All Roads Lead to Rome: The Thérèse and Ronald Ridley Scholarship

In 2019, Thérèse and Ron Ridley established a scholarship to enable a PhD student in the Classics and Archaeology program at the University of Melbourne to travel to the British School at Rome. Larissa Tittl spoke with Ron Ridley, Professor Emeritus in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, about the new scholarship and the story behind this generous endowment.

Scholarships for overseas travel are vital for graduate researchers based in Australia who study the ancient Mediterranean, Egypt or the Near East. Ron Ridley is acutely conscious of this. “It’s not a level playing field”, Ron says. For these students, “we’re still at the end of the world”. Through the establishment of the new scholarship, Thérèse and Ron Ridley have set out to help Melbourne graduate researchers to overcome the tyranny of distance, and to make possible the important work of immersion in archives, historical and archaeological sites and international museum collections. The Thérèse and Ronald Ridley Scholarship will enable a PhD student from the University of Melbourne’s Classics and Archaeology program to travel to the British School at Rome and undertake research towards completing their degree. The generous scholarship covers a two-month placement at the British School, including full board. The scholarship brings some Roman flavour to the range of funds available to support SHAPS graduate researchers, reflecting the Ridleys’ long-standing and deep scholarly and personal connection to Rome and its history.

This new scholarship balances the existing Jessie Webb Scholarship, awarded to SHAPS graduate researchers for extended study in Greece. The Jessie Webb Scholarship is one of the longest standing at the University of Melbourne, and was established in honour of a quite remarkable woman. Jessie Webb graduated with first-class honours in history and political economy, logic and philosophy at the University of Melbourne in 1902. She was one of the first female teachers in the university’s History Department during the early twentieth century. Webb was also one of the most popular lecturers, ensuring her students were aware of the exciting archaeological fieldwork uncovering the ancient world underway during this time. She was appointed as a senior lecturer in 1923 and, as associate professor several times, including a period until her death in 1944. Webb travelled around the Mediterranean, Africa and the Near East, and held an enduring love for Greece. The scholarship in her name – funded by her family through a bequest from her Will – is awarded annually, and Ron Ridley has served as a selection committee member several times.

The Roman Forum at sunrise, 2015. Photograph: Jacob Surland via Flickr CC by ND NC 2.0

It was a wish to extend support specifically to researchers working on Rome that initially prompted the idea to create the new scholarship. Ron had investigated whether it might be possible to award the Jessie Webb Scholarship to a Roman scholar. Webb’s Will stipulates that students are to be based at the British School at Athens “or a similar institution”. Ron wondered if this could be extended to the British School at Rome, but legal advice concluded that the scholarship was exclusively for research in Greece. At this point, Ron decided, “I’ve got to get Rome involved!”

Ron Ridley is a distinguished scholar of ancient Roman history who has played a prominent role in the life of the History and Ancient World studies programs at the University of Melbourne ever since he first joined the then History Department in 1965. When he received an honorary Doctor of Letters from the ancient history department at Macquarie University in 2017, that institution’s Vice-Chancellor, Bruce Dowton, referred to Ron as “Australia’s most active, productive, and internationally connected researcher in the field of Ancient History”. Ron’s scholarly expertise ranges from early Dynastic Egypt to classical Greece and the Roman Republic, alongside historiography and the biographies of Melbourne’s own ancient historians of the past, such as Jessie Webb. He also has deep and multifaceted expertise specifically on the history of Rome. In 2017 alone, he published three new books, all on the Roman theme, but ranging across an amazing breadth of different perspectives and timeframes: Rome, Twenty-nine Centuries, A Chronological Guide – a new kind of guide to Rome, organised by century rather than by district; Magick City, Travellers to Rome from the Middle Ages to 1900 – a comprehensive three-volume anthology of travellers’ writings about Rome; and The Prince of Antiquarians: Francesco de Ficoroni – a biography of Ficoroni (1662–1747), a central figure in the antiquarian life of Europe of his age. This last book won the Premio Daria Borghese for the best book on Rome by a foreign author.

