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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces an article in the
Journal of the American Oriental Society
Vol. 56 (1936), p113‑120

The text is in the public domain.

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 p113  James Henry Breasted

[image ALT: A head-and‑shoulders photograph of a kindly-looking old man with bushy hair and glasses, wearing a three-piece suit. He is Egyptologist James Breasted.]

James Henry Breasted

James Henry Breasted was essentially American in background, habit of mind, and point of view. Much of his mature life was spent in Europe and the Near East and in travel to and from those regions, but his cosmopolitan experience did not alter his fundamentally pragmatic attitude. His interest in man and man's behavior to‑day and throughout what he was fond of calling "the career of man" was of the keenest, while his appreciation of human nature as he found it in man of to‑day or yesterday was one of his most endearing characteristics. And it was this sympathy, together with his great imaginative powers and sound scholar­ship, that enabled him to write history in a style which won and held the layman as well as the scholar and specialist.

Breasted was born August 27, 1865 in Rockford, Illinois, at that time a town of about 8,000 inhabitants, where his father was a hardware merchant. His ancestors, who were of English and Netherland stock, had lived on this continent for more than two hundred years. The family name was originally Van Breestede. Young Breasted attended North Western College (now North Central College) at Naperville, Illinois, and took his B. A. there in 1888. In the long vacations while at college, and later at the seminary, he worked at various occupations, including banking and pharmacy, and he became a registered pharmacist. The family life was wholesome and tinged by a strong religious feeling, and it was not surprising that an energetic young man of great strength of character should have thought of the ministry as a career, and that this idea should have been encouraged by his family and friends. In that time and region it was natural for the religious atmosphere to be somewhat "fundamentalist," and it is quite understandable that when Breasted's belief in the literal inerrancy of the Hebrew scriptures was shaken, though by his own theological professors, he gave up his intention of being a Congregational minister. However, at the Chicago Theological Seminary, Breasted had become greatly interested in the Hebrew language and in the ancient history of the Near East, and he determined to continue his studies in those fields. He went to the Graduate School of Yale University, where he took  p114 his M. A. in 1892. His instructor, W. R. Harper, was then revolutionizing the teaching of Hebrew; his three text-books for the elementary study of that language had gone through numerous editions during the 1880's. While Breasted was at Yale Harper accepted the invitation to become the first president of a revivified University of Chicago, and keenly aware of Breasted's abilities and desiring to broaden his future Department of Semitic Languages at Chicago, he urged his pupil to study Egyptian at Berlin under Erman, father of the modern scientific study of that ancient language. Breasted took his M. A. at Yale with high honors, having actually passed the equivalent of the doctor's examination, but not having completed the residence requirements for that degree. He proceeded to his doctorate at Berlin, presenting as his thesis an edition of the sun‑hymns of the El ʽAmārneh period, and not long afterwards he became a member of the faculty of the University of Chicago, where he was to remain for the rest of his life. He was soon drawn into the work of the great Egyptian dictionary which was being compiled by the German Academies under the direction of Erman at Berlin. In 1900 and 1901 he copied inscriptions for the dictionary in many European museums and made two exploratory and recording campaigns in Egypt and Nubia in 1905‑1907 as Director of his first expedition for Chicago. He returned to Egypt in 1908 and copied for the Berlin dictionary the inscriptions of the temple at Abu Simbel in Nubia. Later he helped translate and edit for the dictionary inscriptions of the Middle Kingdom.

Although he spent many years reading hieroglyphic, hieratic, and Coptic texts with his students and making careful studies of historical and other texts, his deepest interest was always to re‑create the great civilizations of the ancient Near East and especially Egypt. He early undertook the prodigious task of copying or collating and then translating all the Egyptian texts of historical importance from the beginning down to the Persian conquest of Egypt in 525 B.C., a period of more than two millennia and a half. In the years during which he was preparing the volumes of the Ancient Records of Egypt, Breasted had constantly with him on his travels between Chicago and Egypt or various European cities a large old‑fashioned "telescope" bag for his manuscript, and a box containing his travelling library. Meanwhile the History of Egypt was also taking form as the goal of Breasted's study of the historical inscriptions. He felt that the better  p115 understanding of long-known inscriptions required the restatement of certain episodes in Egyptian history, while at the same time constant fresh discoveries made advisable the publication of new facts for students of history who were unable to use the original documents. Moreover, he believed that now the subject could be presented more significantly than as a mere catalogue of available facts. With the eye of his imagination Breasted could reconstruct the ancient Egyptian scene, as any of his colleagues who have been his companions on the Nile can testify. One of his former pupils remembers, with a thrill, standing with him above Deir el Baḥri on the great cliff over­looking the Theban plain while he re‑created the teeming life of the Egyptian capital. He pictured just such a day in the time of the New Kingdom, when the great state barge of Amūn was towed up‑stream from Karnak that the god might make his yearly voyage to his temple of Luxor. Breasted loved his ancient Egyptians, and was perhaps just a trifle jealous for them. He did not go out of his way to welcome suggestions that civilization may have arisen earlier in Mesopotamia than on the Nile. He usually felt that these views were not supported by compelling evidence. But in a man of his thorough scholar­ship and proved soundness of judgment this attitude can only be considered a very slight and amiable bias. As with every true scholar his fundamental aim was the search for truth wherever it might lead.

