Campus & Community

Classicist, medievalist Bloch dies at 95

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Scholarship, pedagogy made major impacts

Herbert Bloch, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature Emeritus, died on Sept. 6 in Cambridge, Mass. Bloch was born in Berlin on Aug. 18, 1911. He studied ancient history, classical philology, and archaeology at the University of Berlin (1930-1933), which he left for Rome. Owing to the vicissitudes of fate, his brother Egon remained in Germany and died in the Holocaust.

Bloch received his doctoral degree in Roman history in 1935 and the Diploma di perfezionamento in 1937 from the University of Rome, where he was a student of the eminent historian Arnaldo Momigliano. Bloch remained in Italy, serving as a member of the staff of the excavations in Ostia in 1938. During these years he not only honed his skills as a scholar but also developed a facility in Italian that remained with him his entire life.

Owing to the pressures of the anti-Semitic laws enacted in Italy in late 1938, Bloch was soon no longer able to remain in the country that had sheltered him initially. In 1939 he emigrated to the United States. George Hanfmann (1911-1986), the art historian and archaeologist at Harvard who had been a student with Bloch in Berlin, played a role in securing him a connection with the University. Bloch was to have been in the first group of fellows at Dumbarton Oaks, one of Harvard’s centers in Washington, D.C. At the time, John Finley (1904-1995) was acting chair of the Department of the Classics. When Carl Newell Jackson, Eliot Professor of Greek, fell ill, Finley hired Bloch to take over his teaching. It was arranged for Bloch to defer his junior fellowship in Washington by a year.

In retrospect, the war years were the beginning of unbroken stability in Bloch’s life, as from 1941 to 1982 he taught at Harvard University. At the same time it must be acknowledged that he remained stateless through the end of the war, when he had to go to Montreal to secure his citizenship papers. He was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in 1946.

His gratitude to the United States for having given him a haven was great. Equally strong was his resistance to any whiff of intolerance or persecution. In 1954, he was approached by the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton about the possibility of a permanent position there, but decided against it at least partly because he was horrified that the chairman of the board of trustees of the institute testified in Washington against J. Robert Oppenheimer. In contrast, Nathan Pusey, the recently appointed president of Harvard at the time, had stood up to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Fifteen years later (1969), Bloch himself took a stand by delivering a speech to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences against the students who had taken over University Hall. He regarded them as being similar to the Nazi youths he had seen early in his life.

At Harvard, Bloch rose swiftly through the ranks, as instructor for one year (1941 to 1942), faculty instructor for four, and assistant professor for one, before being tenured as associate professor. He was professor for 20 years, after which he held the Pope Professorship of the Latin Language and Literature.

His teaching and research interests involved Greek and Roman historiography, Latin epigraphy, Roman archaeology (especially architecture), medieval history, and medieval Latin literature. Through his courses he advanced medieval studies in particular, by inspiring a cadre of students who have now become eminent in their own right.

In all the areas already mentioned, Bloch made a major impact in his scholarship. Among his most enduring contributions to classics are his works on Roman brick-stamps, which enable archaeologists and historians to date buildings and trace economic ties related to their construction by matching the brick-stamps to their brickyards of origin. Another longstanding commitment of Bloch’s was to what used to be labeled “the final pagan revival in the West” in the late fourth century.

Among medievalists he is known best for many books and articles on Monte Cassino. His crowning achievement was the three volumes of “Monte Cassino in the Middle Ages,” which appeared in 1986. This opus, which is exemplary in bringing together evidence from historical texts with insights gleaned from works of art, was awarded the Praemium Urbis in Rome in 1987 and the Haskins Medal of the Medieval Academy in 1988. Although all this work is uniquely his own, Bloch’s Monte Cassino oeuvre also bears witness to the extraordinary support of his second wife, Ellen, who not only drove him to many of the out-of-the-way places in Italy he needed to visit but also took many of the photographs with which the three volumes are illustrated.

Professor Bloch attained all the types of recognition that one might expect. He was a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Fellow; member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton; syndic of Harvard University Press; senior fellow of the Society of Fellows, and trustee of the Loeb Classical Library. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia (honorary member since 1990), German Archaeological Institute, Zentraldirektion of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, and Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. In 1999 he was distinguished by the Premio “Cultori di Roma.”

Although this attenuated enumeration of Bloch’s career gives a glimpse of achievements and values, it fails to capture his physical presence – what death has now wrested from us. A tall and lean man, Bloch had an Old World courtliness; a captivatingly resonant, deep voice; a modesty; and a genuine interest in the activities of others that endeared him to those who knew him. During his half century or so of living in Belmont, Mass., he loved to take long walks in the conservation land adjacent to his property. In those woods he knew the precise number and location of all the lady’s slippers and could compare the totals in a given year with those of earlier ones. He cared deeply about the earth, to which he has now returned.

Bloch is survived by his twin daughters, Anne Bloch, of Arlington, Mass., and Mary Alice (Nini) Bloch, of Bedford, Mass. They are his daughters by his first wife, Clarissa (née Holland), who came from the Boston area. She died suddenly while they were traveling together in Germany in August 1958. His second wife, Ellen (née Cohen) of Memphis, Tenn., died in May 1987.

There will be no funeral service, but a memorial service will be held on Saturday, Oct. 21, at 1 p.m. at The First Church in Belmont, 404 Concord Ave. (corner of Concord and Common).

– Professor Jan Ziolkowski
Chair of the Department of the Classics