Adolphe Rome

Quick Info

12 July 1889
Stavelot, Belgium
9 April 1971
Korbeek-Lo, Belgium

Adolphe Rome was a classical philologist who worked on the history of ancient Greek mathematics and astronomy, particularly the work of Archimedes, Ptolemy, Heron and especially Pappus and Theon of Alexandria.


Adolphe Rome was the son of Eugène Rome (1860-1938) and Marie Pauly (1854-1937). Marie Pauly's father had been a cabinetmaker and president of the Saint-Joseph Guild. He was also a musician who played the organ of the church of Saint-Sébastien for 35 years. When Adolphe was born, his father Eugène Rome was a professor at the Saint-Remacle Institute in Stavelot. Eugène, however, was awarded a doctorate in classical philology and was appointed as a professor at the Royal Athenaeum of Mechelen, where he taught for a long time Latin, Greek, French and Rhetoric. The Rome family was financially wealthy and very talented academically; they were devout Roman Catholics. There were five children in the family, three boys and two girls. Adolphe was the oldest of the three boys having younger brothers Remacle Rome (1893-1974) and Paul Rome (1896-1989). Remacle became a monk at Maredsous Abbey, a Benedictine monastery near Namur in Belgium and professor of palaeontology at the University of Louvain. [Let us note here that Louvain is the French name and Leuven the Dutch for the same city; we shall use Louvain since most of references are in French.] Paul became an architect designing churches, abbeys, homes and other buildings. Of Adolphe's two sisters, Marie-Benoit Rome and Marie-José Rome, the first became a Benedictine nun and the second studied medicine and became a doctor (extremely unusual for a girl at the beginning of the 20th century).

As a child, Adolphe was taught by his father but for his secondary education he studied at the Royal Athenaeum of Mechelen where his father was a professor. In July 1906 he showed his outstanding academic abilities when he was ranked first in the Concours général between all the Belgium Athenaeums. He was also ranked as the top student in mathematics at the Royal Athenaeum of Mechelen. Having a religious vacation, rather than continue to study mathematics at a university, he opted to enter the Seminary of Mechelen to receive theological training. His outstanding abilities, however, led the Seminary to send him to study at the Catholic University of Louvain. Rome confided in Franz de Ruyt later in life [3]:-
At that time, the diocese used to send the top student in the class to study theology, the second to study classical philology, while the third could do mathematics. Alas! I was the second!
Although he would have wished to study mathematics, nevertheless he put much effort into his studies of classical philology, which was, of course, the subject his father had studied. At the Catholic University of Louvain he studied under Edmond Remy (1860-1939) the professor of Latin philology. He was nearing the completion of his studies in 1914 when World War I broke out.

On 25 August 1914, German troops entered Louvain and over the following five days burnt and looted much of the town, killing hundreds of the local population. Rome had joined the Red Cross and fled with many Belgium refugees making their way to England. He ended up in Somerset and became chaplain to the refugees. He joined the Belgian army in England on 28 August 1916, and after training was sent to teach at St Mary's College in London in 1917. While there he continued working on his doctorate and, after the war ended in 1918, he was able to return to the University of Louvain where he defended his Classical Philology Ph.D. thesis on 1 September 1919 in the ruined city. Rome may have been forced into Classical Philology rather than mathematics, but when we see the title of his thesis, Les Fonctions Trigonometriques dans Heron d'Alexandrie , we see that he had managed to satisfy his passion for mathematics by his choice of Classical Philology topic. He also gained distinction for his public lecture, which was part of the Ph.D. examination, on the First Oration of Cicero.

In 1919 he began teaching at the Institut Sainte-Marie in Schaerbeek, a Catholic nursery and primary school. He then moved to the Sainte-Gertrude Institute in Nivelle, a secondary school founded in 1915, where he taught until 1922. During the years 1919-1922, Rome continued to undertake research having a particular interest in ancient Greek manuscripts. For instance, in August 1921 during the school holidays he went to London where he spent much time at the British Museum reading Greek manuscripts. He was preparing to compete for a Government Travel Scholarship since his aim was to have a research career rather than to remain a school teacher. His years as a teacher had not been a great success since the young pupils found his teaching difficult to understand.

On 26 May 1922 it was announced that Rome was the winner of a Government Travel Scholarship and his research career began in earnest. He went to the Belgian Historical Institute in Rome which was his main place of work over the next two years, although he travelled extensively. The Belgian Historical Institute in Rome had been set up in 1902 as a research institute focussing on Italian history and antiquities. The director of the Institute was Ursmer Berlière (1861-1932) a monastic historian who published over 350 articles. The secretary of the Institute was Maurice Vaes (1875-1962) who held this position for over 30 years beginning in 1922. While based at the Institute, Rome made many trips to libraries to study manuscripts of the mathematicians of ancient Alexandria. He visited various libraries in Italy, went back to London again, and then went to Athens, followed by trips to Malta and Syracuse. Finally he visited Paris where the National Library of Paris retained him from 1924 to 1927. During this time he was chaplain to the Benedictine Ladies of St Louis du Temple, rue Monsieur. This monastery had been founded in 1802 but the nuns were evicted in 1848 and at the time Rome was their chaplain they were based at rue Monsieur in Paris.

