Arnaldo Momigliano: a lack of appreciation?

A recent conference on the legacy of the historian Arnaldo Momigliano apparently saw poor attendance by younger researchers, which has got some people agitated. (I didn’t go to it, but then I probably don’t count as a younger researcher anyhow). Does this reflect a lack of interest in the work of previous scholars among early medievalists? I’m not convinced that it does. Although I didn’t get to it, I think the memorial conference for Wilhelm Levison was pretty well attended and there was also a good one in London a few years ago on Marc Bloch. I think the problems are more likely to be with this specific combination of historian and meeting.

Firstly, judging by the titles and speakers, the Warburg Momigliano conference was very much a retrospective. It focussed on appreciations by long established scholars of Momigliano’s work, rather than encouraging more recent researchers to give papers developing themes of his. And secondly, I’m not sure how well the legacy of any historian lives on who doesn’t write one seminal book: one thing that if you’re researching the field you still really ought to have read (like Levison’s ‘England and the Continent in the Eighth Century’ or Bloch’s ‘Feudal Society’ or Eileen Power and ‘Medieval Women’). Momigliano’s work is more classical/late antique than early medieval, but I don’t get the sense that any of his books are subject-defining in the way some historians’ work is. In fact, his obituary in Journal of Roman Studies 77, (1987), pp. xi-xii (on JSTOR) comments: ‘the writing of a definitive work never seemed particularly important to him’.

It’s interesting, too, how much stress is given both in the obituary and the conference on the seminars he held at the Warburg in the 1960s and 1970s. Oswyn Murray talks in his obituary of Momigliano as seeing history as ‘a way of life’. The sense given is of an immensely charismatic figure: the problem is that such charisma cannot easily survive death. Short of an inspired biographer/interpreter, intellectual charisma disappears with its owner and is inaccessible to those who have never experienced it. Putting one’s genius into one’s life rather than one’s books may not be the way to ensure being remembered by a new generation.


11 thoughts on “Arnaldo Momigliano: a lack of appreciation?

  1. The description of the conference says it all: the speakers were all people who were active in the field 1967-83. I wasn’t even studying history, then, and I’m not a spring chicken!

    Frankly, I can’t see why any one is surprised at the dearth of junior scholars in attendance at the conference. None of them would seem to be speakers and without even a chance at sharing their own perspectives on the scholarship, I wouldn’t be surprised if they expected the conference to turn into a trip down memory lane for the old-timers rather than a scholarly exploration of the subject.


  2. It can’t really be said that he lacked publications: a quick stab at his name in the Cambridge University Library catalogue produces 51 book-classified hits, which is plenty even allowing for how many are reprints, but the only thing of his that was ever on a reading list I had was his Conflict between Paganism and Christianity, and that for the late Imperial period. I hear a lot of him from certain fans but I don’t know what it is I’m supposed to have learnt from him. A book called The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography is probably relevant to us all though…


  3. I’m one of the few “younger researchers” who attended to the Warburg conference on Momigliano. According to what you say, there are three reasons wich may explain their “poor attendance”:

    1) Apparently, the fact that Momigliano hasn’t written a seminal book and, worst, “any of his books are subject-defining in the way some historians’ work is”, damages his legacy.
    2) He was, basically, a charismatic figure who put his genious into his life rather than into his books.
    3) The Warburg Momigliano conference was very much a retrospective.

