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Speros Vryonis,Jr.

Milton V. Anastos
(10 July 1909–10 April 1997)

From Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 143, No 3, September 1999.

Τhe passing of Milton V. Anastos, emeritus professor of Byzantine Greek and history at the University of California, Los Angeles, on 10 April 1997, brought to an end the illustrious career of a scholar much loved by his students and admired by his colleagues. The combination of lofty character, warm humanity, scholarly brilliance, political involvement, and a gentle but ironic humor, made of him a compelling teacher, a forceful scholar, a passionate advocate of democracy, and a generous human being. Equally at home with Platonic thought and Christian theology, Romano-Byzantine law and the American Constitution, the court intrigues of Justinian and Richard Nixon’s Watergate, Byzantine iconography and French Impressionists, he trained a generation of Byzantinists at Harvard and UCLA in the most austere scholarly manner that went hand in hand with a sense of the relevance of this body of recondite knowledge.

Born in 1909, of Greek emigrant parents (his father—born in Cyprus, his mother—born in the Ottoman town of Isparta in west central Asia Minor), in the United States, he was a part of the millennial Greek diaspora both by parentage and by virtue of their immigration to the New World. Like so many children of America’s immigrant populations, his cultural formation took place in the family environment (Greek), whereas his intellectual, social, and political development transpired in the educational, economic, and urban environments of early twentieth-century New York. His father was a businessman, his mother worked for the United States government, and his uncle Harry was employed by Reader’s Digest.

In his witty Haskins Lecture (published as “A Life of Learning. Scholarship by Contrariety,” ACLS Newsletter 34. 1 and 2 [1986]: 3– 17), Anastos gives a humorous and semi-self-deprecatory account of his education, in which his parents, and especially his mother, played a crucial and ever-watchful role. The typically American character of his intellectual formation is narrated with warmth and feeling. He refers to his repeated “humiliations” at never keeping up with the reading aloud, in class, of what he refers to as the “enthralling adventures of Jack and Jill, Fannie and her apple, the house that Jack built . . . these noble characters.” When called upon to take up the reading aloud of these heady adventures where his classmate had halted, he was unable to do so as he had “raced on to the end of the tale so as to discover for myself how these noble characters had made out in their perilous confrontation with the universe.” When the teacher notified the parents of the boy’s less than satisfactory performance in the class there ensued a long period of what can only be termed “gunboat diplomacy” on the part of Milton’s mother, which, fatefully and ultimately, reduced to submission her offspring, who later rebelled against the parental command that he should take four years of high-school Latin. Thus when Milton finally entered Harvard College as a freshman he had already had a very good preparation in this ancient language, so he and his advisor determined that he should now major in classics. His prowess thereafter was such that he was chosen to deliver the Latin oration at the graduation ceremony some four years later. This command of Latin is to be seen throughout his published research, but it was occasionally evidenced on certain important social occasions as well. At the celebration of the retirement of his distinguished medievalist colleague Gerhard Ladner, Milton was called upon, without previous notice, to address the honoree in Latin, whereupon he arose solemnly, turned to the honoree and for the next twenty minutes pronounced his encomium in flawless Ciceronian Latin, without pause, error, or the use of a non-Ciceronian word. His speech flowed like the Tiber River after the fresh spring rains, when all its tributaries pour their rivulets into the mother stream, flooding thus the Roman lands and refreshing the inhabitants of that great city with the clarity and coolness of its crystalline water.

Upon obtaining the B.A. in classics, he entered Harvard Law School, where, although he found the study of the American law an inspiring discipline, he was disillusioned with the spirit in which it was pursued. There was little concern for justice and an overriding insistence on the letter of the law. He therefore abandoned the law school after one year of study, but his interest in the function of the law in society remained a primary concern for the entirety of his scholarly life. Turning from his many-year absorption in the study of the Greek and Roman world of antiquity, he determined to follow its subsequent evolution in Byzantium, and to this end, he entered the Harvard Divinity School, there to take the S.T.B. degree in patristics, theology, and Byzantine intellectual history, and finally to take the Ph.D. in the Harvard history department with a doctoral dissertation on the extraordinary late Byzantine intellectual George Gemistus Pletho. During his scholarly maturation at Harvard, Milton studied, and often collaborated in joint projects, with a number of distinguished scholars who were luminaries in the Harvard firmament of that day: Giorgio La Piana, Robert Blake, Werner Jaeger, and Robert Pfeiffer.