During the years to 1927 Rome published a number of papers: Sur le problème de la distance de deux villes: dans le Dioptre de Héron (1923); "Le troisième livre des commentaires sur l'Almageste" par Theon et Hypatie  (1926); L'Astrolabe et le Météoroscope d'après le commentaire de Pappus sur le 5e livre de l'Almageste (1927); L'instrument parallactique d'après le commentaire de Pappus sur le 5e livre de l'Almageste (1927); and L'Instrument Parallactique d'après le commentaire de Pappus sur le 5e livre de l'Almageste (1927). Although the two last quoted titles are the same, one is published by the Vatican Library and the other by Laboratoire d'Astronomie et de Geodesie de l'Universite de Louvain .

François Collard (1852-1927) was professor of classical philology and methodology, and the president of the pedagogical circle of professors from the University of Louvain. He died on 14 October 1927 after a short illness and the University of Louvain appointed Rome as his successor, first as a lecturer and then from 1929 as professor. He became Honorary Canon of the Metropolitan Chapter of Mechelen in 1935. Franz de Ruyt was a student of his at Louvain and he gives this description of Rome as a teacher in [3]:-
I attended his first class: he astonished us by the simplicity of his presentation, marked, however, by a clever critical sense, his slender, somewhat quaint voice, his tiny writing, and his stiff, timid gestures; but he also charmed us with the originality of his comparisons, his authentic belief in the complexity of the interpretations, of which he managed the complexity by seeking the most natural explanation. He conscientiously prepared his classes daily, by renewing their subject every year and questioning it indefatigably. He devoted his evenings there until midnight, and then took care of his personal work late at night, because in the afternoon he spent a long time seeing the students, of whom he directed the dissertations of their license or doctorate. He devoted himself to his numerous pupils without counting the cost, whatever direction they chose, because he respected the wishes of each one. He did much literary work, but his predilection obviously went to those who were interested in the history of science and many such theses were undertaken on his advice. He trained several disciples in this field and one of them, Father Joseph Mogenet, succeeded him brilliantly and managed to make official a course and a seminary of the History of the Sciences of Antiquity.
Anne Tihon, in [5], describes Mogenet's life and work. After World War II ended Mogenet:-
... resumed his teaching and studies under Canon Rome, obtaining his doctorate in classical philology in 1947 with an unpublished work on Theodosius of Tripoli. In 1950 he wrote as his thesis for admission to a senior teaching post a masterly work on Autolycus of Pitane. In it he presented not only a critical edition of the oldest known Greek mathematics treatise, but also a new method of classifying manuscripts, since applied successfully in several theses.
Rome's publications were numerous despite high teaching loads which he carried out very conscientiously. His research interests were mainly in the history of ancient Greek mathematics and astronomy, particularly the work of Archimedes, Ptolemy, Heron and especially Pappus and Theon of Alexandria. He produced a modern annotated edition of the commentaries on the Almagest by Pappus and Theon of Alexandria, but the jewel of this was his find of a manuscript in Florence of the third book of Theon and the sixth book of Pappus which had been thought to be lost. He published this as: Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon d'Alexandrie sur l'Almageste : tome I : Pappus d'Alexandrie : commentaire sur les livres 5 et 6 de l'Almageste (1931); Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon d'Alexandrie sur l'Almageste : tome II : Théon d'Alexandrie : commentaire sur les livres 1 et 2 de l'Almageste (1936); and Commentaires de Pappus et de Théon d'Alexandrie sur l'Almageste : tome III : Théon d'Alexandrie : commentaire sur les livres 3 et 4 de l'Almageste (1943).

One of Rome's aims with this work was to determine whether Hypatia had written the commentary on the Almagest . His methods were to compare the Greek Attic dialect with the Hellenistic Alexandrian dialect. He devised a statistical approach to studying difference with style, grammar and the frequency of use of certain words to compare Theon's writing with Hypatia's writing. Unfortunately he did not find the statistical significance required to prove one way or the other whether Hypatia wrote Commentary on the Almagest. In addition to this research and his teaching commitments, Rome, along with Franz Cumont and Joseph Bidez, founded the journal L'Antique Classique in 1932.

Not all his publications were on ancient mathematics, however, for he also wrote articles on Pindar, Aeschylus, Euripides and Theocritus.

