Gilles Bransbourg: “Roman history is not irrelevant to us in the 21st century”

Gilles Bransbourg graduated from Sciences Po with a degree in Economy and Finance and worked in banking before changing paths to pursue a PhD in history. Today, he balances his interests in research and business as the Executive Director of the American Numismatic Society, a US research institution founded in 1858, dedicated to the study and public appreciation of coins, currencies, medals, and other related objects, and, more generally, the advancement of monetary and currency literacy. 

Bransbourg completed his undergraduate studies in Math, Physics, and Economics at the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique. Despite his scientific background, he had a “strong literary and humanistic appetite,” and was eager to complement his education in the hard sciences with more of the social sciences. Bransbourg found this balance as a master’s student at Sciences Po. He especially appreciated the opportunities for discussion with fellow students that allowed one to deepen one’s knowledge of political and social topics. 

After completing his degree at Sciences Po, Bransbourg first entered banking, working in the foreign derivatives market at firms in Paris, Singapore, Ryadh, and London. In his financial career, Bransbourg drew heavily on the communication skills he learned at Sciences Po, as well as what he calls “intellectual agility,” a necessary quality in the competitive professional environment of banking, which allowed him to reach senior managing positions. Banking required a capacity to focus on the big picture and prioritize important goals, skills that Bransbourg developed as a Sciences Po student. 

In the second act of his career, Bransbourg returned to Paris to undertake a PhD in history at EHESS, a French university for advanced studies in the social sciences. For his PhD, Bransbourg focused on Roman economic history. “I tried to leverage my existing skills,” he says, and his doctoral studies combined his background in economics with his longtime passion for Roman history. After completing his PhD, Bransbourg was invited as a visiting research scholar at the NYU Institute for Study of the Ancient World, before accepting a permanent position at the American Numismatic Society in 2011. The American Numismatic Society (ANS) is home to one of the largest collections of monetary objects in the world, including about 200,000 Greek and Roman coins, as well as very significant Chinese and Islamic holdings. “We publish books, we host conferences, and cooperate with a range of academic and cultural institutions,” Bransbourg adds, describing the society’s work and research. While working at the ANS, he demonstrated a combination of business skills and scholarly interest, and Bransbourg was eventually offered the job of Executive Director. 

Today, Bransbourg describes his role as Executive Director as a balancing act “between my true interest, which is research—publishing papers, attending conferences, delivering presentations, lectures, and teaching— and running a staff, while leading the development of a business strategy - something that was upended by the pandemic.” He describes the unique challenges of developing a strategy for a non-profit research institution in a rapidly shifting environment. “The bottom line is not profit. Our bottom line, if we are successful, is about disseminating knowledge. By refocusing on digital content and online dissemination of research and information, we have managed to increase our leverage manifold during the past two years. As traveling had become much more problematic, we had to prove that such restrictions should not prevent cultural exchanges from developing further” 

After many years in the private sector, Bransbourg especially enjoys the camaraderie of the academic world. “Overall, we have something in common,” he says, “that we wish to achieve progress in our knowledge and understanding. Even when there are conflicts between personalities or we disagree, there is a consensus that we can agree to disagree in a civilized fashion and work together. The overall human interactions are very nice.” Bransbourg also believes that the specific challenges of working in research contribute to the feelings of solidarity in the industry. “There is a human quality about people who devote their life to research,” he adds. “It is not well paid, comparatively to the private sector, so there is a component of commitment and sacrifice. These people do it for the love of knowledge, something that sounds like a cliché, but in fact is true.”

Bransbourg also appreciates the opportunity to give back by working in the non-profit sector. “I received a lot from society. Being French and studying in France, I have benefited from free education and extremely qualified professors sharing their knowledge,” he says. “I manage to give back by what I’m doing now, which is bringing more people not only into the field of Roman history, but also making more people aware of why it matters to us, and why Roman history is not irrelevant in the 21st century.” 

Bransbourg continues to emphasize the importance of communication skills he developed at Sciences Po. “People in the hard sciences are assumed to not be able to communicate. I would advise any PhD in physics or math to spend a couple of years at Sciences Po, because I believe it is necessary for those in any field to be able to explain what they are doing to a wider audience.” 

Looking back on his career Bransbourg also advises of the importance of historical knowledge, something he believes has become neglected in our digital age and the current ‘Wikipedia’ veneer of culture. “We see people now, on all ends of the political spectrum, unable to communicate with one another and find common ground,” Bransbourg professes. “It seems to me to be linked to this larger loss of historical knowledge, which deprives people from relevant references.” His advice for students and young professionals looking to gain a deeper historical awareness and understanding: “Do not discount accumulation of knowledge just because the Internet appears to allow easier access to information—keep reading entire books and thinking critically.”

Back to top