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Thomas Gustav Rosenmeyer


Thomas Gustav Rosenmeyer

Professor of Greek and Comparative Literature, Emeritus


1920 – 2007


Tom Rosenmeyer, professor emeritus of Greek and comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, died at his home in Oakland on Tuesday, February 6, 2007. He was 86.


Born in Hamburg, Germany, on April 3, 1920, and educated at the humanistic Johanneum Gymnasium in that city from 1930 to 1938, Tom fled to England in 1939 to avoid Nazi persecution. He enrolled at the London School of Oriental Studies, intending to learn Sanskrit, but in 1940 the British, expecting a German invasion, interned all “enemy aliens.” He was sent on to an internment camp in Canada, where the residents formed their own impromptu “university,” and, though behind barbed wire, collaborated in studying Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic, as well as Greek and Latin language and literature. Among his colleagues in the camp were Martin Ostwald, a distinguished future classicist and lifelong friend of Tom’s, and Emil Fackenheim, who taught Tom Arabic and later became a prominent philosopher of the Shoah. Released from internment in 1942, Tom completed an undergraduate degree in classics at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, in 1944 and took an M.A. in classics at the University of Toronto in 1945 before proceeding to Harvard University for his doctoral studies with Werner Jaeger as his principal adviser. He took up his first teaching job in 1947 at the University of Iowa. Two years later he completed his Ph.D. with a work on Plato entitled “The Isle of Critias.” After three years at Smith College (1952–1955), he moved to the University of Washington, where he rose through the ranks to full professor (1955–1966). Inspired by conversations with fellow expatriate classicists Paul Friedländer (University of California, Los Angeles) and Hermann Fränkel (Stanford University), Tom decided to expand his horizons and soon developed a strong commitment to the new discipline of comparative literature. When he arrived at the University of California, Berkeley in 1966 to a joint position in Greek and comparative literature, he immediately became one of the driving forces of that new, and soon preeminent, program.


At Berkeley, Tom was admired and loved as a deeply learned, wide-ranging and loyal colleague, a warm friend and mentor, and a stalwart servant of his two departments and of the humanities. He served terms as chair of each department (classics in 1973–1975 and comparative literature in 1979–1981), and in the College of Letters and Science he was Dean of Instruction (1969–1971) and Dean of Humanities (1971–1972). Tom helped to organize what is now the Townsend Center for the Humanities, and was selected by the Academic Senate to be Faculty Research Lecturer in 1990. Upon his retirement later that year he received the Berkeley Citation. To mark his 70th birthday in that same spring, he was presented with a Festschrift with contributions from his friends, colleagues and former students, entitled “Cabinet of the Muses.


With his distinctive combination of traditional philology and finely nuanced analysis, Tom Rosenmeyer soon became an internationally recognized leader in the interpretation of classical Greek literature. He drew skillfully both on philosophically based aesthetic theory and an impressive range of literary-critical models—the fruit of his formidably wide and deep reading. In his early career he published numerous articles on Plato, and, under the title The Discovery of the Mind (1953), translated into English Bruno Snell’s Die Entdeckung des Geistes (1946), one of the most influential books of that time. His first monograph, The Masks of Tragedy (1963), comprised a set of provocative essays on Greek plays. The Green Cabinet: Theocritus and the European Pastoral Tradition (1969), perhaps his most celebrated book, exemplifies well his comparative approach, as it brings a wide-ranging chronological and cultural perspective to the study of Greek and Latin poetry, points up interconnections between literature and philosophy, and shows the continuing relevance of the classics for the understanding of later literature. The Art of Aeschylus (1982) is likewise a tour de force, erudite, sophisticated, and pithily written. Partly as the result of a sabbatical in Paris in 1972–1973, which introduced him to such intellectual luminaries as Lacan and Derrida, as well as the classicists J.–P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Tom explored the applicability of contemporary approaches to classical texts in his masterful little 1988 monograph Deina Ta Polla. In a late turn to Latin literature, his final book, Senecan Drama and Stoic Cosmology (1989), is an excitingly original study of how Seneca weaves the Stoic science of nature into his tragedies. In these books and in numerous shorter contributions, such as his brilliant chapter on drama in M. I. Finley’s The Legacy of Greece (1981), as well as in his work as an editor, Tom’s scholarship was especially notable for the following qualities: capacity to range effortlessly over ancient and modern literature; facility at pinpointing those aspects of Renaissance and modern texts that significantly relate to ancient models; interest in the connections between literature and contemporary currents of philosophical thought; scrutiny of the interplay and tension between literary theory and literary practice; and openness to the ambiguities and imprecisions of both literary expression itself and the interpretive strategies of scholars.


Beyond Berkeley, Tom Rosenmeyer’s distinction was acknowledged by the award of two Guggenheim Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship, his election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Philosophical Society, and his service as president of the American Philological Association in 1989. He held visiting appointments at the American School of Classical Studies, Athens (1961–62), the University of Michigan (summer 1966), Princeton University (fall 1975), Harvard University (fall 1984), the Ohio State University (fall 1990), the University of Washington (spring 1991), and Stanford University (fall 1993). Although hampered in his last years by deafness, which made it difficult for him to attend social gatherings and lectures, he maintained his one-on-one connections with his many friends and former colleagues, communicated far and wide by e-mail, and pursued a full life of reading, research, and writing. He was physically and mentally active right up to the end.


His wife of 56 years, Lilo, died in 2006. He is survived by two daughters, Patricia Rosenmeyer (herself a professor of classics) of Madison, Wisconsin, and Katharine Fabunan of Fresno, California, and by three grandchildren.


A full bibliography of Tom Rosenmeyer’s work is available, along with the digital edition of the Festschrift published in his honor in 1990, at:



Robert Alter

Mark Griffith

Anthony Long

Donald Mastronarde