Q&A with Richard Bosworth

In this week’s Q&A, Professor Richard Bosworth reflects on a long and distinguished career as an historian of Italy, which has taken him from Sydney University to Jesus College, Oxford, via UWA and Reading University. He muses on the ‘great man’ view of the past and the value of history, and delivers a scathing assessment of the state of Australian historiography. On a brighter note, he reminds ECRs to enjoy teaching when it arises and to aim for the world.

1. BosworthRichard Bosworth did his undergraduate, Honours and Masters of Arts at the University of Sydney, then a PhD at Cambridge (St John’s College). He taught at Sydney University in 1965-66 and from 1969 to 1986, the University of Western Australia from 1987 to 2011 and Reading University from 2007-2011 (shared with UWA). He has been a Visiting Fellow at St. John’s College and Clare Hall, Cambridge, Balliol and All Souls Colleges in Oxford. He was also a Visiting Professor at Trento University in Italy. He was a Senior Research Fellow at Jesus College, Oxford 2011-7 and has just been made an Emeritus Fellow there. Richard’s last three books have been Whispering City: Rome and its Histories (2011), Venice: an Italian History (2014), and Claretta: Mussolini’s last mover (2017).  His next book will be Eclipse: The Waning of Benito Mussolini 1932-8 (submission due 2020).  In 2015, he edited with Joe Maiolo volume II of the Cambridge University Press History of the Second World War (3 volumes).

1. Was there a moment when you discovered your love of history?

When I was about five, my mother gave me her South Australian school text from the 1910s, T.F. Tout’s History of the Kings and Queens of England, and it remained my favourite childhood read and re-read. I had a fine history teacher at the unlovely Sydney Church of England Grammar School (‘Shore’), Jackie Colebrook, and then at university I was taught most notably by Ernest Bramsted in Second Year Honours, and by Neville Meaney as my supervisor for an American topic in my fourth-year thesis. My interest in history was also reinforced by my lifetime partner, Michal, whom I met when we were 18 in Bramsted’s Honours class and then greatly strengthened as we had to endure the worst history course in the world, taught, if that is the right word, by Duncan MacCallum on colonial Australia in third year. The story needed topping off with our discovery of Rome in 1967. Our first guide there was Edward Gibbon, on whom, to my immense pleasure, I had done my ‘Method Essay’ in History IV, and whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Mike had given me for my 21st birthday. Gibbon is my most re-read historian in adulthood. Among many other things he is a model of a historian working on the world.

2. Why did you become an academic historian?

I am a hereditary academic. I did my Cambridge PhD in the 1960s, my father his in chemistry in the 1930s and my daughter, Mary, in the 1990s, in criminology, so she is now a professor of the subject in Oxford (following an undergraduate history degree at UWA). Can it be inevitable that, every 30 years, a Bosworth does a Cambridge PhD? There were moments when I could have become a lawyer or a diplomat but they were turning points when history failed to turn. I was never likely to become an administrator.

3. Can you explain what draws you to Italian history?

A mixture of accident and Mike’s and my discovery of Rome, so much more fascinating than Cambridge, which, in 1966-9, had little to offer the married graduate student. I was doing a doctorate on Britain and Italy but our first time in Rome convinced me that Italy would be more fun. So I started working on Italy and the world, thus my first book, Italy, the Least of the Great Powers (1979). Once appointed to Sydney University, with its cosmopolitan interests and keeping of Australian history under control, unlike Stuart Macintyre, I had little difficulty as a young lecturer in enhancing my experience and knowledge of a country outside Australia, in my case, Italy. I was helped quite a bit by the establishment of the cross disciplinary F. May Foundation for Italian Studies of which I soon became Deputy Director. When my children were in their teens and it was a little more difficult than it had been to visit Italy, I did for a time drift into migration history but I always taught Europe and so was saved from an Australian fate and, by the 1990s, was back with Italy again following the diversion of my historiographical (and teaching) book, Explaining Auschwitz and Hiroshima.

4. Your philosophy of history has been to reject the ‘great man’ view. And yet you are a renowned biographer of Mussolini. Can you explain the seeming disjuncture?

I wrote a biography of Mussolini because I was commissioned to do so, just before my quadruple cardiac by-pass in 1999 (my surgeon had aimed at five, but said encouragingly that he couldn’t find a fifth vein). I certainly did not place a focus in my study on Mussolini and Mussolini alone, just as my latest book, Claretta: Mussolini’s Last Lover, combines a biography of Claretta Petacci, with study of such matters as the Italian family, Catholicism, Rome and my longstanding themes on the multiplicity of histories eddying through Fascist Italy, despite its theoretical totalitarianism. So, no great men (or women) really.

5. Our research often becomes more blatantly autobiographical as we get older. How do you think your choice of research topics has reflected your personal preoccupations, and how have they changed over time?

