such periodization was suggestive from M. I. Rostovtzeff's works written in his early Russian period (until 1922) but not elaborated further in the light of new archaeological discoveries. The same level of acquit was given to Thracians by another scholar, Ellis H. Minns from Cambridge.

We are not precisely sure on the perfect state of knowledge as acquired from the Bulgarian side. For instance, there was a serious time-lag before Valchitran treasure (1924) and Panagyurishte treasure (1949) were put into circulation. Was it because their complex craftsmanship and ornamentation were difficult to explain within the conventional study-base approach, or they were typically case-based with heavy attributes from abroad. The last material in this review gives smack suggestion on the whole truth, but evidently Persian and Egyptian influences couldn't be ruled out, ditto.


Pictures 1: Sample illustration on the text above.

(i). Prof. Michael Rostovtzeff (1878-1952) received his early education and training in Russia — classical philology and archaeology — and, later emigrated to the West having permanent residence in U.S.A.



Copyright © 2011 by the author.