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Robert Allison

Two offerings, from John Strong, Dana Professor of Religion; and Dolores O’Higgins, Euterpe B. Dukakis Professor of Classical and Medieval Studies, on May 7, 2007

From Professor Strong:

There are various ways one comes to realize one has been at an institution a long time. One of them is finding the children of former students enrolled in one’s classes. Another is marking the retirement and celebrating the career of a “junior” colleague.

Not junior by much, mind you: Bob came to Bates in 1980, just two years after me. Although we overlapped as graduate students at the University of Chicago, we never encountered one another there, as far as I can recall. But I do remember first meeting Bob when he was a candidate for the position that he now holds, and that had opened up in our department following Art Brown’s stroke the year before. We weren’t quite sure what we wanted but we were looking for someone who could help us redefine that tenure-track line as “something more than Biblical Studies.” Bob, whose degree from Chicago was in the Early Christian Literature program, and who was coming to us from three years of post-doctoral research on Mount Athos, fit the bill perfectly.


Photograph of Robert Allison by Phyllis Graber Jensen.

I sometimes describe Bob’s field of expertise to outside colleagues as: “The whole of the Eastern Mediterranean, in the year zero—plus or minus a thousand years.” Indeed his scope is remarkable and is reflected in the courses he offers. To name but a few: “Religion in Ancient Greece,” which he co-teaches with Danny Danforth in Anthropology; the “History, Religion, and Literature of Ancient Israel”; “Religion and Empire,” which focuses on religious conflicts in the pivotal period of Late Antiquity; “History of Christian Thought I”; “Early Jewish History and Thought”; “Monks, Nuns, Hermits and Demons”—a survey of Christian asceticism and monasticism; “Introduction to the New Testament,” which bears the same title but looks completely different from the course it first replaced 27 years ago. And, as a short term, an intensive introduction to Koine Greek, which Bob is in fact teaching right now, so that students (sometimes very few students but always very dedicated students) can, in five weeks time, read the Gospel of John in the original.

In all these courses, Bob seeks to share his profound knowledge of texts and their contexts, of religious beliefs and practices and their social, cultural, historical, economic, political, ritual, et ceteral milieux. And, in all of them, he always pushes his students away from facile conclusions to complex pictures, towards interdisciplinarity and towards expertise.

But Bob’s real scholarly heart lies with the manuscript collections of the Philotheou Monastery on Mount Athos. For, in addition to being a historian and religionist, an exegete and translator, Bob is also a palaeographer and codicologist. And here we can see Bob’s dedication to what might be called primary “nitty-gritty” research. He does the basic “pretextual” work with raw manuscripts that makes it possible for the rest of us scholars to operate. He establishes chronologies where none have been made. He figures out the succession of abbots in a monastery where no such list has existed. He crossdates manuscripts, or, even more significantly, portions of manuscripts, from comparative studies of watermarks. Most scholars start with texts; some scholars look at scripts; Bob goes back still further to also examine the nature of paper and ink.

If you haven’t ever done so, I urge you to visit the Greek Manuscript Watermarks and Paper Initiative, which forms but one part of the Robert W. Allison Research Papers. It is a fascinating introduction into the penumbral side of paper texts and a lesson in how computer technology (which Bob embraced enthusiastically early on) can effectively be put to use in what has become a collective manuscript research project. And if you are thinking “what can be learned from calligraphy, palaeography, and watermarks?” I urge you to read Bob’s article “Kallinikos, Calligrapher of Dionysiou and Abbot of Philotheou,” which reads like a detective story, in which Kallinikos is revealed to have been an associate of Gabriel of Gallipoli, and part of a “calligraphic resistance movement” against Islamicization by the Ottoman Turks.

