In Memoriam

Donald Kagan, celebrated historian of the ancient world and revered teacher

Donald Kagan
Donald Kagan (Photo by Michael Marsland)

Donald Kagan, Sterling Professor Emeritus of Classics and History, prominent for his scholarship, teaching, and social and political commentary, and a longtime colorful figure at Yale, died Aug. 6 in a Washington D.C. retirement home. He was 89.

Kagan, who came to Yale in 1969, was a distinguished scholar of Ancient Greek history. His monumental four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War (1969–1987) was characterized by George Steiner as “the foremost work of history produced in North America in the 20th century.” Of the same work Joseph Manning, William K. and Marilyn M. Simpson Chair in History and in Classics, remarked, “Despite the vast mountain range of scholarship on Thucydides and the war that has been published since Kagan’s four-volume study, it remains required reading by all historians.”

Kagan’s gift was narrative: he was a superb story teller. In just the same way that he could mesmerize friends with a recapitulation of the movie “The Godfather,” or a crucial Yankees-Red Sox game, he could captivate readers when writing about complicated battles of the Peloponnesian wars.

His other scholarly works include “Pericles of Athens and the Birth of Democracy” (1990), which one critic called “faithful to his lifelong fascination with Pericles;” “On the Origins of War and the Preservation of Peace” (1995), which expanded on why states go to war; and his later one-volume synthesis of the war that sundered the ancient world, “The Peloponnesian War” (2003), hailed by one critic as “fresh, clear and fast moving.”

From his first years at Yale, Kagan was heralded as a dynamic and influential teacher, a galvanizing presence whose lectures on Ancient Greek history, delivered with eloquence, dry wit, and deadpan humor, filled classrooms to overflowing, despite his strict grading policies. The Socratic dialogue of his seminars made entry into one of them a winning lottery ticket for aspirants. He was as capable of lecturing on the rise of the development of hoplite warfare in Ancient Greece as on the career of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the “indispensable” Jackie Robinson (though his own team was the Yankees).

Justin Zaremby ’03 B.A., ’07 Ph.D., ’10 J.D., a former Kagan student, remarked that Kagan “inspired in his students an affectionate respect for the ancient world, and taught us that the historian’s art — to attempt to objectively interpret the past — was not just a worthwhile goal, but an utterly achievable one.”  Paul Kennedy, J. Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, who cotaught seminars with Kagan, remembered that “teaching undergraduates in seminar with him was an unpredictable, often outrageous, always deeply satisfying joy.”

For his distinction in the classroom, Kagan received the Phi Beta Kappa DeVane Medal for teaching and scholarship in 1975, and, 20 years later, the Byrnes/Sewall Teaching Prize, awarded to “the teacher who has given the most time, energy and effective effort to educating undergraduates.” His popular Introduction to Ancient Greek History is available for watching and listening on Open Yale Courses.

Donald Kagan was born in Kuršėnai, Lithuania, in 1932, and brought to America at age two by his newly widowed mother. In a five-part interview with his former student Katherine C. Epstein ’04, he described how reading history interested him from boyhood. His original aspiration was to be a high-school history teacher, following the secondary school teacher who awakened him to the study of history. But his wide-eyed amazement at the physical beauty and intellectual glories of his alma mater, Brooklyn College — paradise itself to a boy from the Brownsville section of Brooklyn — and the guidance of Professor Meta Elizabeth Schutz, whose teaching of ancient history and rigor galvanized him — led him down the professorial path.

After earning his bachelor’s degree from Brooklyn College, an M.A. at Brown University, and a doctorate at Ohio State University, he taught at Ohio State, Pennsylvania State University, and Cornell University before coming to Yale. He was highly regarded at Cornell and won two prestigious teaching awards. But he left the university in 1969 after the campus exploded and students occupied a building. He believed the administration’s surrender to the occupiers’ demands, and its granting of amnesty to them, was outrageous. He later reported that this was the moment of his turn toward political conservatism.

Kagan, as a highly public intellectual, was often consulted by conservative political figures, and he promoted his views on politics in national articles and columns. With his son Frederick, he wrote “While America Sleeps,” a book comparing American foreign policy of the 1990s to that of the United Kingdom following World War I and opining on America’s military weakness and the related threat to world peace.

When he arrived at Yale in 1969, Kagan plunged immediately into the community, immersing himself in all aspects of university life. Over the years he was twice chair of the classics department; master of Timothy Dwight College; chair of a landmark committee on the residential colleges; and, from 1989–1992, during the administration of President Benno Schmidt, dean of Yale College. He was a great fan of Yale athletics and, in 1987–1988, he served as acting director of athletics, proving popular with coaches and staff alike.

In all these positions he felt no compunction about expressing strong views, which he considered an obligation. As in his national articles and columns, he unsparingly spoke his mind during the May Day events of 1970; in speeches on Beinecke Plaza; from the podium during a freshman address; to the faculty on his departure from his deanship; and, at his retirement, in a lecture on liberal education, sponsored by the William F. Buckley, Jr. Program.

For all the ways over time in which he challenged Yale, Kagan was nevertheless a devoted Yale partisan and loyalist. He always insisted that, even when his positions were unpopular, he was acting in what he believed were the best interests of the university he loved.

In 2005 he was invited to give the National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson lecture — the highest honor the federal government confers for distinguished intellectual achievement. His focus was not only on the origins, purpose, and true definition of a liberal education, but also on the study of literature, philosophy, and especially history, which he considered the crucial humanistic discipline. “Without history,” he said, “We are the prisoners of the accident of where and when we were born.” He emphasized that the lessons from the earliest development of Western civilization help shape our present democracy, which he called “one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience.”

For his body of work, Kagan was awarded the National Medal for the Humanities, presented by President George W. Bush in 2002.

Kagan is survived by his sons Robert ’80 (Victoria Nuland) and Frederick ’91, ’94 Ph.D.  (Kimberly ’93, ’00 Ph.D. ) and two grandchildren, Leni ’18, and David. His wife of 62 years, Myrna, died in 2017.

Funeral services are private. Plans for a memorial service will be announced in the future.

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