In Memoriam

Ramsay MacMullen, distinguished Roman historian and Yale citizen

MacMullen, Dunham Professor Emeritus of History and Classics and one of the greatest Roman historians of his age, died on Nov. 27. He was 94.
Ramsay MacMullen
Ramsay MacMullen

Ramsay MacMullen, Dunham Professor Emeritus of History and Classics and one of the greatest Roman historians of his age, died on Nov. 27 at his home in New Haven. He was 94.

MacMullen is best known for his writings on the ancient Roman world from Romulus to the late empire, and on religion, including early Christianity. He was extremely prolific, the author of more than a dozen and a half books on Roman history alone, and upwards of 80 articles.

In monographs such as “Christianizing the Roman Empire,” in which he addressed how the early Church found dominance in ancient Rome, and in “Roman Social Relations, where he focused in particular on neglected aspects of Roman social relations among the poorer classes, he won universal accolades for his wide learning, provocative and illuminating choice of subject matter, and perceptive and sensitive interpretation.

Carlos Noreña, professor of History at the University of California, Berkeley, and formerly an assistant professor of Classics and History at Yale, wrote that his “research was characterized by (at least) five distinctive features: (i) willingness to ask big questions; (ii) comprehensive assemblages of evidence, often obscure; (iii) daring argumentation; (iv) elegant and witty prose; and (v) avoidance of scholarly debates.

His wide learning (he was famous for his numerous and lengthy footnotes) enabled him to look beyond the historical parameters of other historians, and to use abundant unnoticed evidence concerning Romans in their individual and family rites and daily life to advance his views.  His books, and the attention and acclaim they received, were influential in opening the now established field of social history.

John Matthews, the John M. Schiff Professor Emeritus of Classics and History, has stated that MacMullen added something “broader” to the usual scholarly writing on the subject by “posing open questions and addressing them with a far greater range of texts than most were accustomed to — inscriptions, papyri, archaeological reports, literary texts from unfashionable periods of history, many of them texts whose relevance was, precisely, not agreed.”

Wherever he went in the scholarly world, MacMullen was regarded with awe. Encyclopedic in his learning, and extremely rigorous and exacting in his scholarship, his rising at a conference to ask a question or make a point about a paper could silence the room, and cause apprehension in the presenter. At the same time, he was a warm, generous, and socially outgoing colleague to his scholarly friends and graduate students, and a respected teacher. He taught large lecture courses on Roman history, filling lecture halls with students on subject matters not guaranteed to draw crowds.

He was also the master of Yale’s Calhoun College (now Hopper) for six years in the late 1980s and, along with his first wife, Edith MacMullen, dealt with all the complicated social and administrative issues of running a college full of young people. The distractions of this position might have seemed unappealing to someone who published as much as he did, and as regularly, but he turned out to be a loyal, committed, and wide-ranging Yale citizen, and very good at the job.

All who knew him recognized that he was a Scot, stalwart and tough. He was ramrod straight and hiked and worked out into his 90s. Yet his dry, whimsical sense of humor and genuine interest in others kept him from being forbidding and put people at ease.

Among his many honors were the American Historical Association’s Lifetime Award for Scholarly Distinction, which he received in 2001. The citation for that honor began, “Ramsay MacMullen is the greatest historian of the Roman Empire alive today.” In 2013 he received the Arthur Kingsley Porter Prize from the College Art Association for a 1964 essay judged by an editorial committee to be one of the 33 “greatest hits” in the first century of the association's journal's publication. And in 2014 he was awarded the prized Yale DeVane Medal for teaching and scholarship.

Although his scholarly work was not light reading, its focus on religion meant that he attracted a readership in the thousands in English as well as in French, Italian, Korean, and Chinese. He never stopped publishing, and not on Roman history and religion alone. His many books on topics other than classical subjects included such titles as “Why We Do What We Do?: Motivation in History and the Social Sciences”; a collection of letters, “Sisters of the Brush: Their Family, Art, Life & Letters,” about the family of miniaturists in New London, Connecticut that included the first professional female artist in the U.S., and “Sarah’s Choice,” a 19th century love story told in letters of a young woman’s fight for a life of her own.

Ramsay MacMullen was born in Manhattan and educated at Phillips Exeter and Harvard, from which he held all three of his degrees. He taught at the University of Oregon and Brandeis before coming to Yale in 1967. He retired in 1993.

Kirk Freudenburg, Brooks and Suzanne Ragen Professor of Classics, said on hearing of MacMullen’s death, “Most of the world knew Ramsay as a scholar of unparalleled stature, but in the Department of Classics we had the pleasure of knowing him as a friend as well. Ramsay was an inspiration to many, and his presence in the department as a scholar, mentor, and conversation partner allowed us to experience the ongoing curiosity and drive of a truly exceptional scholar who was also an exceptionally generous man.”

For decades MacMullen and his second wife Peggy were hikers in many mountain ranges, especially in northwest England. He is survived by her, and by three children from his first marriage and six grandchildren.

Donations in his memory may be made to Tougaloo College, 500 West County Line Road, Tougaloo, Tougaloo, MS 39174 or to the Brennan Center for Justice, 120 Broadway, suite 1750, New York, NY 10271. A memorial service will be arranged at Yale in the spring semester.

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