The History of Egypt appeared in print before the Ancient Records. When it was issued in 1905 it was hailed at once as a monument of sound learning and as an extraordinarily clear and logical presentation of the story of an ancient civilization. It was in this latter quality particularly that the book excelled. The works of one or two other great historians of Egypt show equally sound scholar­ship, but their chronicles have not the vision and enthusiasm of Breasted's. The History has held its own unchallenged. It has been reprinted numerous times, has been translated into German, Russian, French, and Arabic, and has been reproduced in Braille for the benefit of blind students. In this book Breasted brings the story of Egypt down to the conquest by Persia in 525 B.C. He was much less interested in the Persian and Graeco-Roman periods, for the free development of the native genius of Egypt had practically ended with the fall of the XXVI Dynasty.

The four volumes of the Ancient Records of Egypt appeared in  p116 1906‑07 and constitute one of the principal monuments to his scholar­ship and tremendous energy and industry. A fifth volume contains full indexes prepared by his pupils. The locus of each of the many hundred monuments dealt with is given by the author, as well as full references to all publications in whole or in part, so that scholars are able to control the translations by recourse to the originals or the publications. There are also copious notes and transliterations of numerous proper names and other words and phrases.

Breasted's early studies of the ʽAmārneh hymns together with necessary work in preparation for his history had interested him in the development of Egyptian religion. In 1908 and 1910 appeared the text volumes, in autograph, of Kurt Sethe's great edition of the Pyramid Texts of the V and VI Dynasties, containing copies of the hieroglyphic text of these earliest Egyptian religious inscriptions, many of which reflected the thought of an age much older than that of the inscriptions themselves. Breasted restudied these, read portions of them with his students, and became interested in comparing the beliefs and ideas to be found there with those of later periods of Egyptian history. Therefore when he was invited to deliver the Morse lectures at the Union Theological Seminary in New York he chose Egyptian religion as his subject and the lectures were published in 1912 as The Development of Religion and Thought in Ancient Egypt. Twenty years later he returned to this subject in his Dawn of Conscience, published in 1933. In the later book he was concerned with demonstrating the comparative newness of the "Age of Character" as contrasted with the "Age of Weapons" and also with presenting evidence for the influence of Egyptian moral and social ideals on the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures, while he was able to base his conclusions upon the fruits of his own and others' researches during the twenty years since the publication of his earlier work.

Breasted was not content with telling the story of Egypt. He was intensely concerned with the idea of bringing home to the modern western world its debt to the great civilizations of the ancient Near East. He often said that, much as he admired the marvellous contributions of Greece to art and philosophy, he was weary of the prevalent belief among educated laymen that "everything began with the Greeks." A somewhat sneering allusion to  p117 Egyptian art published by an eminent classical colleague of his was frequently mentioned by him, with a snort of disgust, as an example of the evil effects of ignorance. He determined to write a text-book for use in secondary schools and colleges, describing the rise and development of the ancient cultures, including those of Greece and Rome. The result of this determination was the publication in 1916 of that remarkable book Ancient Times: A History of the Early World, in which Breasted, beginning with palaeolithic man, brought the story of civilization down to the fall of Rome. For many years he had been giving a course at the University of Chicago on the ancient history of the Near East and had through his colleagues kept himself abreast of discoveries in the Mesopotamian field as well as in the Egyptian. This course was meant for more advanced undergraduates at the University and was well attended by them, but the lectures were also regularly attended by graduate students of Semitics, and these latter were occasionally startled by being called upon by the lecturer to translate inscriptional material which was being used to illustrate some point. The book Ancient Times has been widely used throughout the world and has undoubtedly done more than any other single work to propagate a general knowledge of the debt of modern civilization to the ancient Near East. It has been translated into Swedish and Arabic and in an abridged edition into Japanese and Malay. Another version of the book, published a few years ago as The Conquest of Civilization, has been translated into Spanish. The book is copiously illustrated and Breasted gave much thought to this feature of his exposition. When a second edition was needed, he took care that the text was brought up to date and new illustrative material added. The new edition appeared in 1935 and was the last of his works to be published during his lifetime.

Breasted was married in Berlin, soon after taking his doctorate in 1894, to Frances Hart, a compatriot, who with her sisters was studying music and German there. They went to Egypt on their wedding journey and she was his almost constant companion on his trips to Egypt or to Europe for twenty-five years, until serious illness began to make it difficult for her to travel. A few years after her death Breasted's friends were glad to learn of his marriage to her sister.

 p118  President Harper had made good his offer of a post on the Chicago faculty, but the early years there were full of difficulty and struggle for Breasted. He was the first scholar appointed to the faculty of any American university for the purpose of teaching in the field of Egyptology, and his subject was considered a decided luxury. W. Max Müller, born three years before Breasted and also a brilliant pupil of Erman's, had been in Philadelphia since 1890, but he was teaching Hebrew and Greek at a theological seminary and so far as we know gave no formal instruction in Egyptian until many years later. Breasted's stipend was pitifully small and to support himself and his family he was obliged to give popular lectures wherever and whenever opportunity offered. The frequent journeys exhausted him and they also consumed much valuable time, but they trained him in clear interesting exposition, the basis for his amazing later success in popularization. Fortunately President Harper appreciated him and gave him leaves of absence to work for the Berlin dictionary in the museums of Europe. Here it was that Breasted laid the basis for his work on the historical inscriptions and on the History itself. Financial stringency was relieved as promotion came steadily, and with the publication of the History in 1905 he attained a full professor­ship and the recognition which he had already received among his European colleagues.

