Joseph Scaliger (1540-1609) was a towering figure in the history of European scholarship. During the first half of his career, he virtually created the systematic study of early Latin; during the second, using Oriental as well as Greek and Latin sources, he laid the foundations of our knowledge of the chronology of the ancient world. Born and brought up at Agen in the west of France, he was the son of Julius Caesar Scaliger, a Latin scholar of distinction, who claimed to be descended from those Della Scalas who were lords of Verona during the Middle Ages. So far as he was able, the elder Scaliger gave his son a thorough training: but he greatly preferred Latin to Greek literature, and his Greek left much to be desired. His son reacted against his father's anti-Hellenism: after his father's death, at the age of 18, he made his way to Paris, where the famous Hellenists Turnebus and Auratus were active. With help from them and by his own strenuous efforts, he acquired a remarkable command of Greek, and went on to attain proficiency in Hebrew. By 1562, he had taken the fateful step of becoming a Calvinist. He obtained the patronage of Louis Chasteignier, lord of La Roche-Pozay near Poitiers, and in 1565 accompanied him on a diplomatic mission to Italy. Despite his Calvinistic contempt for Italian scholars and the Catholic Church - he preferred talking Hebrew with the learned Jews of Mantua and Ferrara to cultivating the society of Italian Humanists - he was inspired by the sight of Rome and the opportunity to copy inscriptions. Returning home in 1567, he found his studies interrupted by the religious wars of that and the following year. Making his way to Valence, in Dauphiné, he spent two years under the aegis of the great jurist Cujacius, who had an important influence upon his work. After the massacre of St Bartholomew in August 1572, he fled to Geneva, where he had contacts with other Protestant men of letters. Largely owing to the protection of the La Roche-Pozay family, he managed to carry on his work during the wars of the League. But in 1593, the year when Henri IV decided that Paris was worth a mass, he accepted the offer of a chair at the newly founded university of Leiden, which had already become one of the chief cultural centres of Europe. Here he taught such pupils as Daniel Heinsius and Grotius, and here he died in 1609.
LRB 17 May 1984 | PDF Download