Historians Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar to Share 2008 Kluge Prize

By Joel Garreau
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Two historians of antiquity -- one Irish, the other Indian -- are sharing the $1 million Kluge Prize, the Library of Congress is scheduled to announce today.

Peter Robert Lamont Brown, 73, a professor of history at Princeton, is on sabbatical while writing a book examining attitudes toward wealth and poverty in the later Roman Empire. Ranked by his peers as among "the greatest historians of the last three centuries," Brown is "a scholarly Prospero whose magic consists in equal parts of learning and eloquence," says fellow Princeton historian Anthony Grafton.

Romila Thapar, 77, is emeritus professor in history at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. Reviewers such as Indian studies scholar Indira Peterson have described her as "the preeminent interpreter of ancient Indian history today" and "virtually the only living historian of ancient and pre-modern India who has risen to the rank of world-class historians," according to Richard Salomon of the University of Washington.

In honoring Brown and Thapar with what it calls "America's Nobel," the Library of Congress noted how both authors have tackled great sweeps of time, geography, language and culture.

Brown has focused on the end of the Roman Empire and the rise of Christianity as well as Islam. Among his landmark works are "The World of Late Antiquity" (1971) and "The Rise of Western Christendom" (1996). In addition to the major European languages, his language skills include Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Turkish.

"Brown writes magically engaging English," says Ramsay MacMullen, professor emeritus of classics and history at Yale. "He engages with Christianity with a respect for the true believers' true beliefs. The founding block of his super reputation was an article on ascetics, which he calls holy men. He managed to make holy men digestible to a rationalizing audience -- rather than weirdos eating grass."

Thapar's 1966 "A History of India" and her 2002 update, "Early India," were breakthrough works, replacing a static view of Indian traditions with one that featured the dynamic interplay of political, economic, social, religious and other factors, the library noted. Her many books draw on works in Persian and Arabic as well as Sanskrit and Old Tamil, while integrating insights from folklore, archaeology and even numismatics.

"She's been a courageous champion, fighting against the politicization of history by various ideological parties -- and that goes for both the extreme left and the extreme right," says Robert Eric Frykenberg, professor emeritus of history and South Asian studies at the University of Wisconsin. "She fought against the skewing of textbooks so that they would be nothing but a government-sponsored propaganda machine."

The Kluge Prize honors lifetime achievement in studies not covered by the Nobel, including history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics.

John W. Kluge, 94, the media billionaire, donated $60 million to the Library of Congress in 2000 to create an academic center and the eponymous million-dollar prize.

Nearly 3,000 nominators were consulted about this year's prize. Their suggestions were winnowed to 286 contenders representing 90 nations. An elaborate selection process produced 11 finalists. James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, made the final call.

The award will be presented next Wednesday in the Thomas Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress. Thapar and Brown will split the $1 million.

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