Sunday, December 09, 2007

a memorable professor

In the early 60s I was taught Roman history by Russell Meiggs, an Oxford don who was visiting professor for a semester. He had boundless enthusiasm for his subject and life in general. The first uninhibited British academic I met, he actually put on a bathing suit to frolic in the snow on one of the few occasions when we had enough of the stuff for cafeteria-tray sledding and the like. From him I learned about Ostia and its excavations, a subject on which he was typically passionate.

All this came back to me on reading a letter of Isaiah Berlin's from the mid-1930s.* Berlin is writing with typical humor about highbrows, middlebrows, and lowbrows, from which he morphs into a playful introspection on himself as aesthete. Along the way he mentions Meiggs as definitely neither highbrow nor aesthete. The man, he says, spoke and wrote energetically, sprinkling real and figurative exclamation marks throughout. Reading that called back this leonine person, ebullient, unpredictable, and magnetic; a professor to make an indelible mark in my otherwise pretty porous undergraduate memory banks.

Here's his portrait by Michael Noakes which hangs in the Oxford College, Balliol, where he was Fellow for many years.

A website devoted to the archaelology of ancient Ostia provides this strikingly similar photo.

This site also gives the most interesting anecdote about the man:
And then there was Russell Meiggs. He was a very nice man, an eccentric, with long hair. He would still be wearing shorts in November! He had a blue jumper that his wife had made for him, which featured the Portus lighthouse flanked by two ships, like a mosaic in the Square of the Guilds. I remember a very strange visit to Portus. One day Meiggs arrived riding a motorcycle with a sidecar."Jump in! We're off to Portus!"."We haven't got a permit", I said, "the ruins are on private land, the Torlonia estate!". Anyway, in the end we went. We got in through a hole in the fence, but we were discovered by the custodians who called the police at Fiumicino. Meiggs explained, long and loud, that he'd entered the grounds because he was finishing a very important book, and he was given a permit on the spot, something the Italians had been asking for in vain for years!" (From an interview with the archaeologist Alberino Vicari by Jan Theo Bakker, January 1988. I added the links.)
This site also has an appreciation of him that mentions the eccentricity I best recall:
Meiggs was devoted to Swarthmore College and to his colleagues there, and the sentiment was certainly reciprocated. When he came to America he brought with him some of his more exuberant habits, such as rolling in the snow in the coldest days of winter in scant bathing attire. (by G.W. Bowerstock)
From this same website, here's a reproduction of an article on Ostia from the Times (of London) Meiggs wrote in 1954. (I assume the Times editor took out the exclamations that must have been present in the copy Meiggs submitted.)

{Click image to view full size.}

There's also a good page devoted Meiggs giving links on his life and his writings.

*Isaiah Berlin - Selected Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin (Author), Henry Hardy (Editor)

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