Ramsay MacMullen, Emeritus professor of history and classics, dies at 94
One of the most prominent Roman historians of the past century and an avid hiker, Professor Ramsay Macmullen is remembered for his inexhaustible knowledge and his prolific writings.
A passionate and insightful historian, beloved New Havener, and Emeritus Professor of History at the University, Ramsay MacMullen garnered worldwide recognition and a host of accolades for his expansive body of work. He taught packed lecture halls and traveled the world for conferences, publishing over 80 articles and nearly 20 books. He was a man who got to the bottom of things.
Dr. MacMullen focused primarily on the Roman world from its mythological inception to the later years of the empire and early Roman Christianity, spearheading what is now known as “social history.”
MacMullen died at his home in New Haven on Nov. 28. He was 94.
“He was the sort of person one regarded with awe and revered with a good deal of trepidation,” wrote Professor Kirk Freudenburg, the Chair of Yale’s Classics Department, in an email to the News. “Not because he was a taskmaster or self-absorbed, or anything like that. He was just incredibly curious, driven to explore, assess, and understand.”
Born in New York in 1928, MacMullen attended Phillips Exeter Academy before receiving three degrees from Harvard. In 1951 and 1952, he traveled to Kouklia, in Cyprus, to conduct archaeological research. He was described by friends and colleagues as a straight-backed Scot and a true Yankee, firm in his opinions and eager to share them. Nevertheless, he refused to take life too seriously — his dry wit made him approachable to those who worked for him.
MacMullen joined Yale’s faculty in 1967 after stints at the University of Oregon and Brandeis University. He retired in 1993, leaving behind a veritable treasure trove of academic work. Between 1984 and 1990 he served as head — a position then known as master— of Grace Hopper College, then known as Calhoun.
While MacMullen’s work focused much on Christianity in the later Roman Empire, he was not a religious man himself. If anything, he believed in the religious practice of academia. He was an arguer and a listener, always willing to raise his hand at a crowded conference or engage with ideas he disagreed with. He liked to work theories back to the start, to understand their building blocks and how they might prove useful.
John Matthews, Professor of Classics and Roman History, described Macmullen’s research as unique in his “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.”
His major works include, but are not limited to, the monographs Christianizing the Roman Empire, Roman Social Relations, 50 B.C. to A.D. 284, and Enemies of the Roman Order: Treason, Unrest and Alienation in the Empire.
MacMullen also wrote a number of biographical and investigative works, such as the 19th century love story “Sarah’s Choice,” and the collection of letters, “Why We Do What We Do?: Motivation in History and the Social Sciences.”
MacMullen cared deeply not only about his work, but about social change and the culture of the city in which he lived.
“Whenever I’ve gone out to join a protest, or to add my bodily support to any good, progressive cause, Ramsay has been there to march alongside,” Freudenberg told the News. “We admired one another for thinking this still mattered, and for being some of the older guys still ‘out there’ among young people who were trying to make a difference.”
MacMullen lived and died as a scholar. Even into and past his retirement, he published a number of works and was frequently found in the University’s libraries and at conferences and meetings.
MacMullen was also an avid hiker, and a mischievous soul. His 94 years of life, Lenski said, were thanks in no small part to his active lifestyle and his predilection for antics.
Lenski described an anecdote in which MacMullen, in his later years, was invited to give a keynote lecture at a conference in Iowa but “worried his hosts to distraction the day of the event by disappearing for a multi-hour hike all afternoon, only showing up just in time for his address.”
He is survived by his wife Peggy, three children from his first marriage, and six grandchildren.