Yale, Historians Honor the Contributions of Donald KaganHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, ancient history, Donald Kagan
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).