I’m not sure that I agree with the thesis. Isn’t our research always a little autobiographical? Anyway, in my case, after my by-pass and my settling down to write the biography of Mussolini, in my second life as it were, I changed from being essentially a teacher of undergraduates, especially first years, in Australia, an activity which I loved, into a global ‘trade’ historian. Perhaps Nick Stargardt of Magdalen College is to blame, because, when I was a visiting fellow at Balliol College in 2001, he introduced me to my agent, the excellent Clare Alexander. Under her aegis, I wrote Mussolini’s Italy for Penguin and then Rome, Venice and Claretta for Yale University Press. I have a new contract with Yale for a book called The Eclipse, due 2020 (when I shall be 77), about how Mussolini turned from being a ‘good’(ish) dictator in 1932 into the worst of them in 1938 and what the change tells us more generally about dictators and attitudes and approaches to them. In between my successive trade books, of course I kept writing quite a number of more academic articles, chapters and book reviews and edited the Oxford Handbook on Fascism and volume II of the Cambridge History of the Second World War. Such activity allowed me to make my now treasured move from UWA to Jesus College, via Reading, eventually resulting in my newly minted British citizenship.

6. Do you have a favourite historian of Australia?

I rather liked my thesis on Manning Clark that Clark became an Australianist of his idiosyncratic kind because he was dropped from the Oxford cricket team for a notably incompetent public school wicket-keeper and never forgot the resentment. Tony Cahill (what a wonderful man and great, virtually unpublished, historian), and I first introduced Clark to our Late Modern European History unit to annoy our parochial Sydney University Australianists, just beginning to get out of hand in Sydney, too, to try to show them that the chief themes of Australian history, were, and of course, are universal. I rarely read Australian history any more. Too parochial.

The new Cambridge University Press History of Australia is a case study of such dire parochialism. Italian-, Greek- and Lebanese-Australians etc do not appear in its index but cane toads do. The portentously entitled ‘The History Anxiety’ final chapter by Mark McKenna assumes that the only history ever taught in the country is national. Maybe McKenna should do a case study of the practice over most of the years after 1945 at Sydney’s universities in remedy. He might also like to write out a hundred times that Chris Clark (Sydney) and Lyndal Roper (Melbourne) are the Australians who currently hold the Regius chairs at Cambridge and Oxford, arguably the most prestigious in the discipline in the world.

7. History rose in the academy as a publicist for the nation-state. It no longer plays this role. Indeed, many academic historians in Australia are critics of the national project. Have we outlived our usefulness? Has the nation outlived its own usefulness?

History of a modern kind rose first in the Enlightenment (although Ammianus Marcellinus in the 4th century, for example, wasn’t too bad), celebrating humanity and rationality (see Gibbon). Grovelling service to the nation came later. My commitment has always been to the Enlightenment version and to the Dutch historian Pieter Geyl’s view, after he almost fell for fascist-style Dutch nationalism in the 1930s, that a historian must be devoted to ‘criticism, again criticism and criticism once more’. Both the nation and the anti-nation need to be made thus subject to review.

We live under neoliberal hegemony. I am sometimes tempted to think of it as neoliberal totalitarianism, which prefers the global to the national but can still drum up nationalist chat (viz Trump, Brexit and I fear almost all Australian historians). I am simply a rootless cosmopolitan and always have been, now very cheerfully in sanctuary at Oxford, an oasis of old-fashioned academic independence. I am especially happy to range free in the Bodleian library, go to the theatre, here, in London and Stratford and see brilliant British actors, and visit Italy when I want to. I also like still being an artisanal historian who writes his books without the ‘help’ of research assistants and ARC grants.

8. Do you feel confident about the importance of history to the well-being of humanity?

Yes of course, although history is only one of the crucially humane humanities. I always thought university teaching in history should purvey criticism and thus encourage a critical society. In 2017, the dire state of the world (and my old age) make confidence wear thin on occasion. But the only way to be a serious human being is to follow Gramsci’s advice and combine optimism of the will with (a critical) pessimism of the intellect.

9. Have you had mentors over the course of your career? How important are they?

I’ve always been someone who bit the hand that fed me (until I came to Jesus College of which I am unnaturally fond) and so the first answer is no. I am also no fan of bureaucratised mentoring of the currently fashionable kind. It fosters that horrible creature located in Australian universities and called a Dean. However, I have had a number of helpful colleagues over the years, some senior, some technically junior, who have stimulated me as a historian. If I had to choose one, it would be Tony Cahill.  I should add though, in my usual failure to fit national norms (if I am meant to be ‘Australian’), I have never had a mate and never wanted one. Mike (my wife) filled that role and many more. I have also never been to the beach, never enjoyed a BBQ, never been to the ‘Bush’ and no member of my family has ever served in the national armed forces.

10. You have said that there is a clear difference between a beautiful sentence and an awful sentence. What significance do you attach to the beauty of an historian’s prose?

I love writing and feel ill and diminished without doing it most days. However, beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder and, as I have recently seen in a hostile review of Claretta in the Wall Street Journal, there are at least some people, well, one, who think(s) I cannot write at all. I am certainly chuffed to have sold more than 100,000 books and to have published well over one million words since my by-pass and second life.

11. Do you conceive academic history primarily as an art or a social science? Do you endeavour to convince people with rational argument or by weaving an emotional spell?

I’m not hostile to social sciences, despite having found up-to-second-year-university psychology a joke in 1961-2. After all, my daughter is a criminologist. However, I guess my native scepticism extends to almost any theory, for example, about Fascist totalitarianism, and that attitude leaves me more in the art camp. I certainly aspire to rationality, although I do think that in a democracy, historians must be wrong, too (whatever right and wrong mean). I do not believe in a single Truth.

12. What advice can you give to early career historians about their careers?

Aim for the world and enjoy teaching when you can do it.


  1. Pingback: Roundup – 2017 | Australian Historical Association
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