The Library of the Catholic University of Louvain was established in 1835 but destroyed by the Germans in 1914 at the beginning of World War I. A new library was built between 1921 and 1928 with donations coming from around the world. Rome lived on the Avenue des Alliés, near the railway station. When World War II broke out in 1939, he decided that to keep his many priceless documents safe he would take them to be stored in the university library. They were not safe, however, for in May 1940 the Germans attacked Louvain and the library was hit by an incendiary bomb destroying much of its contents including Rome's precious manuscripts. Franz de Ruyt writes [3]:-
I was mobilised at that moment, but as soon as I returned home, after the forced surrender of our army, I learned of the disaster. On my first visit to Canon Rome, I did not know how to express my sorrow for what had happened to him. I found him at his desk, where a small bundle of cards was already piling up. "You have learned," he said to me, interrupting me with a gesture, and, showing the cards, he added simply, "See, I am doing it again," and then inquired with good-humour about myself. I will never forget the impression this stoic energy gave me, without a complaint, refusing even commiseration. On that day, I, who did not know how to hide my tears, understood what greatness of soul was.
Rome had other problems as a result of the Nazi control of Belgium [1]:-
In addition to the Nazi destruction of Rome's work on the 'Commentary on the Almagest', his journal 'L'Antique Classique' began to fall under Nazi scrutiny. Rome, aware of a potentially destructive outcome, carefully made efforts to preserve the journal on a material level. While under the Nazi's surveillance, he covertly converted the journal's reserves to paper stock (that was hidden). By doing this, the stocks avoided specific requirements that the Nazi regime had enforced. The journal survived and was still in tangible form. At the height of World War II in 1943, the jornal was suspended. However, the war did not stop Rome and his team who were able to take all of the copies that eluded alteration, which was still in the previously hidden stock, and ship them out of the country without any government censorship.
The 1950 International Congress of Mathematicians was held in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA from 30 August to 6 September. Rome was one of the invited plenary speakers. He sailed from Le Havre to New York on the ship Mauretania, arriving in New York on 17 August 1950. He delivered his address at 9 a.m. on Friday 1 September in the Fogg Large Room. The title of his address was The calculation of an eclipse of the sun according to Theon of Alexandria.

You can read an extract from Rome's ICM lecture at THIS LINK.

After attending the Congress, Rome sailed from New York to Cherbourg on the ship Queen Mary, leaving New York on 14 September.

Rome had two main hobbies, one being an interest in plants which he loved to investigate during long walks of 30 to 50 km on foot through the countryside around Leuven and up to the Meuse. His other hobby, although in many ways it was used for the benefit of others, was his love of music and in particular his organ playing. While at the Mechelen seminary he played the organ in Saint-Rombaut Cathedral, and while when in Louvain he played the organ at the Church of Notre-Dame Médiatrice.

In [3] Franz de Ruyt describes the honours Rome received and how he lived:-
On 3 May 1948, our Class of Letters and Moral and Political Sciences had elected him a corresponding member of the Royal Belgium Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts, of which he became a full member on 11 December 1950. On 19 December 1956, he was proclaimed Dean of Honour of Labour, for scientific work and promoted, in 1959, to Grand Officer of the Order of Leopold.

These high distinctions did not alter the simplicity of his behaviour, although he was justifiably proud of them. The asceticism and the stripping of his life were not changed. His minimal furniture kept disappearing under stacks of books and bundles of cards wrapped in brown paper, from which he undid the strings as he began his classes. Empty sugar boxes served as chair rails and the heating was practically nil. The frugality of his meals, his refusal of alcoholic drink and tobacco supplemented this radical abstinence. But his charity distributed more than the value of all these extras to his students, his works or other necessities.
When he was still teaching in 1958 he had a sudden illness which took away his mobility and the sight of one eye. He retired and was made professor emeritus at Louvain in 1959. Despite his disabilities he continued to attend meetings of the Academy although half paralysed. Franz de Ruyt writes [3]:-
He continued for a long time to live alone, in spite of everything. It was necessary for an ambulance to pick him up in the street to consent to be treated in the admirable retirement home "Emmaus" at Korbeek-Lo. I saw him sitting in an armchair, surrounded by books and index cards, but with his full lucidity, when he could hardly move, and we talked about the Academy.
Perhaps it was rather fitting that this devout Christian should die on Good Friday, 9 April 1971.

References (show)

  1. G Birkman, The Story of Adolphe Rome from 300 B.C. to 2018 A.D. (9 August 2018).
  2. A Rome, The calculation of an eclipse of the sun according to Theon of Alexandria, Proceedings of the International Congress of Mathematicians, Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 30 August-6 September 1950 Vol. 1 (1950), 209-219.
  3. F de Ruyt, Notice sur le chanoine Adolphe Rome, membre de l'Academy, Annuaire de l'Académie royale de Belgique 138 (1972), 87-99.
  4. F de Ruyt, In memoriam Adolphe Rome (1889-1971)L'Antiquité Classique 40 (1971), 1-4.
  5. A Tihon, Éloge: Joseph Mogenet, 26 February 1913-18 February 1980, Isis 72 (2) (1981), 265-266.

Additional Resources (show)

Other pages about Adolphe Rome:

  1. Adolphe Rome's 1950 ICM plenary address

Written by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
Last Update July 2020