In 1941 came his appointment as Fellow at the newly founded Dumbarton Oaks center for Byzantine studies, donated by Robert and Mildred Bliss to Harvard, with its library, collections, mansion, and splendid gardens. Roughly at the same time the United States entered World War II, and scholars were drafted en masse for intelligence service in a war that was to decide the fate of humanity for the foreseeable future. Soon Milton became a part of that descent of American academe on Washington, where he was eventually put in charge of the “Greek Desk” in Research and Analysis headed by the famous Harvard historian William L. Langer. After the critical stage of the war had passed, Milton returned to his new position at Dumbarton Oaks, and for the better part of the next two decades turned to his studies and to a very active participation in the new and intense life of this young institution. He took a primary role in the development of its magnificent Byzantine library, where scholars from Europe, Africa, Asia, Australia, and North and South America have come to contribute to a better knowledge of Byzantine civilization, and where many graduate students have written their dissertations. It was during this Dumbarton Oaks period that the young scholar began to publish the results of his varied researches on church history and heresy, on the intellectual life of the empire, and on other historical matters. Particularly important were his contributions on the patriarch Nestorius, who, it turns out, was much maligned by Cyril the patriarch of Alexandria, and who, contrary to the latter, did not subscribe to heretical Christological dogma. Though the world of scholars was convinced by these studies, those who were much more obedient to the decisions of the church councils warmly chided Milton, saying, “Though your proof is convincing as to the Orthodoxy of Nestorius’ Christological views, how do you explain the fact that the Holy Spirit inspired the bishops to condemn Nestorius as a heretic?” Milton’s reply was simple, gentle but firm: “Well, my friend, the Holy Spirit had failed to read Nestorius’ book ‘The Bazaar of Heracleides’ and so was in ignorance on that point.” His monographic study on George Gemistus Pletho links Columbus’s discovery of America indirectly to Byzantium by demonstrating conclusively that Columbus was much influenced by the ancient author Strabo as his composition was interpreted by Pletho to the Council of Florence, 1438–39.

Just as his mother’s intervention in his primary and secondary education had steered Milton into Latin and the classics, and so constituted the second turning point in his intellectual development, much as his long association with Harvard (1926–64) constituted the third stage of his “education,” so the last major development in his onward march occurred when the unthinkable happened. In 1964, he made the decision to move west, to the departments of classics and history at UCLA. At that time this new university was developing into a great institution of learning under the dynamic leadership of its chancellor, Franklin Murphy, and within the broad guidelines of the decentralization of the University of California system as set out by its president, Charles Hitch. There rapidly developed, at UCLA, three centers of crucial importance: the Center for Near Eastern Studies, under the brilliant Viennese Arabist Gustave von Grunebaum; the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, founded by the historian of medieval technology and former president of Mills College, Lynn White; and the Center for Russian and East European Studies, with central figures Henrik Birnbaum and Dean Worth. The need to include Byzantine civilization in this conceptualization of medieval and modern studies at UCLA was pushed by both von Grunebaum and White, and so the position in Byzantine history had already been filled in 1960. The success in persuading Milton to leave Dumbarton Oaks to join with the medievalists of California thus put into place the fourth of these kernels of studies: Byzantine civilization.

The campaign to recruit him began almost unconsciously in the attempts to purchase the famous “Bibliotheca Anastasiana,” already large and covering all aspects of Byzantine civilization: philology, texts, history, church, the state and bureaucracy, education, philosophy, literature, the sciences, secular and canon law, hagiography, and art. This collection of some thirty-five thousand volumes (now fifty thousand) would constitute an ideal basis for the development of a major program in Byzantine studies. After a year of futile efforts, White cut the Gordian knot by stating that in order to get the library one must first bring Milton to the university. After an initial visit to California and to the UCLA campus during the spring of 1963, Milton began to falter in his loyalty to Harvard, as is evident in his letter dated 8 May 1963, to a future colleague at UCLA: I write to thank you for . . . the very extensive preparation I now realise you had made for my visit to Los Angeles. It was a very pleasant occasion, and I profited enormously from meeting your colleagues. . . . Los Angeles was magnificent. I found the university exciting in every way—effervescent with new ideas—your colleagues stimu lating, and the city itself far more handsome . . . than I had expected. As I remarked frequently, the center of intellectual gravity is shifting, if it has not already moved, to the West, and specifically to California, which will prove, I am sure, to be the major international citadel of the humanities.