    I think the three of them are quite wrong; anyway, I will deal just with the first and the second one, at least to try to make, modestly, some justice with the legacy of this grat historian:

    1) If Momigliano hasn’t written a seminal or definitive work it’s because he chose, at least since he left Italy, the short essay, a commentary style which best suited his accurate and analytical mind; moroever, he developped a wonderful “Momiglianan” style of his own. With regard to the “subject-defining” matter, I could hardly think of a work in the history of historiography and scholarship more influential than -just to mention only one of Momigliano’s works to refute your point- “Ancient History and the Antiquarian”(1950), a brillant article that has created a whole field of study during the last fifty years (there are, of course, plenty of magnificent and pathbreaking articles by Momigliano, but one example is enough to show how flawed your argument is).
    2) You are misreading what Murray wrote in JRS. Allow me quoting the entire passage by Murray to clear up doubts: “The secret of his power was I believe also the source of his greatness as a historian. It was not his extraordinary learning (of which even Fraenkel was said to be afraid), or his ability to range over the whole of European history. It was his refusal to distinguish beeetween scholarship and life; history was not a discipline to be practiced in working hours in an institutional environment according to certain rules: it was a way of life, to be persued with the same passionate commitment as life itself”. This is quite different to what you meant by your arbitrary and -I hope, unintentional- misleading quotation.
    Finally, if -again, just two examples among others- they called him “le maître en tout ce qui touche l’histoire de l’ historiographie” (P. Vidal-Naquet)or, as M. Finley said, “no contemporary has devoted so much energy, or contributed so much, to the study ad understanding of the western historiographical tradiction from its beginnings down to oue own day”, I think you should, at least, reconsider your line of reasoning when thinking about the “poor assstance by younger researchers”; reasons, which, surely, lay elsewhere. Momigliano has, still, a great deal to teach us all.


    • Dear Nicolás,

      I’m sorry if you feel I haven’t appreciated Momigliano’s work sufficiently. That wasn’t my attention in writing the post. Because I’m an early medieval historian and not working on historiography, I haven’t come across any specific references to Momigliano’s articles that I remember. But what I have come across several times is scholars who I respect (such as Peter Brown) referring to his vast and rather scary erudition etc. So I have a sense of his importance, but not an obvious way to get access to it, and I think that is daunting with someone with a large body of work. That’s why I found your reference to a particular key article of his ‘Ancient History and the Antiquarian’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, Vol. 13, No. 3/4 (1950), pp. 285-315 so useful (and I will find time to read it).

      I am quite happy to admit to being wrong about the influence of his written works, but I would like then to turn my initial question back to you. Why do you think that other younger scholars didn’t attend the conference? And as someone who went to the conference, what did you gain from it that you think such scholars ought to know? I’d be very interested to hear if you’d like to leave further comments, either on the blog or e-mail to magistra(at)


  4. Are there plans to host anything about Momigliano in Australia? I have found his ideas liberating. Is there a mailing list for any future Momigliano related events? Thanks for the listing here.
    Best wishes,

    Pete Brown


  5. As the person unhappy that so few people under 50 were at the momigliano conference (and vastly more unhappy at the implication of Janice’s comment that the young go to conferences only to be speakers and reject the memories of the old) may I commend Peter Brown’s obituary of Momigliano
    Arnaldo Dante Momigliano 1908-1987,” PBA 74 (1988) 405-442, which has more good funny stories than any medievalist’s blog.


    • David,

      I’d throw back the same response I made to Nicolas above: what insights did you gain from the Warburg conference? What did you learn that you hadn’t known or hadn’t thought about or hadn’t appreciated before? Those of us who blog about seminars are always trying to explain to those who didn’t go to a particular one what struck us about it, what we personally gained, whether or not it’s directly connected to the main theme. I think that a comment along those lines, from one of those attending the Momgliano conference, would be more effective at encouraging future participation than simple recrimination. Help us to feel envious of those who got to go to this conference, rather than guilty about not going.


  6. Very soory if I seem to be offering recrimination. Carlotta dionisotti’s paper, which I hope may be given to the IHR Early Medieval Seminar, discussed when Momigliano thought that antiquity ended, others explored his view of the role of Chrisitanity and Judaism in the change in the West, with an interesting account of how his views of the social benefits of Christianity changed. All the papers served as a reminder of a generation sacked for their perceived ethnicity and trying to make a career in an alien land and an alien language. And if what erudition is.


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