For Bob is not just a lone mild-mannered scholar pouring over archives in his study; he is also an organizer, a facilitator. At the college level, he was instrumental in the development of the Classical and Medieval Studies program and Laurie will speak shortly about his contributions to that. At the national level, he has been a key player in the Byzantine Studies Conferences at Dumbarton Oaks and elsewhere. And internationally as well, he is also a doer. Most of us in this room probably think of 75 Campus Avenue as just the address of the Philosophy and Religion Department, but, in the greater world out there, it is also known as the home of the “Friends of Mount Athos”—an international organization for which Bob has long served as secretary, treasurer, and chief bottle-washer.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not say something about Susan and Ricky and Billy, whom we watched grow up and go away, and also about Casey—Bob’s poodle—whom we watched grow up and stay. And here we see how Bob has effectively managed to bridge two worlds. Greek monasteries such as those on Mount Athos are, of course, famous as places that allow no women; yet they were also places that allowed no pets. I didn’t know this until I read Bob’s translation of the 11th century text of Nikon of the Black Mountain’s monastic rules and regulations. There, we find the specification that monks should keep no pets—neither birds nor quadrupeds—except for (male) cats “that hunt the loathsome mice.” So, Casey, as a dog, you don’t qualify, and will have to remain in Maine. But you and your master are welcome to visit 75 Campus Avenue anytime.

From Professor O’Higgins:

The faculty in Classical and Medieval Studies mark Robert Allison’s imminent retirement with regret and gratitude for his service. He has been an extraordinary colleague and remains a cherished friend. He has taught at Bates in the department of Philosophy and Religion since 1980, and in the program of Classical and Medieval Studies since its inception in 1990.

Bob’s newest project is the Watermark Initiative, a series of publications and now a database for world use, enabling scholars to identify the source and history of paper in Greek manuscripts. He has just been invited by the NEH to apply for top tier funding, a testimony to its worth. As with this work, so with our colleague, one must look to what lies beneath the surface. With Bob, whose demeanor is so mild, and whose reputation for forgetfulness is not ALTOGETHER baseless, one might be forgiven for thinking he embodies the absent-minded prototype. Yet the seeming belies the substance. Bob indeed is kind, gentle and a generous colleague and teacher. He is also strong willed, perspicacious, courageous, passionate, innovative. If Bob decides to work on something, whether institutional or scholarly, nothing and no one can deflect him. I am personally grateful for his fortitude and mental agility over the years as he has built the program in Classical and Medieval Studies, serving as its Chair during a crucial period. Rebecca Corrie is grateful for his work at Bates and internationally in figuring Bates College as a center of Byzantine learning in America, rubbing shoulders with the likes of Harvard and UCLA. Bob was lead organizer for the 2003 national Conference of Byzantine Studies here at Bates. Last September’s symposium here, entitled “Byzantine Studies: Back to the Future” was in many ways a tribute to Bob, and the renowned young scholars who spoke at it did so in large part because of their respect and affection for him.

Speaking of tributes, honesty compels me to note that the folks in the program fought over who got to sing Bob’s praises. I won, mostly through taking mean advantage of Becky Corrie’s teaching and travel schedule; but some CMS faculty will bear till their dying day the scars from this unseemly tussle.

To move on to less painful matters. Bob’s scholarly training was at Brown and the University of Chicago’s department of Early Christian Literature. He worked at the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessaloniki on a NEH grant for 3 years before coming to Bates. For much of his scholarly life he has studied and catalogued the manuscripts at the Philotheou monastery at Mount Athos, working to make this available to all in digital and other form. As with the watermark project, this is foundational work, central to the field, and of value for years to come. This work also has won him NEH grants, money from Dumbarton Oaks and others, including of course his home institution.

His teaching in Religion and in the Classical and Medieval Studies program is marked by the same scholarship and flair. To name but a few, Bob has taught: Ancient Stories to Modern Ears, Gods, Heroes, Magic and Mysteries: Religion in Ancient Greece (team taught with Danny Danforth); Judaism after the Hebrew Bible; Reading Koine and Biblical Greek; History of Christian Thought; Lost Worlds: How We Make the Ancient Past (team taught with Lisa Maurizio). He has been a program in himself, our own polÊtropow énÆr, an Odysseus, intellectually versatile, wily, formidable, a force behind an unassuming presence. How will we ever do without him?

Finally I note Bob’s bond with the Greek communities in Lewiston and more broadly throughout New England, communities in which he is beloved and respected. His standing and connections in this world have served Bates and CMS in inspiring donors, and drawing us closer to the people of our locality.

The bright side of Bob’s retirement is that he and Susan will have more time to enjoy family and many friends, the Maine mountains and coast. I still get to sing with him in the Chorale, and I know that all of us in CMS look forward to enjoying his company, sharing his interests, and (let’s face it) picking his brain for many years to come.


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