Zvi Yavetz



When Zvi Yavetz was 29 years old he was invited by the mayor of Tel Aviv to leave the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in order to help establish a new university. Yavetz was a most charismatic individual: a wonderful public speaker with a keen sense of humor and an incredible memory. He was an energetic visionary, influential and efficient, who could clearly see the purpose beyond the process (typical, perhaps, of all founding fathers). He would show flexibility and creativity, cutting corners and red tape, all in the service of that most important aim: establishing an excellent new university and recruiting first-rate teachers. Yavetz would often quote that famous saying by Anacharsis, the Greek philosopher and shaman who lived some 2,600 years ago: "Laws are spider-webs, which catch the weakest flies but cannot hold the stronger ones." Charisma, he said, was relative and context-dependent: for how could one compare the charisma of the Lubavitcher Rebbe with that of Julius Caesar? However, once the Tel Aviv University had grown and established itself, Yavetz realized it would no longer be possible to pick up from HaCarmel Market the likes of Walter Grab, a seemingly under-qualified handbag peddler whose early life had crushed any chance of a formal education, enlist him to the university and aid in his promotion to professorship on just the strength of his publications. So when the dream came true, that is, once a well-respected university was up and running with a large and fine department of history therein, Yavetz avoided any further administrative roles – except for heading the department he had founded and the School of Historical Studies which is now named after him.  

            Yavetz built the Department of History by recruiting and training people such as Michael Harsegor, Benjamin Cohen and Walter Grab (who were all without formal university diplomas and supposedly past their prime); by recruiting historians from other universities; and by encouraging young students to train abroad and then return to Israel. It was members of this younger generation, whose mother tongue was Hebrew and who did not carry the "burden" of foreign languages and traditions, who had brought with them, upon their graduation overseas, various new research questions (mainly from France, Germany, Britain and the US). These made the Department of History at the University of Tel Aviv particularly fruitful, inspiring and cosmopolitan when compared to departments of history in other universities around the world.

            Yavetz showed daring in his choice of research projects, studying topics which were not fashionable at the time. Early on in his career he took interest in the tensions between rulers and ruled, plebs and higher class members of the Roman Republic and Empire. He was a pioneer in studying the non-ruling classes of ancient Rome. He wrote about the common people, about the masses and their leaders, about slavery and slaves, and this at a time when the focus of academic study was on political history, centering on the personality of rulers rather than on commoners. Years later, though, when many other researchers turned their attention to social history, when history itself became less about individuals and events and more about processes and environments, Yavetz took care not to dismiss the role of character in history.

            In his work on Julius Caesar, Yavetz emphasized the role of the sovereign's public image (existimatio), which distinguished him from his fellow noblemen (Caesar and Caesarism, Tel Aviv, 1971 [Hebrew]; Caesar, The Limits of Charisma, Tel Aviv, 1992 [Hebrew]). In books he wrote about Augustus and other Caesars he further considered the roles of charisma and public image. This research interest may well be seen as a continuation of his earlier studies, for as aforesaid, the tension between rulers and ruled always lay at the center of his work. He insisted on publishing in Hebrew as well, creating a research field in Hebrew about classical antiquity and exposing it to broader audiences. His book Augustus: The Triumph of Moderation (Tel Aviv, 1988 [Hebrew]) illustrates his keen understanding of politics, which he practiced himself in helping establish and run the Tel Aviv University. This was further exemplified in his books Tiberius and Caligula (Tel Aviv, 1995 [Hebrew]) and Claudius and Nero (Tel Aviv, 1999 [Hebrew]). Yavetz published in languages that he mastered (Hebrew, English, German and French), but also mastered some languages in which he did not publish, such as Yiddish, Romanian and Russian (apart from the classical Greek and Latin).

            Yavetz was a student of the past but a citizen of the present, or perhaps more especially a denizen of his personal history as a Jew and a Holocaust survivor. He was fascinated with the question of Zeitgeist and its influence on historical writing. He argued, for example, that academic historians (who have not been personally wrought by trial and hardship) would tend to adopt the spirit of their teachers' time, rather than their own. In one of the last books he wrote he reconstructed the history of Czernowitz (Chernivtsi), that cosmopolitan city, before World War II. And his interest in antisemitism found expression in his studies on Judeophobia in antiquity.

Zvi Yavetz was born in 1925 in Czernowitz, then part of the Kingdom of Romania. In 1941, when the Nazis captured the region of Bucovina, his family went through the terrible path of persecution and extermination. He lost his mother and grandparents (his father had died years earlier) but managed to jump off the train that was taking him to a concentration camp. He went back home, uncovered a small treasure that was hidden in the yard, and together with eighteen other youths they paid off a Romanian official and took to the Black Sea in a small riverboat. They were arrested after having been forced to desert their boat on the Turkish shore, but the intervention of Lord Wedgewood persuaded the British authorities to send them to Cyprus rather than back to Romania. Yavetz reached Mandatory Palestine in 1944. When he found out that his family had indeed perished, he changed his surname from Zucker to Yavetz – his mother's maiden name.

            He began his new life in Israel as a kibbutz member, but soon left to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He made a living as a teacher in a school for deaf and dumb children. He wrote an MA thesis in modern history, studying under Richard Koebner, Hugo Bergman, Martin Buber, Chaim Wirszubski and Moshe Schwabe. It was Victor Tcherikover who got Yavetz interested in ancient history, and specifically in the living conditions of "The Plebs of Rome," the subject of the PhD thesis (and later – the book) he wrote in the University of Oxford, where he studied from 1954.

            In 1962 he was sent on a two year mission to Ethiopia, with the aim of establishing a School of Humanities at the Addis Ababa university. His meeting with the Ethiopian Emperor reinforced his conviction about the importance of the relationships between rulers and their people. His research culminated in a seminal book about Plebs and Princeps (Oxford, 1969). Yavetz gave voice to the masses, who usually went unmentioned in historical accounts (also see the book he co-authored with Wolfgang Zeev Rubinsohn, Slaves and Slave Revolts in Ancient Rome [Hebrew], Tel Aviv, 1983). He further showed how Roman Emperors had used the masses as a counterweight to the Senate, which was forced to forgo the monopoly of power it had enjoyed during the Republic.

Zvi Yavetz headed the Department of History in Tel Aviv University for three decades, served as Dean of Humanities, and filled various other roles in the university. He was a visiting professor at the most important research institutions in the world, and a distinguished professor at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. He was a permanent member of the French Académie des Cultures, and a recipient of the Israel Prize in the humanities. He will be remembered for his charisma, sense of humor, sharp intellect, phenomenal memory and powers of oration. He was a mentor to many of us.