Joseph Justus Scaliger (August 5 1540–January 21 1609) was a French religious leader and scholar, known for expanding the notion of classical history from Greek and Ancient Roman history to include Persian, Babylonian, Jewish and Ancient Egyptian history.
The composition of Latin verse was the chief amusement of his father Julius in his later years, and he would daily dictate to his son between eighty and a hundred lines, and sometimes even more. Joseph was also required each day to write a Latin theme or declamation, though in other respects he seems to have been left to his own devices. He learned from his father to be not only a scholar, but also an acute observer, aiming at historical criticism more than at correcting texts.
His most important teacher was Jean Dorat. He was able not only to impart knowledge, but also to kindle enthusiasm. It was to Dorat that Scaliger owed his home for the next thirty years of his life, for in 1563 the professor recommended him to Louis de Chastaigner, the young lord of La Roche Pozay, as a companion in his travels. A close friendship sprang up between the two young men, which remained unbroken till the death of Louis in 1595. The travellers first went to Rome. Here they found Marc Antoine Muretus, who, when at Bordeaux and Toulouse, had been a great favourite and occasional visitor of Julius Caesar Scaliger at Agen. Muretus soon recognized the young Scaliger's merits, and introduced him to many contacts well worth knowing.
After visiting a large part of Italy, the travellers moved on to England and Scotland, passing as it would seem La Roche Pozay on their way Scaliger formed an unfavourable opinion of the English. Their inhuman disposition and inhospitable treatment of foreigners especially made a negative impression on him. He was also disappointed in finding only few Greek manuscripts and few learned men. It was not until a much later period that he became intimate with Richard Thomson and other Englishmen. In the course of his travels he had become a Protestant.
The massacre of St Bartholomew—occurring as he was about to accompany the bishop of Valence on an embassy to Poland—made Scaliger flee, together with other Huguenots, for Geneva, where he was appointed a professor in the academy. He lectured on the Organon of Aristotle and the De Finibus of Cicero to much satisfaction for the students, but not appreciating it himself. He hated lecturing, and was bored with the importunities of the fanatical preachers; and in 1574 he returned to France and made his home for the next twenty years with Chastaigner.
Of his life during this period we have interesting details and notices in the Lettres françaises inédites de Joseph Scaliger, edited by Tamizey de Larroque (Agen, 1881). Constantly moving through Poitou and the Limousin, as the exigencies of the civil war required, occasionally taking his turn as a guard, at least on one occasion trailing a pike on an expedition against the Leaguers, with no access to libraries, and frequently separated even from his own books, his life during this period seems most unsuited to study. He had, however, what so few contemporary scholars possessed—leisure, and freedom from financial cares.
But these works, while proving Scaliger's right to the foremost place among his contemporaries as Latin scholar and critic, did not go beyond mere scholarship. It was reserved for his edition of Manilius (1579), and his De emendatione temporum (1583), to revolutionize received ideas of ancient chronology—to show that ancient history is not confined to that of the Greeks and Romans, but also comprises that of the Persians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, hitherto neglected, and that of the Jews, hitherto treated as a thing apart; and that the historical narratives and fragments of each of these, and their several systems of chronology, must be critically compared. It was this innovation that distinguished Scalinger from contemporary scholars. Neither they nor those who immediately followed seem to have appreciated his innovation. Instead, they valued his emendatory criticism and his skill in Greek. His commentary on Manilius is really a treatise on ancient astronomy, and it forms an introduction to De emendatione temporum, In this work Scaliger investigates ancient systems of determining epochs, calendars and computations of time. Applying the work of Nicolaus Copernicus and other modern scientists, he reveals the principles behind these systems.
In the remaining twenty-four years of his life he expanded on his work in the De emendatione. He succeeded in reconstructing the lost Chronicle of Eusebius—one of the most valuable ancient documents, especially valuable for ancient chronology. This he printed in 1606 in his Thesaurus temporum, in which he collected, restored, and arranged every chronological relic extant in Greek or Latin.
