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In Memoriam Herbert Bloch (1911-2006)

Bedford Minuteman, Thursday, September 14, 2006 (reproduced on this website with the permission of Mr. P. Costa, Editor).

Herbert Bloch, 95, Pope Professor of the Latin Language and Literature, Emeritus, of Harvard University, died Wednesday, Sept 6, 2006, in Cambridge.

A native of Germany, he was born in Berlin Aug. 18, 1911, the eldest of two sons of Ludwig Israel Bloch, who became a director of the Dresdner Bank in Berlin, and Alice Gutman, the bank owner's daughter.

Ludwig's father was a family doctor, in Pilsen (now in the Czech Republic). Bloch 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. In 1938 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. Because of his fluency would translate at sight, articles in German for the great Italian historian, Gaetano de Sanctis (1870-1957), after which they would discuss the contents together.

Bloch's command of ancient history, Italian, and German resulted in one particularly memorable experience in 1938. When Adolf Hitler paid a German state visit as chancellor to Rome in March of that year, Benito Mussolini made a stop at the reconstructed Ara Pacis (a monumental altar of peace that was completed in 9 BCE) a centerpiece of a city tour.

At the last moment the organizers, realizing that their attempted translation of the exhibition catalog into German was a botch, cast around for a person qualified to redo it. They were told that there was someone who could, but he was Jewish. Nonetheless, they asked Bloch, who agreed and stayed up two nights to produce a new version. Hitler so liked the exhibit that he made a second, unscheduled visit Bloch gave as his reason for translating the catalog that he had to choose between helping the country that had taken him in or refusing out of dislike for the country that had driven him out.

Owing to the pressures of the anti-Semitic laws enacted 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 Hanftriann (1911-1986), the art historian and archaeologist at Harvard who had been a student with him 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, since 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 (1904-1967). In contrast, Nathan Pusey (1907-2001), recently appointed President of Harvard (1953-1971), had stood up to Senator 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 (1941-1942), faculty instructor for four (1942-1946), and assistant professor for one (1946-1947), before being tenured as associate professor (1947-1953). He was professor for twenty years (1953-1973), 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 he 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 ancient historians to date buildings and trace economic ties related to their construction by matching the brick-stamps to their brickyards of origin. One of his earliest interests, Roman brick-stamps were an area he revisited periodically during his long and productive career: his studies of 1936-1938 were assembled as a book in 1948, which received a second edition in 1968 and which have a pendant in his contributions to the famous corpus of Latin inscriptions. Another longstanding commitment of his 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.

Ten years later, well into his eighties, Bloch published The Atina Dossier of Peter the Deacon of Monte Cassino. A Hagiographical Romance of the Twelfth Century, in the series Studi e Testi 346 (1998). Peter the Deacon became a central figure in Bloch's investigations into the rise of the Benedictine Abbey of Monte Cassino. Around 600, when there was no way of easily and quickly copying essential documents or backing them up on hard drives, critical manuscripts often got lost, damaged, or destroyed. Peter the Deacon (the Abbey's librarian) seized the opportunity to enhance his and the abbey's reputation and power by forging replacement documents that "embellished" the abbey's holdings. Infatuated with ancient Rome, Peter the Deacon frequently interwove references to Rome in his creations but sometimes got his facts wrong. Bloch's knowledge of Latin literature enabled him to see through the ruses and set the record straight. He delighted in this detective work.

In the 1970s and 1980s Bloch was involved in a controversy about Monte Cassino that had nothing to do with the Middle Ages. After thorough, research, he wrote a monograph that criticized the Allied bombing of the monastery in 1944 as unnecessary, and in fact a detriment to the Allied cause, since it created ruins that the Germans used as a fort when massacring the troops that tried to cross the Gustav Line. Although this study made him persona non grata in some quarters (perhaps especially New Zealand, since it was a commander from there who took the key decisions), it was reprinted in generous numbers at Monte Cassino. In any case, his devotion to Monte Cassino led to his being awarded an L.L.D. by the University of Cassino in 1989 and endeared him to the monks, Born Jewish but reticent about his beliefs, Bloch developed a sense of deep community with Benedictine monasticism.

Professor Bloch attained all the types of recognition that one might expect, He was a Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Fellow (1950-1951); member of the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (1953-1954); Syndic of Harvard University Press (1961-1965); Senior Fellow of the Society of Fellows (1964-79), and Trustee of the Loeb Classical Library (1964-73). He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, American Philosophical Society, Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia (since 1990 Hon. Mem.), German Archaeological Institute, Zentraldirektion of the Monumenta Germanise Historica, and Finnish Academy of Science and Letters. In 1999 he was distinguished by the Premio "Cultori di Roma."

His ties with a number of these organizations went far beyond the merely honorific. To cite two examples that speak to the chronological range he demonstrated, Bloch served as President of the American Philological Association (1968-1969) and as President of Fellows of the Medieval Academy (1990-93). Because of his earlier years in Italy, his terms as Professor-in-Charge of the School of Classical Studies (1957-1959) and as Resident in Classical Studies (1987) at the American Academy in Rome were particularly important. He was held in very high regard and affection by all at the Academy, and on one of his final visits to it was received almost as a founding father, since there happened to be three or even four generations of his students and colleagues in residence at the time.

Although this 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, 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.

Herbert Bloch is survived by his twins, Anne Bloch, of Arlington, and Mary Alice (Mini) Bloch, of Bedford, daughters by his first wife, Clarissa (nee 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).

Bloch H. 1938, I bolli laterizi e la storia edilizia, Roma.
Bloch H. 1939, "Inedita Ostiensia I", Epigraphica 1, 37-40.
Bloch H. 1945, "A New Document of the Last Pagan Revival in the West", HThR 38, 199-244.
Bloch H. 1947, "The Roman Brick Stamps not published in Vol. XV of the CIL", HSCP 56-57, 1-128.
Bloch H. 1953, "Ostia - Iscrizioni rinvenute tra il 1930 e il 1939", NSc, 239-306.
Bloch H. 1953, "The Name of the Baths near the Forum of Ostia", Studies presented to D. M. Robinson 2, 412 ff.
Bloch H. 1959, "The Serapeum of Ostia and the Brick-Stamps of 123 A.D. A New Landmark in the History of Roman Architecture", AJA 63, 225-240.
Bloch H. 1959, "Un nuovo caposaldo della storia della architettura romana: il Serapeo di Ostia ed i bolli laterizi dell'anno 123", Atti del III Congresso Int. di Epigrafia Greca e Romana, 173-174, Roma.
Bloch H. 1962, "A Monument of the Lares Augusti in the Forum of Ostia", HThR 55, 211-223.
Bloch H. 1963, "The pagan revival in the West at the end of the fourth century", The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (A. Momigliano ed.), Oxford.
Bloch H. 1996, "In ricordo di Russell Meiggs", Gallina Zevi 1996, 3-4.