Antonín Salač was born in Prague, between 1896-1904 he studied high school in the Lesser Town of Prague, where he also acquired love for his future scholarly scpecialization – Antiquity. This love led him to the Faculty of Arts of the Charles University, where he studied under professors Josef Král and František Groh and finished Classical Philology with distinction in the shortest period possible in 1909. During his studies he already brought attention to himself with his works on Plato, Seneca’s tragedies and Virgil’s poetic style. The study on Virgil, called De pluralis poetici usu Vergiliano was submitted as dissertation and after its defense and final examination he was awarded doctorate on the 17th July 1909.
After finishing his studies he taught at high schools in Křemencová street in Prague, in Náchod and Roudnice, but at the same time he was dedicated to scientific endeavours. With thoroughness, he focused on the questions of ancient mythology and religion. In 1913 he studied cult of Isis in Berlin and in 1915 he published his still useful first book Isis, Sarapis a božstva sdružená dle svědectví řeckých a latinských nápisů (Isis, Sarapis and associated gods according to the testimony of Greek and latin inscriptions). These originally Egyptian gods became popular in the Hellenistic and Roman period, but their significance changed compared to their Egyptian origins, which was demonstrated through his study of inscriptions. His next book, Studie k historikům římské doby revoluční (Studies on the historians od the Roman revolutionary period) became basis for conferral of habilitation, which was finished in January 1920. The book itself was published later in 1924.
Immediately after habilitation, Antonín Salač went with a modest stipend to the Balkans and through Bulgaria to Greece. Thanks to his erudition and political ties between young Czechoslovak Republic and France, he was accepted as a fellow to the French School in Athens. He cooperated on publication of ancient inscriptions from Delphi and co-authored several volumes of French publications of Delphi inscriptions that were published in the 1930s (and the last of them after the Second World War). In 1921 he succeeded in acquiring a comparative collection of Greek pottery as a gift from the Hellenic Republic, that is used in teaching to our days. For the French School he collected a catalogue of Thassian stamps on transport amphorae, which was never published before, and which formed the core of the first monography focused on these stamps by the Bonon family after the war. In the following year 1922 Salač participated in the French excavations on Thasos and Samothrace, prepared several articles for Bulletin de Correspondance Hellénique and became co-editor of the Leiden edition of the Greek inscriptions Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum. In 1923 he went to an expedition looking for inscriptions in the southern Thrace, that became Greek only shortly before that after conclusion of the Greek-Turkish War. Together with François Chapouthiere he directed joint Czech-French excavations in the Sanctuary of the Great Gods in Samothrace. In 1924 he travelled through the western coast of Asia Minor, where the situation was still not stable after the war and was able to travel only with an armed bodyguard. In 1925 he conducted Czechoslovak excavations in Cyme – a Greek town on the coast of Asia Minor, where he uncovered a temple of Isis containing a long inscription where the goddess speaks abouth herself (so-called aretalogy). it is one of the oldest documents of its kind in the world. In 1926 he returned to Greece, again joining the French School and continuing in the epigraphical studies. In 1927 he resumed – independently from the French – together with architect Jan Nepomucký excavations at Samothrace, revealing several structures and studying in detail a fountain where the statue of Nike of Samothrace was found, now one of the most celebrated finds exhibited in Louvre in Paris. The results of his excavations were unfortunately published only in preliminary manner at his time and the final three-volume report could have been made only in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1928 Salač visited Italy and in 1928-9 he conducted excavations in the eastern Bulgaria together with Karel Škorpil, that were jointly published in a monograph and several articles.
Salač conducted his travels and excavations with his own means and saved money however he could. Furthermore, he was able to efficiently use money donated to him by various institutions (usually Czech Academy of Sciences, but also Czech Union of Sugar Manufactureres who were keen to promote their products in the Balkans). Archaeologist Libuše Jansová accompanied him on several expeditions, but Salač was apparently shy and awkward in human interaction and so they never married. He remained an old bachelor until his death. In 1927 he was named extraordinary professor of Greek and Roman antiquities and a full professor in 1929. Soon after he became a member of the Royal Czech Learned Society and the Czech Academy of Sciences and Arts, a fellow of the French Archaeological School in Athens and Bulgarian Archaeological Institute and finally also an officer of the French Legion d’honneur. He became one of the leading scholars of the Classical Antiquity in Czechoslovakia. He published many books on the ancient art and many articles home and abroad.
After closure of Czech universities during the Second World War he was dedicated to work in the Society of Friends of the Ancient Culture. After the war he became director of the Department of the Classical Studies at the Charles University, a member of the new Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences and director of its Cabinet for Greek, Latin and Roman Studies. Antonín Salač never joined the Communist Party, but he was respected as an excellent scholar even by Zdeněk Nejedlý [a communist ideologue and Minister of Education, note by transl.], even though he never became a Marxist and he tried to held the young Marxists on a short leash until his retirement in 1958 and his death two years later. As one of his last students I was very close to him and I think that we both understood each other well. Behind his tough shell and distance was a heart that helped to retain a space for a solid science in that uneasy time.
By Prof. Jan Bouzek (transl. by Adam Pažout)