Getzel Cohen (1942-2015)

I delivered the following remarks at an event on March 24th to commemorate Getzel Cohen. I hope that putting them up here will give them a less ephemeral existence.

I am honored to have been asked to speak here on Getzel as an ancient historian and on his great contribution to our field.

Before I attempt to do justice to that topic, I would like to speak for a moment about Getzel as a mentor, a teacher and a friend. I first met Getzel in a job interview for this position at Cincinnati. In an otherwise pretty searching conversation, I remember psychologically clinging to the visible signs of encouragement that Getzel gave to me – my first encounter with his absolute generosity. These signs, conveyed characteristically with his unforgettable smile and glint in the eye were the beginnings for me of a vital mentorship. Throughout the all-too-short time that we worked together here in Cincinnati, Getzel looked out for me and taught me so much about how to be a good colleague, a good scholar and a good teacher. Despite a generational aversion to speaking on the phone, I soon came to hope for his habitual inter-office calls, which always had a purpose, but never failed to start with a long chat about his reading, the music he had heard at the Symphony or news of his family. I never took a class with Getzel, but I do not hesitate in acknowledging him as one of my most influential teachers.

As Getzel frequently said, he was profoundly influenced by his own teacher John Fine, his supervisor at Princeton. It was clear that Getzel adored Mr. Fine and he loved Princeton – the photos on his desk in Blegen were often used to demonstrate the point. As a historian Getzel lived up to the great Princetonian tradition in ancient history. Working with Fine, Getzel completed his dissertation on the subject of Seleucid military colonies in 1970 and his scholarly career from that point was dedicated to the phenomenon, through several significant essays and his great trilogy on the Hellenistic Settlements.

Princeton provided two things that, by his own account and that of his work, shaped Getzel as an historian. Firstly, Getzel’s work was critical ancient history in the tradition of German Altertumswissenschaft that had been imported to Princeton by David Magie and was continued by John Fine, himself a student of the great Russian émigré historian Mikhail Rostovzteff. Secondly, a Princetonian willingness to look beyond classical history is apparent throughout Getzel’s work, which was devoted to wider Hellenistic world. When Getzel was a student in the mid-twentieth century, American Greek history was centrally preoccupied with fifth-century Athens, notably under the influence of the publication of the Athenian Tribute Lists in the years after 1939, which had offered an exciting glimpse into the workings of the Athenian Empire. Getzel’s decision to turn to Hellenistic history both returned to an earlier Princetonian interest in the Greco-Roman East, exemplified by the sponsored excavations at Antioch-on-the-Orontes and Magie’s work on Asia Minor, and put Getzel at the head of a wider movement in Anglophone Greek history towards the East and towards the Hellenistic period, which is now the subject of some of the most exciting work in Classics as a field.

Getzel’s work is foundational for current and future work in this area of history. Starting from his dissertation, which was published as a monograph in 1978, he became the leading scholarly authority on the subject of communities founded in the wake of Alexander’s conquests. As a historian, his magnum opus is the three-book study of the Hellenistic Settlements, published in 1995, 2006 and 2013, in which Getzel discussed over five hundred and fifteen such communities. It had been known since the time of Droysen in the nineteenth century, that the foundation of Greek communities throughout the east was one of the most important components in Hellenism – the spread of Greek culture beyond the old Aegean and South Italian heartlands and the adaptation of that culture in contact with others; with Getzel’s three books on the Hellenistic Settlements, historians are now able to glimpse of the incredible extent of those cities. I say “glimpse” deliberately – the great achievement of the Hellenistic Settlements is not just to present what we can know about each of the settlements but also to show the difficulties and problems with the evidence for each city – in other words, what we can’t know about them.

Consistently across the three books, Getzel’s discussions of each city are divided into general overviews and a set of richly detailed notes. These notes are monuments to his wonderful erudition and judgement. In the later two volumes in particular, they demonstrate Getzel’s command of an incredible range of sources, including archaeology, epigraphy, Byzantine Greek chronicles, rabbinic texts and Arabic writings. I can think of only a very few scholars who could match the breadth of Getzel’s view on the kinds of material that can inform us about antiquity. This great body of learning is anything but dry – anyone opening up one of the volumes is treated within a few pages to a fascinating learned comparison or digression. My favorite is his knowing comparison of the unattractiveness of the Iranian plateau for Greek settlers with the French colonial attitude to the pays d’en haut – the unappealing lands beyond Montreal, including what is now known as the American Midwest (Vol. 3, p.27).

Getzel once told me that the model for the organization of the trilogy was Édouard Will’s Histoire politique du monde hellénistique, the best and most authoritative narrative history of the Hellenistic period, which is also divided into an overview chapters followed by sets of detailed, learned notes. Between Will and Cohen, ancient historians have their indispensable guides to Hellenistic time and space. Historians dream of writing lasting works – what Thucydides called ktemata es aei, possessions for all time – few of us do. Getzel is numbered among that few – his work will stand as a lasting monument of ancient historical scholarship and all who follow him are in his debt.

 

 

 

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