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In memoriam: Ramsay MacMullen was Roman Empire historian

Ramsay MacMullen

FFRF Lifetime Member Ramsay MacMullen, 94, known as one of the greatest Roman historians of his age, died on Nov. 27, 2022.

He was born in Manhattan and educated at Phillips Exeter and Harvard. He taught at the University of Oregon and Brandeis before going to Yale in 1967. He retired in 1993 and became Dunham Professor Emeritus of History and Classics at Yale University.

MacMullen is best known for his writings on the ancient Roman world, including early Christianity. He was extremely prolific, the author of nearly 20 books on Roman history, and more than 80 articles.

His wide learning 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.

MacMullen was encyclopedic in his learning, and extremely rigorous and exacting in his scholarship. 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. 

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. 

For decades, MacMullen and his second wife Peggy enjoyed friends and family, theatre, music and travel. They were hikers in many mountain ranges, especially in northwest England.