Speech by the Chairman of the Judges, on the occasion of the 2019 Runciman Award Ceremony


Administered by the Anglo-Hellenic League
The Anglo-Hellenic League, 16-18 Paddington Street., London W1U 5AS
(Registered Charity No 278892)

JOINT PATRONS HE The Greek Ambassador to the Court of St James’s;
HBM Ambassador to Greece
CHAIRMAN Mr John Kittmer


Ladies and Gentlemen:

The late Sir Steven Runciman was, in life, and will surely remain so in educated memory, a noble citizen and an iconic figure in the Republic of Letters. For some he was the “gentleman scholar” par excellence, “repository of the civilized values of Edwardian times”. Others see him as belonging to “the disappearing class of writers known as private scholars”; while others simply venerate him as the long-awaited early twentieth century historian who brought to the study of the Byzantine Civilization, in his words, the “intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception” necessary to making Byzantium a worthy and fruitful subject of both poetic wonder and scholarly attention. Above all, the name of Runciman, which this Award proudly carries, is associated with the values we have come to consider as integral to what we once called the Humanities and what we may still celebrate, now and in years to come, as a critical humanism.

Granted, Runciman’s world was different from ours. Our literature is a Weltliteratur in a sense that Goethe, who coined the term, could not have foreseen; and our scholarship is a world scholarship in ways not yet envisioned, in their fullness and urgency, when Werner Jaeger’s Paideia spelled out “the ideals of Greek culture”. The Runciman Prize, with its call for books contributing to a broader understanding of “Hellenism”, is only one, albeit an important one, among the manifold ways whereby these ideals may be rehearsed and revised for present and future use. It is my feeling that, since the Award’s inception in 1986, consecutive panels of judges have been doing exactly that: reconsidering, readjusting and revising their understanding of Hellenism, in accordance with their feeling for the present time but, in equal measure, in full awareness of their place in an international community of scholars. The Award, having by now reached the christological age of 33, has displayed a remarkable alertness to this challenge and has grown capable of sustaining all reasonable scepticism as to its relevancy in a world not necessarily enraptured by “things Hellenic”.

Such overwhelming issues were not openly discussed among this year’s judges; but they were, as they invariably are, implicitly involved in the judging process when Judith Mossman, Peter Frankopan, Naoise Mac Sweeney, my distinguished fellow judges and myself, met in person late in the morning on a sunny day in the lovely month of May, in a room provided by St John’s College, Oxford, thanks to the graceful ministrations of Richard Carden, sine quo non. We started with a daunting list of 51 books eligible for the Prize, and had to work our way down or rather up to a short list of six, which, we believe, best exemplify merit, range and variety in this year’s crop.

Oxford and Cambridge, Cambridge and Oxford, were, as always, far ahead in the lead, with an impressive output of studies and monographs dealing with all aspects of Hellenic Culture, its historical reception and its impact on our present understanding of the world. Quite a few other publishers have, in recent years, joined this noble race of books on Greek Civilization: I. B. Tauris, Bloomsbury, Thames and Hudson, to mention only three promiment ones; and we have been gladdened to see more books arriving across the Atlantic from venerable University Presses, such as Harvard, Princeton, and Michigan, this year. There has also been, in recent years, an impressive output of fiction inspired by ancient themes, especially Greek mythology, among which Michael Hughes’ novel Country, this year, and Colm Toibin’s House of Names, last year’s co-winner, take pride of place. Literary translations, an unmistakable sign of the Classics’ ability to endure, have also held a prominent place in the Award’s lists in recent years, as distinguished scholars like Oliver Taplin try their hand at a new translation of an ancient literary text. New areas of interest have been surfacing, as the study of Classics is fertilized by other disciplinary concerns, and important shifts in ideological orientation have come to the fore: Demetra Kasimis’s The Perpetual Immigrant and the Limits of Athenian Democracy, Gabriel Zuchtriegel’s Colonization and Subalternity: Experience of the Nonelite Population, and Katerina Zanou’s Transnational Patriotism, 1800-1850: Stammering the Nation, are all fine examples of this trend in research. First-rate scholarship was happily in ample evidence this year, as in Richard Hunter’s The Measure of Homer: The Ancient Reception of the Iliad and the Odyssey, in Graham Shipley’s The Early Hellenistic Peloponnese, or indeed in Caroline Vout’s magisterial Classical Art: A Life History from Antiquity to the Present.

Yet once more, Greek Antiquity, Early, Classical and Late, got the lion’s share. Books on Modern Greek History and Culture, with an expected emphasis on the current economic crisis and the Cyprus issue, came second, with Byzantine Studies a poor third, a fact noted with regret by this year’s judges. Judges also had occasion to deplore – as they have done so, too frequently for comfort, in the past –  the appalling absence of editorial care and the low printing quality of many books. Happily enough, the opposite is often and glaringly in evidence, and it can only be commended with enthusiasm when a publisher circulates such wonders as the two lavishly produced, lovingly illustrated and carefully edited books put out by Oxford University Press last year: Jeremy Mynott’s Birds in the Ancient World, and Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers.

Needless to say, coming up with the magnificent six was no easy task.