Breasted had a youthful zest for life. His temper was sanguine and optimistic rather than otherwise. His habit of constant hard work left him little opportunity for diversions but when he was free for a short time from the pressure of duty he took great delight in music, the theatre, and in conversation on a wide variety of subjects. He had a mellow and pleasing tenor voice which he had too little opportunity to use. He had not much time after his early youth for outdoor sports nor the money to spend on them, but he had ridden as a young man and occasionally rode later, though these instances were chiefly exploratory journeys in Egypt or Mesopotamia. He had a well-knit figure, a trifle under middle height, with the sloping shoulders and slightly bowed legs that often go with strong and active bodies. His abstemious diet and regular habits kept him in excellent health for the most part, but his long hours of work and the increasingly heavy load of responsibility that he carried, from time to time produced attacks of nervous indigestion. He was high-strung, but his nerves were under remarkable control.  p119 His hair turned white at an early age, and his magnificent head was famous. His appearance changed little in the last thirty years of his life. His firm jaw and erect carriage bespoke the man of resolution and action, but his eye was the eye of a poet and philosopher.

Few men in the world of scholar­ship, it seems to us, can have lived to see their dreams come true and their visions reach fulfilment to such an extent as did Breasted. From the time when he first visited the tombs at El ʽAmārneh on his wedding journey and found that marauders had only lately sadly damaged the text of one of the beautiful sun‑hymns which had formed the subject of his doctoral dissertation, he had felt most keenly the necessity of recording accurately the inscriptions of the known monuments of Egypt before they were irrevocably ruined by vandalism or exposure to the weather. Many were altogether unpublished and many others had been published inadequately or so long ago that the record had little value for modern scholar­ship. To learn the story of "the career of man" the known records must be preserved for study and new records must be discovered. Breasted had long dreamed of an organization which might play a large part in following out these aims, and immediately after the Great War he succeeded in enlisting the active support of Mr. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. While a beginning was made on the great Assyrian dictionary at Chicago, Breasted headed an expedition of reconnaissance to Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine in 1920. He then came home and laid his plans. A corpus was to be made of one of the great classes of Egyptian religious literature — the Middle Kingdom Coffin Texts. The first great volume of this corpus was in the press when Breasted died. The inscriptions of the more important temples of Egypt were to be copied. Three great volumes on those of Medinet Habu had appeared; two on the Karnak inscriptions were in the press. A geological expedition had surveyed the remains of prehistoric man in Egypt and published three volumes. Another expedition was recording Old Kingdom tombs at Saḳḳāreh. Another, with the collaboration of the Egypt Exploration Society of England, was doing a similar work at the great temple at Abydos. In Palestine the huge mound of Megiddo had been excavated for several seasons and in the mountains of Anatolia a six‑year dig at the mound of Alishar had been completed. Extensive excavations had also taken  p120 place or were in progress at Khorsabād, Tell Asmar, and at Khafaje in ʽIraq, at Persepolis in Irān, and at Chatal Hüyük and el Judeydeh in North Syria. From them was passing a constant stream of information in varying forms to the great new Oriental Institute building at Chicago where it constantly increased the materials gathered there for the study of ancient man. Breasted was the center of all this, as he had been the planner of it all.

In spite of his multifarious executive concerns Breasted did not abandon scholar­ly work. In the period following the war he prepared and brought out (1930) his two‑volume critical edition of the famous papyrus of the New York Historical Society, The Edwin Smith Surgical Papyrus. In these latter years he received many honors: honorary doctorates from the Universities of California, Oxford, and Princeton; honorary member­ship in foreign learned societies; the presidency of the American Historical Association and of our own Society.

He had labored fruitfully and he saw the magnificent results of his labors. He richly earned his rewards and satisfactions. When death came he was mercifully and quickly struck down in the fullness of his powers. He was a great scholar, a great American, a great and very human personality.

His colleagues and fellow-members of the American Oriental Society will long feel keenly the loss of his inspiring and genial personality, while they will always take pride in his accomplishments and in the recognition of them both at home and abroad. Much of his work must endure for many years with only those modifications and supplements required by the progress of our knowledge of the ancient Near East, while the foundation he has laid for the study of the rise of civilization should last as long as man continues to take an interest in his beginnings.

Ludlow Bull
Ephraim A. Speiser
Albert Ten Eyck Olmstead

for the Society.

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Page updated: 13 Apr 17