British School at Rome Library, 2019. Photograph: Donna Storey

It’s certain that the inaugural recipient of the scholarship, SHAPS graduate researcher, Donna Storey, would agree with Ron’s assessment that it was only “fair” that a scholarship should be offered to support research not only on ancient Greece, but also on Rome. Donna has recently returned from her time in Rome, delving into the archives for her work on Italian fascism and its use of Roman Imperial symbols. When she learned of her successful application, Donna wrote to Ron and Thérèse that she was “both humbled and honoured to be granted this award”, expressing her “gratitude for [Ron and Thérèse’s] generosity in making this scholarship possible”. The impulse behind this new scholarship will, as Donna notes, “benefit future recipients… and research in Classics and Archaeology at the University of Melbourne”. Looking back on her time in Rome, Donna describes how valuable it was for her work: “The incredible resources at the British School at Rome are rich and plentiful, as are those at the many other libraries and archives in which I undertook research while in Rome. Additionally, I was able to visit many ancient and modern sites and exhibitions, all of which were instrumental to a very productive couple of months in furthering my research.”

The British School at Rome, designed by Sir Edward Luytens as the English pavilion for Rome’s 1911 World Exposition, 2015. Photographer: Mister No via Wikimedia Commons CC by 3.0

Donna’s supervisor, Associate Professor Frederik Vervaet, also applauds the Ridleys’ generosity, along with their immeasurable contribution to scholarship. Frederik recalled that in 2006, when he was applying for his current position, Ron gifted him a copy of his “myth-busting monograph on the Deeds of the Divine Augustus, complete with a charming letter offering me all the support I would require should I accept the position. I know for a fact that he has shown similar support to a great many people and given away countless prized books.”

I can also attest to this extraordinary kindness. When I met with Ron, I mentioned that I was soon to visit Greece and Crete as a 2019 recipient of the Jessie Webb Scholarship. I told Ron that I had developed a keen interest in Jessie Webb and her work. A week after our interview, Ron unexpectedly presented me with a signed copy of his book Jessie Webb: A Memoir. Both Ron and Thérèse have a reputation for extending kindness to junior scholars in this way, as well as for their general joie de vivre!

Thérèse Ridley is also a fine scholar, having studied German, Chinese and Japanese at both the University of Melbourne and Monash University. As Frederik Vervaet notes, Thérèse has produced a “formidable English translation of Friedrich Münzer’s 1920 study on Roman Aristocratic Parties and Families, published in 1999 with the Johns Hopkins University Press. In doing so, she opened up one of the most influential works of scholarship to the widest possible audience as well as paying tribute long overdue to a most distinguished and prolific German Jewish scholar who died in miserable circumstances in the Theresienstadt concentration camp in October 1942.” The book features a chapter by Thérèse Ridley on Münzer’s life, including a powerful account of his arrest and “slow killing” at Theresienstadt. Ron contributed an Introduction on Münzer’s work. Reviewers praised Thérèse’s translation as “remarkable” (Ronald J. Weber, in History: Reviews of New Books, 28:2 (2000), and E. A. Judge, Emeritus Professor of History at Macquarie University, observed in the foreword that “Our dedicated translator has matched the patience and care of the one she serves”.

Ron and Thérèse Ridley in the 1970s; photo taken in the Exhibition Gardens by Bruno Bernini, a well-known Melbourne photographer.

Together, Ron and Thérèse Ridley have created a lasting legacy of academic scholarship with their individual research and writings, and a model of collegiality, mentoring and friendship through the relationships they have formed with students and colleagues. Their gift ensures that graduate students from the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies whose focus is the Roman world, now have the opportunity not only to develop their own in-depth research, but to do this in the heart of the “Eternal City” of Rome.

This is the first of a pair of articles paying tribute to the Ridleys. In the next instalment, Larissa Tittl interviews Professor Ridley about his research.

Donna Storey has recently written in more detail about her experiences in Rome on the British School at Rome blog.