During the first seven years of his residence at Leiden his reputation was at its highest point. His literary judgement was unquestioned. From his throne at Leiden he ruled the learned world; a word from him could make or mar a rising reputation, and he was surrounded by young men eager to listen to and profit from his conversation. He encouraged Grotius when only a youth of sixteen to edit Capella. At the early death of the younger Douza he wept as at that of a beloved son. Daniel Heinsius, at first his favourite pupil, became his most intimate friend.
At the same time, Scaliger had made numerous enemies. He hated ignorance, but he hated still more half-learning, and most of all dishonesty in argument or in quotation. Himself the soul of honour and truthfulness, he had no toleration for the disingenuous argument and the misstatements of facts of those who wrote to support a theory or to defend an unsound cause. His pungent sarcasm soon reached the ears of the persons who were its object, and his pen was not less bitter than his tongue. He was conscious of his power, and not always sufficiently cautious or sufficiently gentle in its exercise. Nor was he always right. He trusted much to his memory, which was occasionally treacherous. His emendations, if often valuable, were sometimes absurd. In laying the foundations of a science of ancient chronology he relied sometimes on groundless or even absurd hypotheses, often based on an imperfect induction of facts. Sometimes he misunderstood the astronomical science of the ancients, sometimes that of Copernicus and Tycho Brahe. And he was no mathematician.
To Scaliger the blow was crushing. Whatever his father Julius had believed, Joseph had never doubted to be a prince of Verona, and in his Epistola had put forth with the most perfect good faith, and without inquiry, all that he had heard from his father. He immediately wrote a reply to Scioppius, entitled Confutatio fabulae Burdonum. It is written, for Scaliger, with unusual moderation and good taste, but perhaps for that very reason had not the success which its author wished and even expected. In the opinion of Pattison, "as a refutation of Scioppius it is most complete"; but there are certainly grounds for dissenting from this judgment. Scaliger undoubtedly shows that Scioppius committed more blunders than he corrected, that his book literally bristles with pure lies and baseless calumnies; but he does not succeed in adducing a single proof either of his father's descent from the La Scala family, or of any single event narrated by Julius as happening to himself or any member of this family prior to his arrival at Agen. Nor does he even attempt a refutation of the crucial point, which Scioppius had proved, as far as a negative can be proved, namely, that William, the last prince of Verona, had no son Nicholas, who would have been the alleged grandfather of Julius.
But whether complete or not, the Confutatio had no success; the attack of the Jesuits was successful, far more so than they could possibly have hoped. Scioppius was wont to boast that his book had killed Scaliger. It certainly embittered the few remaining months of his life, and it is not improbable that the mortification which he suffered may have shortened his days. The Confutatio was his last work. Five months after it appeared, on January 21, 1609, at four in the morning, he died in Heinsius's arms. In his will Scaliger bequeathed his renowned collection of manuscripts and books (tous mes livres de langues étrangères, Hebraiques, Syriens, Arabiques, Ethiopiens) to Leiden University Library.
For the life of Julius Caesar, the letters edited by his son, those subsequently published in 1620 by the President de Maussac, the Scaligerana, and his own writings are full of autobiographical matter, are the chief authorities. Jules de Bourousse de Laffore's Etude sur Jules César de Lescale (Agen, 1860) and Adolphe Magen's Documents sur Julius Caesar Scaliger et sa famille (Agen, 1873) add important details for the lives of both father and son. The lives by Charles Nisard—that of Julius et Les Gladiateurs de la république des lettres, and that of Joseph Le Triumvirat littéraire au seizième siècle—are equally unworthy of their author and their subjects. Julius is simply held up to ridicule, while the life of Joseph is almost wholly based on the book of Scioppius and the Scaligerana.
A complete list of the works of Joseph will be found in his life by Bernays. See also J. E. Sandys, History of Classical Scholarship, ii. (1908), 199-204. A technical biography is Anthony T. Grafton, Joseph Scaliger: A Study in the History of Classical Scholarship, 2 vol. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1983, 1993).