1. I begin with The Excerpta Constantiniana and the Byzantine Appropriation of the Past, published by Cambridge University Press, the only contribution to Byzantine Studies submitted this year, but fortunately a substantial one. András Németh, curator of Greek manuscripts at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, transforms an otherwise obscure subject into a fascinating study of the intricate bonding of political power with knowledge in 10th century Byzantium. Under the supervision of Emperor Constantine VII (905959 CE), scholars compiled a system for the storage, classification and retrieval of information, a sort of historical Encyclopaedia avant la lettre, which served as a powerful instrument for reappropriating the historical past.

2. Francesca Schironi’s The Best of the Grammarians: Aristarchus of Samothrace on the Iliad, by Michigan University Press, is a masterly work of classical philology devoted to the man who is considered the founding father of the art of philology and Homeric exegesis. Having studied the 4,300 extant fragments of Aristarchus’s commentary on the Iliad, Professor Schironi offers a lucid and comprehensive reconstruction of the grammarian’s philological method, that is bound to remain the standard work on Aristarchus for many years to come.

3. The Gardens of Corfu, published by Impress, is a rare delight of a book, a magnificent, lavishly produced folio, designed by Phil Cleaver, with texts by Rachel Weaving and breathtaking photography by Marianne Majerus. Author and illustrator vie with one another to create a charm that is as much theirs as it is of their subject, “The Garden Isle”, where the wandering mind may feel free to create “Far other worlds and other seas”.

4. Last but not least of runners-up is a slim volume published by Penguin, which contains one of the gems of archaic epic poetry, Hesiod’s Works and Days, in a resplendent new verse translation by A E Stallings. The translator’s auditory imagination, schooled in the wit and dignity of Dryden and Pope, has made Hesiod new again by bringing to her English version a heroic couplet well-tempered with the poetic vernacular and free to stray at will from the strict confines of the pentameter. Her version is a joy to read, and her Introduction a fine piece of critical appreciation.

For a second year running, judges felt obliged to divide the prize between two works whose merits both equal and complement one another.

Robin Osborne’s, The Transformation of Athens: Painted Pottery and the Creation of Classical Greece, beautifully produced by Princeton University Press, sets out to give an account of the enormous social transformation of Athenian society as witnessed on painted pottery between the end of the sixth and the middle of the fifth century BCE. This transformation is coterminous with an artistic revolution, which is usually explained away as a change of style, an increase in naturalness. This, according to the author, is to miss half the picture. Through a careful examination of the surviving Athenian red-figure pots produced between 520 and 440 BCE, the author traces how depictions of hoplites, athletes, symposia, sexual relations, religious practices and scenes of daily life bear testimony to important changes in Athenian civic life, where, in his words, “Athens was redrawn”; but what matters in these depictions, what this historical change in subject matter as well as style registers, “is not what happens, but what is perceived to be happening” [p. 256].  In an analysis that engages both art history and Greek history, art is perceived not so much as a reflection of society as an agent of social and political change, an intricate performative model linking artist and viewer, whereby important changes in moral and aesthetic values are rehearsed and renegotiated: changes in the society’s understanding of itself and of its place in the human and the supernatural order of things.

Paul Kosmin’s Time and Its Adversaries in the Seleucid Empire, this year’s co-winner of the Runciman Award, published by the Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, is an ambitious, erudite, path-breaking work that engages, in equal measure, Ancient History, Sociology and Anthropology, and challenges received notions, intellectual habits and presuppositions in Hellenistic historiography. Under Seleucid rule, in that vast multi-ethnic Empire stretching from Syria to Bactria and from Armenia to the Persian Gulf, a new dating, time-reckoning system was devised, that shifted attention from the individual ruler’s term to the linear continuity of kingship, which was thus historicized in a radically new way. This new system, in the author’s words, “by structuring the kingdom’s visibility and institutional practices around a continuous, irreversible, and predictable accumulation of years, […] made the empire historical in a radically new sense, perhaps even the first truly historical state” [p. 76]. In a second, even more fascinating part of the book, the author shows how the imperial temporal regime, imposed upon a vast background of pre-Hellenistic traditions, triggered the emergence of other, total histories, of Babylonian, Judean or Iranian origin. These older traditions hollowed out spaces of indigenous temporalities, adversarial chronologies resistant to the hegemonic imperial model, which, moving both backwards and forwards, sought to recapture a subjugated past while at the same time promising an end of history, as in the Zoroastrian, the Abrahamic and other apocalyptic eschatologies. It is thus that indigenous histories, with their own religious and political complexities, may surface to challenge our historical sense.

Both writers draw on a wide variety of sources; both employ data and insights from many disciplines, and their impact is bound to be accordingly multiple across a broad spectrum of the Humanities; both excel in specialized scholarship but venture out to more universal concerns in ways that will prove fruitful for the Humanities in general. Paul Kosmin’s book has far-reaching consequences for the study of history, because it touches upon two fundamental concepts by which we understand ourselves and our place in the world: temporality and historicity. Robin Osborne offers new ways of looking at the intricate interleaving of art and society and, most crucially, at the ways we, as moral agents, may transform ourselves, our sense of self and place, in trying to understand the transformation of our society.

It is out of a sense of joy and admiration for these two works that we unanimously agreed to divide this year’s prize between them.

Dionysis Kapsalis

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