Joseph Justus Scaliger Biography


(History of the World: The Renaissance)

Article abstract: Educated by a learned father and through study with leading scholars, Scaliger became the foremost scholar of Greek and Latin in his time. His editions of Latin authors set high critical standards; his research on ancient chronology established the study of ancient history on a firm foundation and introduced to Europe the literature and history of Byzantium.

Early Life

In 1525, the physician Julius Caesar Scaliger accompanied the Italian nobleman M. A. de la Rovère to Agen, a small town in western France, where the nobleman would serve as bishop. The physician claimed a remarkable record. Julius Caesar Scaliger was descended from the family (the della Scala) that once had ruled Verona. He had studied art (with Albrecht Dürer), medicine, theology, natural history, and classical literature. He had earned military distinction during seventeen years of service under his kinsman the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. Now the physician devoted himself to other pursuits. His medical practice at Agen flourished, and in 1528 he married an adolescent orphan of a noble family, Andiette de Roques Lobejac. From this union came fifteen children.

The physician studied Greek and Latin in his leisure. He circulated a brilliant (if misguided) polemic against Erasmus’ criticism of contemporary Latin in 1531, from 1533 to 1547 wrote volumes of his own Latin verse, which would be critically disparaged but read widely and reprinted often, and composed his own Latin grammar in 1540 and a notable treatise on Latin poetry (published in 1561 after his death). His major work was a massive commentary on the ancient Greek tradition of natural history as understood by Hippocrates, Aristotle, and Theophrastus. This great study was completed in 1538 but not published until after the author’s death, when Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz praised it as the best contemporary guide to Aristotle.

Julius Caesar Scaliger’s love of classical learning bore its greatest fruit in his third son (and tenth child), Joseph Justus. Educated at home to age twelve, Joseph was then sent, with his brothers Leonard and John, to the College of Guyenne at Bordeaux. There they read standard Latin authors and learned Greek by using the fashionable new grammar of the Protestant educator Philipp Melanchthon. Plague erupted in Bordeaux in 1555, and the three boys returned to Agen to be educated again by their father. The elder Scaliger required of his sons daily composition and declamation in Latin—studies in which Joseph excelled: By age seventeen, he had composed an original Latin drama (Oedipus), of which his father approved and of which he himself remained proud in his old age.

His father, however, did not instruct his son in Greek. Therefore, after Julius Caesar’s death in 1558, Joseph Scaliger set out for the University of Paris. There he attended the lectures of a contemporary master of Greek, Adrian Turnèbe, but soon realized that he knew insufficient Greek to profit from the course. Scaliger thereupon dedicated two years to reading basic Greek authors and, in the process, compiled his own Greek grammar. He then went on to study Hebrew and Arabic to a good level of proficiency. Scaliger’s formal education at Paris ended in 1563, when another Greek professor, Jean Dorat, was sufficiently impressed by Scaliger’s learning to recommend him successfully as companion to the young nobleman Louis de Chastaigner.

Life’s Work

Scaliger’s position as companion to Chastaigner provided secure employment and other advantages: extensive travel, access to learned men and to scholarly collections throughout Europe, and, what was of especial importance in an age of turmoil (for these were the years of religious and dynastic wars in France), freedom to study and write. Thus, in 1564, Scaliger published his first work, Coniectanea in M. Terentium Varronem de lingua latina, a wide-ranging discussion of textual problems and the etymologies of Latin words in the De lingua latina (first century b.c.e.; On the Latin Language, 1938) by the Roman scholar Marcus Terentius Varro. The book attracted scholarly attention, because here Scaliger demonstrated his profound knowledge of classical and Near Eastern languages and revealed what would become a deep interest in archaic (before 100 b.c.e.) Latin. Thus, as well, Scaliger accompanied Chastaigner on several journeys to Italy, where he met the great French Humanist and textual critic Marc-Antoine Muret, who introduced Scaliger to Italian scholars and their libraries. Chastaigner and his companion next traveled to England and Scotland, where Scaliger disliked the insularity, ignorance, and vulgarity of the scholars he encountered but found time to continue his studies on Varro and record his impressions of Mary, Queen of Scots (negative), and Queen Elizabeth (positive). The years from 1567 through 1570 Scaliger spent with the Chastaigner family, moving from place to place in France to avoid the ravages of civil war.

From 1570, Scaliger lived for two and a half years at Valence with the great scholar of Roman law Jacques Cujas. Cujas provided an introduction to a wide range of scholars (with whom Scaliger would correspond in years to come), expert instruction in the study of Roman legal texts, and a library of more than two hundred Greek and Latin manuscripts and instruction in how to discriminate among them. Cujas’ influence and the texts he placed at Scaliger’s disposal encouraged Scaliger to concentrate his energies on the manuscript sources for individual ancient authors and the...

(The entire section is 2304 words.)