John Bagnall Bury

Seminar III: The Early Twentieth Century – J. B. Bury and Tenney Frank

This week’s seminar is about two historians who illustrate approaches to Rome’s Fall in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The son of a Church-of-Ireland clergyman, John Bagnell Bury (1861–1927) was elected to the chair of modern history at Trinity College Dublin in 1893. He was later appointed regius professor of modern history at Cambridge in 1902. Tenney Frank (1876–1939) was a professor of Latin at Bryn Mawr College (1904–19) and then professor of history at Johns Hopkins, a distinguished private university in Baltimore (1919–39). The son of Swedish migrants to the United States, he was born at Clay Center, Kansas, on 19 May 1876.

A portrait of Tenney Frank

Like Gibbon, Bury was a rationalist hostile to organised religion; but whereas Gibbon wrote in a high style and with overt reference to the philosophical issues which concerned him, Bury avoided rhetoric and opinion in his histories of the Greco-Roman world. In these works he was concerned with establishing an accurate record of events which would be of enduring usefulness to its readers. He avoided social and religious topics which invited value judgements, preferring to emphasise constitutional and institutional developments. However, Bury threw off his reserve in two popular, philosophical, histories, A History of the Freedom of Thought (1913) and The Idea of Progress: An Inquiry into its Origin and Growth (1920). Bury took the view that history would be of the greatest value to future generations if the study of the past was not distorted by the desire for ‘direct results and immediate returns’ – for its commercial, technical or other ulterior benefits. In his view history needed to be investigated because an understanding of the present which would permit human progress was impossible without a thorough, careful and objective knowledge of the past. The ultimate concern, in short, was to generate a body of knowledge that would enable society to overcome the problems which it would encounter – a concern that was allied to the university’s task of preparing a middle/upper-class student élite for the task of government.

Like Bury, Tenney Frank was a scholar of classical literature turned historian. The author of his obituary, N. W. DeWitt, describes him in quasi-imperialistic terms as a pioneer who was always attempting to find ‘new’ ways of looking at the past: ‘Frank had chosen the hard way – “intellectual pioneering”, he called it – and he continued with incessant labour to break one frontier after another’ (p. 275). In the article to be considered below Frank advances the argument that Rome fell because its population was contaminated by the stock of peoples from the Greek-speaking East. Lest it should be thought that he was not a mainstream figure, it should be noted that he received honours from the American and British academic establishments throughout his career. These included visiting professorships at the American Academy in Rome (1922–23 and 1924–25) and his election as a fellow of the British Academy! He also contributed two chapters to the first edition of the Cambridge Ancient History (vol. 7, 1928). We must infer that his views were, to some extent, welcome within the academic and wider world in which he worked. His career provides some telling insights into the nature of intellectual ‘progress’.

Paul Hayward (10.xii.07).

Photos: Tenney Frank (left), John Bagnall Bury (right).

Set Texts

  1. Bury, John Bagnell, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius IX to the Death of Justinian (A. D. 395 to A. D. 565), 2 vols. (London, 1923), i, 308–13, ‘Modern views on the collapse of the Empire’. The complete book is in the short loan collection at LW.*
  2. Frank, Tenney, ‘Race Mixture in the Roman Empire’, The American Historical Review, 21 (1916), 689–708. Journals L6. JSTOR. Attention should be given to the latter stages of the article, esp. pp. 704–8, in which Frank draws out the significance of his findings.

Worksheet Questions

  1. In what ways does Bury’s approach to the Fall of Rome differ from that of Gibbon?
  2. What did Bury mean by ‘contingent events’? Further help may be obtained from the essay on ‘Cleopatra’s Nose’ (see below), in which Bury sets out his theory of contingency in more detail.
  3. How, according to Bury, did the Fall of Rome come about?
  4. What, for Tenney Frank, was the decisive factor in the decline of Roman civilisation?
  5. How according to Frank did this factor bring about the decline and fall?
  6. How can we account for the emergence of Bury’s and Frank’s approaches to the study of the past?

Strongly Recommended Reading

Additional Reading

Some Latin Terms and Phrases Used by Bury and Frank

  • misericorditer = out of pity, mercifully (Bury, p. 310).
  • gentium barbararum auxilio indigemus = we rely on the help of the barbarian peoples (Bury, p. 313).
  • ...jacet aurato vix ulla puerpera lecto; Tantum artes hujus, tantum medicamina possunt, Quae steriles facit. = ‘But hardly ever does a woman in labour lie in the gilded bed; so potent are the arts, so powerful are the drugs, [of] she who makes them infertile’ – i.e. rich women prevent themselves getting pregnant (Frank, p. 704).
  • delatores = informers, often used to refer to those who betrayed members of the senatorial élite to the emperors (Frank, p. 705).
  • Trimalchio = a character in the Satyricon by Petronius, a self-centred freedman who has risen to wealth and power by dint of hard work (Frank, p. 706).
  • mos majorum = the way of the ancestors, i.e. the way things were done in ancient Rome (Frank, p. 706).
  • magna mater = the great mother (Frank, p. 706).
  • Augustales seviri = the custodians of the imperial cult, most of whom were freedmen (Frank, p. 707).
  • liberti = freedmen, i.e. emancipated slaves (Frank, p. 707).
  • Nationes in familiis habemus, quibus diversi ritus, externa sacra = ‘We have foreigners in households and with them diverse rites from foreign religions’ (Frank, p. 707).
  • panem et circenses = bread and circuses (Frank, p. 707).

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