By the fall term of 1964, Milton Anastos and his beloved library had made their way to the Golden West, he by American Airlines and the library with Bekins Van transport. The unloading and careful positioning of each of his thirty-five thousand tomes became the subject of an entire chapter in the migration of Milton to UCLA, still remembered vividly by those who witnessed the epic liturgy and ascension of the books to Ralph Bunche Hall for an entire week. The second major event in his new Californian life was his marriage to Rosemary Park in 1965. The event was a major turning point in the lives of both these remarkable personalities: on the one hand of Milton, a great bastion of learning and erudition, and on the other, of Rosemary, also a formidable scholar in the field of medieval German literature and formerly president of two of America’s leading colleges, Connecticut and Barnard. The union was complete, harmonious, and loving as one complemented the other in each and every way. The intelligence, kindness, and charm of Rosemary were everywhere and at all times overpowering, in a most agreeable manner. As vice chancellor of her new academic home she too effected a most subtle combination of eastern sophistication and western zest for the creative life. Rosemary was, along with his son Milton, Jr., the center of a most loving family life.

When Milton came to UCLA, Byzantine studies suddenly emerged as a major component in the context of Islamic, medieval, classical, and Slavic studies, which at the time were in first bloom on the UCLA campus. Soon the positions of the history of Byzantine art and of Byzantine music came to complete, together with the positions in Byzantine history and of Byzantine language and literature, the tetraktys or the foursome of Byzantine scholars. The result was that the field began to attract outstanding students from the entire nation and from abroad, and soon the first Ph.D.’s were being given in these fields. In all this Milton was the kingpin, his library the center around which the initiates carried out their novitiate, all of which remained and remain indelibly engraved in the minds of these students strewn across the waters from California and the Atlantic coast eastward to Cardiff and Athens. His students were devoted to him and early nicknamed him Socrates and “Hypsibremetes” (the high thunderer). The combined two-year seminars in the departments of classics and history were designed to plunge the aspirants directly into the reading of an archaic, and often bewilderingly obscure, form of ancient Greek in which “obscurity of discourse” was deemed to be the mark of “power of discourse.” These two seminars constituted a type of pons asinorum over which the novices had to pass in order to continue. Milton was a thorough student and lover of the ancient Greek and Byzantine language. He studied the unabridged Liddell and Scott Dictionary religiously, always seeking out the hapax legomena, those rare words that no one is expected to know, and for which one inevitably relies on this massive lexicon. His scholarly work intensified under the stimulation of the California skies and light, and soon his life-time project, “The Mind of Byzantium,” began to take on definite form and huge proportions. He devoted the entirety of his scholarly work to “The Mind of Byzantium,” which remains in a very extensive manuscript form, parts of which, however, were published as separate smaller monographs and articles. When he gave the title to this opus, he did not intend it to be a narrower approach to intellectual history but rather a broader approach, which would include the mind-set of Byzantine emperors, churchmen, and administrators as to how they envisaged the culture and the polity of the Byzantine Empire.

Thus his legacy is assured in the field of Byzantine scholarship. He has left his intellectual offspring in various university and other positions, and they in turn impart to their own novices a portion of this rich and vigorous intellectual tradition. His published works have served in the past, and continue to do so in the present, as points of departure for yet other discoveries and accomplishments. His great library with the more than fifty thousand volumes has migrated to another center of medieval studies, the University of Notre Dame, where it will nourish the scholarly diet of yet other younger scholars. There remains the massive manuscript of “The Mind of Byzantium.” Its future publication will help to structure the ideational content of an entire civilization. Thus the mind of Milton Anastos will be perpetuated in its massive interpretation of this world. Finally there remain his loving wife, Rosemary, and his loving son, Milton, Jr., guardians of his memory.

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